Single Use Stuff to Sustainable Swag

If you’ve ever been a sports conference, a business meeting, or literally anything where a lot of people get together and do things, you’ve probably received a ‘swag bag’ of goodies. While there may be a few gems in there, most items in these bags you’ll probably never think about again. With that said, it’s beneficial to explore possible ways to cut down on the single use items we so often find in swag bags without dampening the excitement of those receiving them.

The Bags

Nine year-old me had great taste.

Firstly, there’s the bags themselves. In my experience, about 1 in every 10 swag bags you’ll receive is one you’ll actually use. Normally, they’re your stock-standard drawstring type – cheap, but unlikely to be my go-to. Pictured is the one ‘swag bag’ that has stuck with me since 2011 (Almost 9 years ago!). Because it’s made of cloth and not plastic, and the design doesn’t feel tacky to me, I actually use it for dance or when I go to a place that is not school (which is rare). The problem with handing out hundreds and possibly thousands of these bags is that they’re much more expensive to produce. However, the costs might be offset here by not ordering thousands of single-use items listed below.

Water Bottles


My most recent acquisition.

These are always included at sports tournaments (10 years of Canadian Championships = 10 water bottles at the back of my cupboard) but are also generally popular. This item is a constant, especially at sports conferences, given the athletes will likely use them during the event. While the typical plastic bottles with the logo aren’t really of use to anyone (or the environment) investing in quality, reusable bottles might encourage people to continue using them after the event is over.


Whoever’s in charge of all the swag bags in the world is a grandma who does couponing in her retirement.

But seriously, swag bags always include at least 4 or 5 coupons, either from sponsors of the event or for vendors that will be present at the event. While this is  effective marketing, everyone I know has either thrown them away or stuffed them in The Junk Drawer (don’t pretend you don’t know what the junk drawer is). While coupons are easily recyclable, as most are made out of paper or cardstock, it’s a nuisance to sort through the stuff you want and don’t want (and a waste of money and resources for those making the coupons).

The solution here is tricky; speaking purely environmentally, I’d say just stop making the things and then people wouldn’t have to figure out how to best get rid of them. However, coupons provide a great opportunity to gain sponsors or even to promote future events. It might be best to limit the coupons to one or two per bag, or better yet, engage in online advertising.

Pens and Keychains


Again, found in The Junk Drawer.

Note to event organizers: we don’t need any more pens or keychains. While there’s nothing inherently wasteful about these items, the vast majority of people already have pens and keychains that they like to use or that have certain sentimental value, and the ones from the bags end up littered somewhere on the ground or in the mountain of pens in The Junk Drawer. Therefore: just stop putting these in the bags, especially if you’re at a location (i.e. a hotel) that will already have pens available.

T-Shirts and Clothing

While maybe not directly in the swag bag itself, t-shirts and other clothes featuring the event’s logo are prominent fixtures at any gathering. These can be a hit or miss; they can either land in the pile of “t-shirts I’ll use as pyjamas” or “sweatshirt I’ll actually wear”. Advice: If you’re going to include clothing in your swag bags, make sure it’s high quality and generic enough that a person could conceivably wear it in their everyday life.


Now, I love food. And I love getting it for free. However, when this food is wrapped in 16 layers of plastic, I’m just disappointed. Further, especially at conferences centred around sustainability or nutrition, any food given out should be universally consumable – gluten-free, peanut-free, vegan, or otherwise. Also, as mentioned above, make sure the packaging is either reusable, easily recyclable, or non-existent (most people like bananas).

So… What do we do?


Example of a great swag bag item! This was also made by a local business.

You’ve heard the slogan: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. In that order. Following this, the solution is to simply stop producing swag bags. However, it can’t be this clear-cut; swag bags generate excitement and create positive memories of the event.

So it’s up to us to create alternative ways to reduce the waste created by swag bags. For instance, at the orientation for the Faculty of Science this year, they gave each student reusable cutlery (pictured below) and a metal straw (which I promptly lost). These were great because I actually use them, and they can be applied to everyone (everybody eats and drinks!).


Ignoring the fact that I killed the succulent, this was an awesome gift.

Other ideas for swag bags that are universally applicable and useful include: USB chargers (out of town conference = people forgetting their chargers), power banks (always in the category of ‘people need but will never buy for themselves’), cozy socks, and bamboo toothbrushes (or other eco-friendly toiletry items). You could even include a grow-your-own plant kit or a charitable donation in the person’s name.

Overall, while it might seem impossible to come up with waste-free swag bags that people will actually use, some creative thinking leads to a whole host of ideas. The key to creating sustainable swag bags is thinking outside of the box – or in this case, bag.


11 / 26 / 19
Ashley Abrahart

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