Q&A: Picnic Waste

  • June 28, 2011 5:03 pm

THE QUESTION

Dear Alexandra,

This summer I’ve been finding myself hosting multiple picnics and BBQs, all of which have been attended by lots of family, friends, and children.  Of course, on July 4th we’ll be having a massive backyard party.  These events are great, but I’ve been guilt ridden by the amount of waste we’re producing.  Napkins, plates, utensils!  I’ve tried to find recyclable options, but some cost a fortune.  What do you suggest to minimize my waste, and my cost?

Thanks,

Susan

THE ANSWER

Hi Susan, thank you so much for the great and timely question. The amount of waste from eating a meal outdoors can be immense, but there are some easy (and cheap) ways to reduce the amount of your garbage and your guilt.  In The Conscious Kitchen I discuss entertaining for a crowd (see below). My favorite way to minimize waste and cost at a party is to ask people to BYO plates, cups, cloth napkins, and utensils. Have items on hand for guests who choose not to. You might be pleasantly surprised at how many do bring their own items, though. And the zany mix and matching this creates is festive. This goes for July 4th and beyond — it’s how I host my daughter’s winter waste-free  birthday parties, too.

From The Conscious Kitchen:

One of the many pleasures of cooking is inviting your family and friends to share meals with you.  Depending on the size of your crowd, short cuts become tempting.  Resist the urge to serve on paper plates.  A far better option is to use your real plates, glasses, silverware, and cloth napkins.  If you won’t, use only unbleached paper or compostable plates, plus unbleached paper or compostable paper cups and recycled-paper napkins.  If using plastic cutlery, go for items made of #2, #4, or #5 (see below), especially if they can be reused and eventually recycled.  If using corn or sugar plastic, make sure you can compost or recycle it where you live.

#2 (HDPE or high-density polyethylene), a hard plastic used for everything from milk jugs to cleaning product containers, is presently being used as one of the replacements for bisphenol-A containing polycarbonate (#7) in baby and reusable water bottles.

#4 (LDPE or low-density polyethylene), a soft plastic widely used for food storage bags, plastic shopping bags, and squeezable bottles.

#5 (PP or polypropylene), a versatile plastic that is used for bottle tops, yogurt and food storage containers, plus baby bottles.

#7 (other, catch-all), this classification is for any and all plastics that don’t fall under #1 to #6, and can include polycarbonate, the hard plastic used mainly for bottles (water and baby) that contains bisphenol-A.

The confusing and frustrating part is that even if you do buy compostable items, usually they are made from GM plants, which require lots of fertilizer and plenty of chemicals to stabilize them.  These materials are considered biodegradable, but will only biodegrade under strict conditions–they need to have access to air, water, light, microbes, and enzymes.  Since most people don’t recycle these items, they end up in landfills, buried and unable to break down–just like regular plastic.  If you use “compostable” plates, make sure you can compost or recycle these items close to where you live (some municipalities don’t recycle the corn based plastics).  Best case scenario: start composting in your own home!  Go to the EPA’s site for more information on how you can get started with your own personal compost.

Happy 4th of July! What’s better than celebrating with family, friends, and great food?


Do You Compost? My Farmers’ Market Does!

  • March 9, 2011 10:19 am

compost drop off!

Look what greeted me when I arrived at my small local winter farmers’ market this past Saturday. What a fabulous and welcome surprise! I already compost at home — in a NatureMill automatic composter that does the trick in my small urban apartment. We bring the results to friends and/or tuck it into the beds of the trees that live on our New York City street. But sometimes there is overflow (we cook at least three times a day and eat a lot of fruits and veggies, plus there are egg shells, coffee grounds, and more). This sign introduces what is a trial run to see if compost drop-off is widely needed/desired beyond the main Manhattan farmers’ market (Union Square). I want the organizers to know it’s very much in demand, so I intend to march my overflow there every Saturday. If you live in NY, there are more trial drop off sites being organized by GrowNYC. Join me in dropping off your scraps.

Here are some thoughts about composting from The Conscious Kitchen:

For biodegradable items to actually biodegrade in landfills, they need access to a basic combination of air, water, light, microbes, and enzymes. Landfill methane emissions are a result of the fact that landfills don’t offer this access. Most are too tightly packed for biodegradable scraps to be exposed to such things, and so they sit, unbiodegraded , next to truly unbiodegradable items for years. In 1989, a garbage project out of the University of Arizona went into a landfill and discovered a legible newspaper from 1952, intact hot dogs, and an ear of corn (husks, too) mixed with material dated from 1971. Tragic but true. These findings are like poster children for why it’s a good idea to keep even biodegradable items out of the landfill and aid the process yourself. Composting is truly win-win. It will drastically reduce your garbage output and give you something valuable–nutrient-dense soil for your garden and house plants–in return from “trash.” Seeing your atrophied garbage once you start composting is nothing short of miraculous–there’s almost nothing in it! It’s mind-boggling how much we collectively throw out that can simply, cheaply, and effectively be turned into good dirt. Once you’ve composted, you’ll never go back.

For more on composting, including resources, see pages 209 to 214 of The Conscious Kitchen.