Jul. 31—Dear Tee Cee:
I love hosting summer barbecues, but I want to make them less wasteful. Since I learned how valuable aluminum cans are and how much energy recycling them saves, I have started bringing an extra trash bag to my barbecues to separate and recycle cans. Any other ideas I should be trying?
Barbecues, picnics and potlucks are my favorite part of summer. I can smell corncobs on the grill and the sweetness of fruit salads.
But you're right, summer gatherings can be very wasteful. Just take a look inside the trash bins at public parks this time of year, and you'll see that they tend to be full of the same items: beverage containers, single-use food serviceware like plastic utensils and paper plates, napkins, plastic bags and food scraps.
The good news is that all those items can be swapped out for more sustainable, zero waste options. Here are some zero waste picnic ideas to get you started.
One of the easiest steps you can take, as you say, Kevin, is to recycle bottles, tubs, jugs and jars from the gathering. It's great to establish a designated bin or bag so you're not separating them out from garbage. Make sure containers are empty before putting them in the recycling bin or cart, (And do not put them in the container bagged, please.) If there's no recycling bin at the park, be the eco-champion who will pack up the recyclables to put in your curbside recycling cart at home.
Food waste is a huge part of the waste created at summer gatherings. Even if the yummy food was devoured, we often have discards like watermelon rinds, fruit peels, meat and bones. Once you've established the container for recycling, create another one to capture food waste and take it home for your curbside cart or take it to the Longmont Waste Diversion Center. Again, no bags in the compost please, unless it's a paper bag or cardboard box (both fully compostable) or a certified compostable bag. Make sure guests understand that no plastic can go in your compost, but paper napkins, towels and paper plates with no plastic coating (like the simple white kind) can be composted. (Plastic-coated paper plates, which would include anything with color on it, should be landfilled.)
Choose to reuse
Every single-use food serviceware item typically found at a picnic — paper plates, plastic cutlery, paper napkins, plastic cups — is not recyclable. Paper cups and plates tend to have a thin plastic liner on them that paper recyclers don't want, and there is no plastic market that is interested in buying plastic cutlery. (So if no one is buying it, it's not recyclable.) But using reusables can be a lot easier than you might think.
Reusable, washable, durable plastic picnic plates are a great alternative, but if you want to skip the plastic, consider taking a trip to a thrift store. There tends to be a lot of funky and inexpensive reusable food serviceware items at secondhand stores. Pull together a dedicated set of plates, utensils and reusable napkins for picnics. Not only are zero waste picnics good for the environment, but you can also save money that you would have otherwise spent over and over again on disposable items.
You can also encourage attendees to bring their own food serviceware along with their favorite dishes to take back home. I did this for a neighborhood picnic, and it added to the fun. Don't forget to encourage folks to bring containers for leftovers so food gets eaten, not composted (or trashed).
Check for certified compostable labeling
For larger gatherings, it might make sense to go with compostable food serviceware. It's important to note that any compostable food serviceware (like cutlery and cups) must be certified compostable. An item might look compostable and be labeled "plant-based" or even "compostable," but those labels do not necessarily mean they will properly break down at an industrial composting site. Instead, look for certification from the Biodegradable Products Institute or Compost Manufacturing Alliance. Items certified by BPI and/or CMA have undergone rigorous testing to ensure they are actually compostable.
Remember, these certified compostable items are only truly composted if they end up in your curbside compost bin, not the trash can.
Almost any zero waste kitchen swap can be applied to your barbecue. For example, try skipping the thin plastic wrap and cover your dishes with a reusable beeswax-coated cloth. Or try mixing a big pitcher or jug of lemonade, tea or whatever drink fits the occasion instead of canned or bottled beverages.
This is a great opportunity to try a creative and sustainable dish. You could use the rind of half a melon as a salad bowl, or use uncooked pieces of spaghetti instead of toothpicks. There's so much room to show your guests that zero waste picnics are fun, interesting, and good for the environment. Share your creative ideas with us at email@example.com or call us at 303-444-6634.
Have zero waste questions? Want to become a volunteer Eco-Leader? Let us know at Rosie@ecocycle.org.