Tips for Greening Your Picnics

Do you love backyard barbecues and picnics in the park? Here are some tips for greening your outdoor get-togethers, from plates, cups and utensils, tablecloths, grilling, food choices, and clean up.

Plates, Cups, and Utensils
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 later. Avoid single-use, disposable plastic products: our landfills are full of them, and 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 choose to use disposable products, the best options are those made from sustainably produced materials that can be composted. Consider paper cups, plates, and napkins made from 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper, and compost them after use. Other good options include BagasseWare plates made from sugar cane fiber, VerTerra plates made from leaves, and Bridge-Gate plates made from wheatstraw. Most natural foods grocery stores carry compostable dinnerware, as do many online stores.

Compostable utensils and cups won’t break down in your backyard compost pile; only a municipal, industrial-scale composting operation gets hot enough for them to break down. A little-known fact is that large-scale composting operations are likely to pick out your compostable forks, spoons, and cups and send them to the landfill if they look like plastic. They don’t have the time or staff to examine every fork and determine whether it is PLA or plastic. To ensure that your compostable dinnerware actually gets composted, choose models that look like paper, leaves, or wood. Avoid PLA and biodegradable plastic products; they are typically made from GMO crops that are energy-intensive to produce.

Most compostable utensils look like they are made from plastic. Cutlery such as Eco-gecko made from sustainably harvested birch and Eco-tensil made from renewable paperboard are good choices, as they are both compostable and likely to actually be composted.

Tablecloths made from cloth are better than those made from 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.

The most environmentally friendly way to start your fire is using a chimney starter and lump charcoal made from invasive tree species or harvested from sustainably managed forests. Never use lighter fluid to start your grill; it lets off volatile organic compounds and creates ground-level ozone that contributes to respiratory problems and asthma. Natural gas and propane grills create carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, but are still a better choice than electric grills or conventional charcoal. The very best choice is a solar cooker, which you can purchase at the Ecology Center Store.

Food Choices
Fruits and vegetables in season are always the best environmental choice. There are few things more satisfying than sharing the fruits and vegetables that you grew yourself or got fresh from the farmers’ market that day. Zucchini, cherry tomatoes, and yellow squash are easy to grow and lend themselves well to grilled veggie skewers and salads. Corn on the cob can be grilled. Grilled ripe peach halves are a decadent summer dessert, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce lists the fruits and vegetables that carry the highest pesticide load. For those, go for the organics.

If you choose to grill 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. 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. Likewise, if you choose to grill fish, select fish that has been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. The Monterey Bay Aquariums’ Seafood Watch is a great resource for seafood recommendations. The Ecology Center stocks their pocket guides.

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.” Cattle production impacts air quality, contaminates groundwater, requires enormous grain consumption, is responsible for deforestation worldwide, and is a major contributor to climate change. If you’re hankering for a burger, choose locally raised “grass-fed” beef. While there are few definitive studies on the net amount of greenhouse gas emissions from grass-fed versus confined-feedlot, grain-fed meat, there are plenty of other environmental and health reasons to opt for grass-fed meat. Check out the Environmental Working Groups’s Meat Eater’s Guide to learn more.

Cleaning Up
Be sure to recycle all those beer cans and squeezable mustard bottles, and compost all your food scraps and soiled paper plates and cups. This may mean bringing it home for your household pickup. Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and a growing number of other cities 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.

[Photo by Paul and Christa]

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