Action 136. Start a church or synagogue supper sustainability revolution.

A revolution is not a dinner party. – Mao Tse-Tung

Perhaps not, but I do think we need a dinner party revolution– particularly when it comes to dining at social events. I’m betting that most everyone who belongs to a church or synagogue- or, for that matter, a sports team, or has hosted a birthday party in their lifetime- is familiar with the principle of picnic lunches and dinners. Whether held at a park or at a local hall or church, the picnic dinner is as American as apple pie in a disposable pie pan: the plastic cutlery, the plastic-backed, disposable tablecloths, the unrecyclable red solo cups, the tons of leftover macaroni salad that goes into the trash– yes, you see exactly where Im going with this.

We throw away a lot of stuff at events like this. Even though most of us may not eat with disposable cutlery every day or even every week, our disposable footprint adds up. According to earth911, “Americans toss out enough paper and plastic cups, forks and spoons every year to circle the equator 300 times”. That, my friends, is a whole lot of petroleum product created for a 20 minute stop at your dinner plate before moving on to the landfill to generate methane. And even if we wanted to at least recycle single-use picnic ware, most of the disposable cups and cutlery we use is not recyclable. Even “paper” cups are usually coated with a wax or plastic film that means most communities cannot recycle them. Plastic cutlery is most often made from polystyrene, identified by the #6, which at least in my area is not a recyclable plastic. It is not biodegradable, and will last for hundreds of years in the landfill once thrown away. But its also generally not made to be reused, either- it doesnt fare well in the dishwasher, and is truly created for single use, as it’s prone to degradation and breaking.

But do we have to generate a huge carbon footprint with every picnic meal? Most definitely not. By making some simple changes, there are huge gains to be made in reducing the waste created at events like this. My synagogue has made enormous strides in just the past year or so in terms of reducing waste at the dozens of events we host each year, and most of these are not particularly difficult or expensive – in fact, its often arguably a significant cost savings over time to invest a little up front in some durables so that over time, you’re not shelling out each and every time for consumables (for example, here’s a report on a couple school districts that invested in durables and realized substantial cost and carbon savings in investing in durable utensils).

Here’s some things I and several other members of my congregation have been implementing along these lines:

  • Washable tablecloths for our buffet and dining tables; someone volunteers to take what is used home and wash and return them after an event
  • We have amassed hundreds of

    Here’s the silverware I took home from last week’s party, ran through my dishwasher, and returned. Easy peasy!

    metal utensils from various friends, neighbors and thrift stores that can be washed in the synagogue’s dishwasher (which we just got this year, hooray!), or they are easy to take home after an event and throw in our own dishwashers

  • We added a yard waste service from our local disposal company so that we can now compost our leftover food and compostable plateware
  • We have a large collection of plate ware and we purchase simple, unlined paper plates that can be composted
  • We have borrowed, used, washed and returned linen napkins from our local Buy Nothing Project for some events; otherwise we compost napkins

Is going greener at dinner a little more cumbersome? Yes, it is. You have to be prepared to find folks willing to wash the durables; and there is a slow but steady education process, and some ongoing oversight, involved in getting our congregants to put their compostables, recyclables and trash in the right places. Just last week I was discussing the composting issue with someone in our congregation questioning whether it is worth the trouble because people keep throwing their food in the trash and can’t seem to get it right. And its true there will probably always be a few mistakes. But Ive been incredibly pleased to see with a little oversight and preparation, our group has made huge steps forward in reducing the carbon footprint of our events. With the millions of picnic suppers America hosts every year, think what a difference some of these relatively simple changes could make to our collective footprint!


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