In 2004, a group of Missoula documentary film enthusiasts had an idea to organize a weekend of film screenings, showing 75 non-fiction films at The Roxy Theater, with fingers crossed that a few folks might actually show up.

They did.

Fast forward 15 years and the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival lights up downtown Missoula every February for 10 days and holds screenings and events in more than a dozen local venues. Nearly 20,000 attend the event, with more than 25 percent coming from outside the greater Missoula area, swelling downtown in a shoulder tourism season.

As the notoriety and renown of Big Sky grew, inevitably, so did the festival’s carbon footprint. A desire to show Missoula hospitality to hundreds of visitors stacked up, as did the piles of discarded plastic cups, programs and ticket stubs.

For an event so heavily defined by the city of Missoula, our team saw the need to honor the community that anchors the event, the valley we sit in, the fresh mountain air we breathe, and the stories that promote a more sustainable future.

In 2016, the Big Sky team decided to take action and launched a Towards Zero Waste Initiative (TZW). For three years, the festival’s TZW efforts have included banning the use of disposable plastic wherever possible, sourcing recycled and recyclable materials, and working with vendors with a sustainable ethos. Not to mention programming films that inspire more ecologically conscious practices.

Every year powerful film programming addresses environmental issues on scientific and social levels, engaging our Montana audience in serious challenges facing communities across the globe. With these films, curated in an environmentally focused strand, we aim to educate viewers on the gravity and complexity of the human impact on the natural world, and to inspire audiences to action.

In order to communicate these ideas effectively and ethically, BSDFF embraces the responsibility to be a leader in green events by reducing our own environmental impact. The Towards Zero Waste initiative is an effort to significantly reduce the waste produced during the 10-day festival, increase awareness of environmental issues and behavioral solutions in our local community, and provide a model for other film festivals in the industry.

In association with film screenings and other events, the festival has also forged partnerships to elevate the great sustainability work being done in the community with groups such as Climate Smart Missoula, Home ReSource, the City of Missoula, Environment Montana, and Missoula Compost Collection. Support for the 2018 TZW efforts comes from a grant from the High Stakes Foundation.

In 2016, the inaugural year of film festival's TZW initiative, Climate Smart pitched in to help with recycling, and the festival used the city’s new receptacles at venues all over town. In 2017, the festival offered shuttles between venues to reduce single car trips across the festival map. Home ReSource built an extraordinary wall using recycled materials, a demonstration of creative re-use in the Hellgate Elks Lodge pop-up theater, a feature you can see again in 2018.

This year at the 15th annual event, the festival is introducing compostable popcorn bags and working with Missoula Compost Collection to reduce food waste and prevent organic materials from traveling to the landfill. All festival venues are walkable, and the 2018 shuttle will take VIPs and visitors to destination events, reducing single car trips.

All TZW commitments for 2018 include:

  • Banning single-use plastic at our VIP events, opting for PLA and BPA certified vessels wherever possible
  • Using post-consumer recycled paper for printed projects
  • Partnering with eco-conscious vendors wherever possible
  • Providing recycling and compost receptacles at all festival venues
  • Planned festival events within walking distance, with shuttles available for events outside downtown proper

Here’s what you can do as a BSDFF attendee to help us move Towards Zero Waste!

  • Walk, bike, or take the FREE Mountain Line downtown!
  • Take only one program or plan your festivities with our online resources
  • Recycle your program and any paper you collect at the festival
  • Recycle! Compost! You’ll find bins at all festival venues.
  • Learn more about Towards Zero Waste and the City of Missoula’s Zero by Fifty initiative at

The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival has been showcasing global stories for 14 years to a growing Missoula audience. What began as a modest Missoula event has become a community-loved, industry-supported and world-class festival.

In its third year, the Towards Zero Waste initiative is unique among film festivals of our size. BSDFF strives to provide a model for a large-scale ecologically friendly event, and to inspire other festivals to take on environmentally sustainable practices.

Rachel Gregg is the Executive Director of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. The 15th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival takes place February 16-25, 2018 in downtown Missoula. To get involved with the TZW initiative as a Green Team volunteer, follow this link. This column is part of a 2018 weekly Missoula Current series, Sustainable Missoula, which highlights community sustainability efforts.

Upcoming sustainability events:

Feb 13: “Climate Change in Missoula: From Statistics to Strategies” at the Missoula Public Library, 7 p.m.

Feb 1-28: The Clear the Air Challenge runs through the end of the month. Join online via Missoula in Motion.

March 1: Climate Smart Missoula’s Monthly Meetup on the topic of Zero Waste, Imagine Nation Brewing Co., 5 p.m.