Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Green Conundrum

The Birthday
Towards the end of summer, my youngest son attended a birthday party for a boy from our church. Seeing as the birthday boy was 7 and the other attendees were that or older, I figured I'd stay to help keep an eye on my 3 year old. Fun was had by all. I knew that going to the party would mean trying to find a way to politely decline the use of any disposable tableware - but I felt up to the challenge. Even though paper plates and plastic cups/forks/spoons were in abundance, I was amazingly able to commandeer a ceramic bowl and metal spoon for my son. I think my excuse was something about not trusting him with ice cream on a plate. Which is true, by the way, but I was stretching it a bit. I declined all food and drinks because I didn't want to have to throw anything away.

But something occurred before my eyes that I just couldn't believe. One of my sweet, dear friends (who was also there watching her kids) actually refused a reusable cup - she said she felt bad about it! I guess because it meant that the homeowner would have to wash it instead of just throwing it out. The homeowner pushed for her to take the reusable, but she insisted on the throw-away. How warped we've become that we'd rather use something for literally five seconds and trash it rather than wash it and put it back in the cupboard for use on another day?

The Reunion
As for accumulating "unnecessary" trash during a party, this exact same thing happened to us at a family reunion this summer - but we weren't prepared. We were drowning in a sea of styrofoam and plastic, and the hosts hadn't even set out a bag for recycling cans, either. I wanted to stand up on the tables and scream about it to try and wake people up. But I took the wimpy way out and didn't say a thing - and used the styrofoam and plastic to boot! This was the first reunion for my husband's side of the family in almost 20 years. There were probably about 75 people there and I only knew a handful of them. Everyone was having a pleasant time, and I just didn't want to rock the boat.

The Consequences
But these two stories do show how the vast majority of society still could care less if they're putting needless waste into the landfills. One idea I recently read about is to keep a small stash of plates & utensils in the car for times such as these. I can't think of any other way to deal with it - other than using the "bad stuff" or possibly eating only finger foods. I don't want to ruin everyone else's time by getting up on my soapbox, but I also don't want our family adding anything unnecessary to the dump. Or the ocean for that matter. Ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It's basically two large (and I mean the size of Texas or bigger) floating trash piles (made up of about 90% plastic) that pollute the North Pacific Ocean and take no prisoners. But that's a post for another day.

A wonderful post over at Towards Sustainability discusses this exact topic - how do you broach the topic of creating less waste with friends/neighbors/coworkers/family without seeming crazy? Any ideas would be greatly appreciated! - Carrie

[Editor's note: For those loyal subscribers thinking to themselves - "Why does this post seem slightly familiar?" - well, that's because it is. I committed the ultimate blogging faux paux, not once, but three times! This post has already run three times, but in incomplete form. I think I caught it within the first 30 minutes of being posted each time, but it is embarrassing to say the least. So, my sincerest apologies - thanks for sticking with us!]


  1. I feel for you on this. It's something I struggle with too. I agree though, there's a place and a way to make a point, and make it well. Sometimes the small things help. My folks are real big on this too, and started by bringing their own mugs to family get togethers. Some were curious as to why and asked. They accepted the reason without comment, but at the next family gathering, more people brought their own mugs. It was one small step, but it opened the door for a greater awareness. I have another friend, who washes and reuses all the styrofoam and plasticware!

  2. What Pigs Don't KnowOctober 19, 2010 at 5:35 PM

    Leigh -
    I like the mug idea. That's not too pushy but gets the point across. As for washing & reusing plasticware, I'm definitely with your friend on that one. Haven't really done that with styrofoam, but then again I can't remember the last time I actually bought any styrofoam! -Carrie

  3. At parties - potlucks, birthday parties, for adults and kids alike - I use the compostable paper plates (*and* I compost them, that's crucial, of course), "real" glasses and metal cutlery, which we once bought at IKEA (in the As Is section, about 300 pieces in a plastic bag, odds and ends they couldn't sell otherwise).

    So far so good.

    I also set out cloth napkins (got a whole bunch of them because that's what we use at dinner each day - we take two months to use one roll of paper towel). And I have to push people to use them. I absolutely refuse to give them the choice between cloth and paper, I just don't put the paper ones out. One day we had 56 people, mostly adults, over for a party and at the end of the evening 3 napkins had been used (by myself, DH, and Amie)! No one asked for a paper napkin - they know our "philosophies" - but no one used the cloth either. Suited me fine!

  4. What Pigs Don't KnowOctober 20, 2010 at 3:06 PM

    Hi Katrien! Thanks for visiting! (I was born in Brookline, by the way!).

    Do you take the plates/glasses/cutlery to parties, or you use them when you have parties at your house? We have a small house and haven't done much entertaining other than maybe inviting 4 or 5 people in addition to our immediate family of 5. So I really haven't even had an occasion to buy paper plates, but that sounds like the way to go if we have to, especially since we're big composters around here.

    That's interesting that people wouldn't use the cloth napkins. I've become a big fan of them over the last year or two. We pick them up at garage/estate sales - they are very inexpensive that way. Plus my sister-in-law gave us some she made for Christmas last year, so that was a bonus.

    As for the paper towels, I'm with you there - it also takes us about 2 months to go through one roll. We usually only use them for cleaning the toilet. Haven't gotten over the "ick" factor of cleaning that thing with a reusable cloth yet! - Carrie

  5. Hi Carrie,

    I admit that I don't take them to parties, but then I don't go to many parties, I just *have* parties - hey, strange now I come to think of it! (We have them in the Summer, when people can be out on the patio, because we too have a small house.) The kinds of parties I do go to are small ones, with the real cutlery and plates.

    My husband usually takes to my 5-year-old to bday parties. I'll suggest he takes our cutlery and a plate. O boy...

  6. I started thinking more about this when I attended a large baby shower and saw the literal mountains of wrapping paper, tissue paper, bows, ribbons, etc. that had to be bagged up and tossed afterwards. It pained me to watch and got me thinking about how to do better.

    The next shower I went to, I wrapped my gift in a crib sheet (also on the gift registry list) so there wouldn't be any waste (minus a piece of hemp to tie it together which I'm pretty sure is biodegradable). I got several, "Oh, that's a nice idea" comments afterwards. It's nice to put that thought in people's minds, but I doubt many (if any) will actually change their actions until it becomes more mainstream.

    I held a training for my work a few weeks ago which involved several cooking activities. I purchased paper plates and compostable cutlery, and brought a big bucket for everyone to toss their scraps into. Everyone seemed confused at first, but once they got the idea they seemed impressed. "You can compost these forks?!" At the end of the day I just tossed the whole bucket full on our compost pile.

  7. Annette,
    Thanks for your comments. I think the crib sheet wrapping is a great idea. I always just "wrap" in reusable decorative bags, but I think a better way to go is with part of the actual gift acting as the wrapping.

    As for your compostable cutlery, that is a great idea. However, I immediately went to do some research because I'm fairly ignorant on the subject - and most of what I found says that compostable cutlery often doesn't break down - even in commercial high heat composters. Do you know which brand you used? I am curious to know how long it takes for them to break down in your pile. But if it would compost, I think that is an awesome way to go if you can't use silverware. -Carrie