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?


Q&A: Summer Grilling

  • June 23, 2011 9:43 am

THE QUESTION:

Hi Alexandra,

My family and I love to grill in our backyard all summer long.  If the weather allows it, we’re out there almost every night!  Our old charcoal grill is, well, old and tired, so we’re thinking of purchasing a new one for the season.  We would like it to be as environmentally friendly as possible, especially because we use it so often.  What are your thoughts on the best grills to buy?

Thanks,

Louise

THE ANSWER:

Hi Louise,

Thank you so much for your question, and lucky you to have a backyard for daily grilling and more.  Us city dwellers are very jealous.  This is a hot topic as the days are getting longer, the weather is warmer, and July 4th is fast approaching, but there are a lot of issues to consider before lighting up those coals.  In The Conscious Kitchen I explain the ins and outs of grill use:

No one can deny the allure of an open fire.  Cooking outside makes sense when the weather is warm, but there are a number of things to scrutinize before you grill.  Foodies have long debated the merits of charcoal versus gas.  Gas, a nonrenewable resource, is a convenient and controllable way to cook on an open flame, but where taste is concerned, charcoal always wins.  Environmentally speaking, though, charcoal is worse than gas.  Among other negatives, charcoal promotes deforestation (it is made from trees) and pollutes the air as it burns.  This might not seem like a big deal if you’re the sort who grills once in a blue moon, but think about how much pollution gets collectively released into the air on a day like July 4.  According to an article in the July/August 2005 issue of Sierra magazine, an estimated sixty million barbecues are held on this holiday, during which Americans burn the equivalent of 2,300 acres of forest and release 225,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air.  Research has shown that in areas where people grill often, fatty acids in meat smoke can contribute to hazy skies.  Fat smog!  If you aren’t prepared to give up grilling, it’s good to be aware of the impact it can have on both your health and the environment and to minimize it however you can.

THE LIST: GRILLS

A sliding scale of choices from best to worst:

-Solar cookers (not technically grills) cook outside using nothing but the sun’s energy

-Electric, natural gas, and propane: they burn cleaner and are more efficient than charcoal or wood

-Hybrid grills, using as little natural charcoal or wood as possible

-Natural charcoal and hard wood, using a chimney starter

AVOID: Conventional charcoal, charcoal containing lighter fluid, and lighter fluid in general

I have more on each of those choices, and the nitty gritty on why lighter fluid must always be avoided in the book. And don’t forget about what you’re putting on the grill (i.e. local veggies and well-raised meat), the plates you’re eating off of (preferably reusable), and how you’re cleaning up after dinner (natural cleaners, please).

Who has tried a solar cooker? Curious!