Ask The Eco Team

Dear Team,

I am looking forward to backyard get-togethers, but I want to walk my environmentally conscious talk. What kinds of dishes and flatware should I be using? What is the best material for a tablecloth? What method of grilling produces the fewest greenhouse gas emissions? How can I find meats that have been raised and harvested in a humane and ecologically friendly manner? How can I encourage my guests to walk, bike, or carpool to my party? Also, what eco-friendly summer trips can you suggest?

—Eager for BBQ

Dear Eager BBQer,

The most eco-friendly choice—as well as the least expensive—is to carry dishes and flatware with you and bring them home to wash. Disposables are usually made from non-renewable sources, such as paper and plastic, and at the end of their life cycle, they’re tossed into a landfill, wasting the material. The energy required to manufacture, distribute, and trash them contributes to climate change. Reusable bamboo plates and metal flatware are an example of how you can avoid disposables.

If you must use disposables, the best options are those made from sustainably produced materials that can be composted. Consider 100 percent post-consumer waste recycled content paper. This is hard to find but is the best choice, especially when composted after use. Paper towels and napkins are easier to find than plates and cups. Bagasse plates are made of sugar cane fiber, a byproduct of sugar refining. Chinet plates are made of waste from poly-coated milk carton production.

Most natural foods grocery stores carry these items and you can also purchase them online at stores such as An important thing to consider with biodegradable plastic cutlery, plates, bowls, and cups is that they need to make it into a municipal, industrial compost facility. They won’t break down in your backyard pile or in the landfill. Remember also that most biodegradable plastic is made from GMO crops that are energy-intensive to produce. GMO corn cross-pollinates and contaminates non-GMO strains. Corporations such as Monsanto control the seed and herbicides, and farmers worldwide are forced to become ever more dependent on these companies.

When using paper and biodegradables, be sure to recycle and compost all of it. This may mean bringing it home for your household pickup. Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco have municipal compost programs that do curbside pickup of food scraps. People living in areas without municipal compost should compost the food scraps and paper material in their backyard pile.

For tablecloths, cloth is a better choice than plastic, and organically grown cotton or hemp is even better. Conventional farmers use more insecticide on cotton than on any other crop in the world. Your best choice is to buy a reused tablecloth from a thrift store or make your own from leftover fabrics. Most importantly, avoid vinyl and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Dioxin and other persistent bioaccumulative pollutants are created in the manufacture of PVC. Lead, cadmium, and phthalates are added to PVC as well, and can leach, flake, or outgas over time, raising risks that include asthma, lead poisoning, and cancer.

Charcoal on the Grill

Now on to the main event: never use lighter fluid to start your grill, because it impacts air quality, especially during the summer. The fluid lets off volatile organic compounds, creating ground-level ozone that contributes to respiratory problems and asthma. Instead, use a chimney briquette starter and lump charcoal, which you can find made from invasive tree species or harvested from sustainably managed forests. Natural gas and propane grills create carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, but are still a better choice than electric grills or conventional charcoal. The best choice is a solar cooker. On July 20 the Ecology Center hosts a solar cooking workshop at Berkeley’s EcoHouse featuring five types of cookers, from those you can make by hand to deluxe manufactured models.

Save the Beef

Food choices have an enormous impact on the planet and never more so than with beef. Cattle production impacts air quality, contaminates groundwater, requires enormous grain consumption, is responsible for deforestation worldwide, and is a major contributor to climate change. Cow manure from beef and dairy cattle creates methane, a greenhouse gas twenty times more powerful than carbon dioxide. According to a United Nations report, cattle production is “responsible for eighteen percent of greenhouse gases, more than cars, planes and all other forms of transport put together.”

If you choose to eat meat, locally produced organic chicken has the least environmental impact. The term “free-range” is not meaningful because there is no oversight or certification process for this designation, and meat from animals that have never stepped foot outdoors can be labeled “free range.” On the other hand, the Certified Humane Raised and Handled label is verified by a third party and is meaningful.

Live lighter by growing your own vegetables! For those without yards, try scoring a plot in a community garden—or at least put yourself on the waiting list. You’ll be able to connect with other gardeners and share tips about local varieties and growing conditions. Artichokes, corn, peaches, tomatoes, raspberries, and squash are all in season during the summer months. Some commercially grown fruits and vegetables carry more pesticides than others. The Environmental Working Group ( publishes the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which cites peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes, spinach, lettuce, and potatoes as most likely to carry a high pesticide load. Purchase these organically.

Travel Time

A few online services help people use alternative transportation. helps cyclists share knowledge of good bicycle routes. It covers the entire United States. Another service,, provides information about public transit routes and times, ridesharing, and links to bicycle maps of the Bay Area.

Get on the Water

For an eco-friendly summer trip, visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium (, which conducts conservation research programs that help create sound ocean policy decisions. Your admission fee to the Aquarium helps support their work. The American Cetacean Society ( offers whale-watching trips with certified naturalists throughout the year. These fundraisers help support education and conservation programs.

Above all, Eager BBQer, get social: have fun with friends and family in an ecologically responsible way, and gently spread the word on your travels.

The Eco Team dispenses tips like these at the Ecology Center’s information line: (510) 548-2220 x233. Send questions for the column to

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