Picnics, barbecues and family reunions make a comeback during the long, lazy months of summer. Yet hosting a yard full of hungry partiers can be expensive, to say nothing of adding to the nation's garbage pile of disposable products.
That's why economical entertaining with a "zero-waste" goal is gaining momentum. With just a slight change in attitude and approach, a lid can be kept on overflowing trash and expense.
Invitations that spell out your commitment to reducing waste. Ask guests to bring homemade, seasonal food in reusable packing such as Tupperware or Pyrex.
If you wish, ask guests to bring their own (reusable) place setting.
Organize events that are closer to home to reduce travel time and resources. Encourage carpooling, walking and biking. Consider packing all gear into one carload.
Second-hand picnic gear such as coolers and chairs. Bought from local thrift shops, these items avoid adding to the consumerism of paying top price (and manufacturing and distribution costs) for brand new.
Non-disposable tableware. Collect informal, lightweight plates, glasses and flatware from antique and thrift stores for a charming and reusable setting.
Cloth napkins and tablecloths. "People bring those plastic tablecloths then wrap everything up in it and toss it," reports Jackson County's SMART Program coordinator Paige Prewett. "This is a big problem in landfills."
Seasonal, local foods that have been picked by hand or purchased from farmer's markets or local grocers. "Think watermelon instead of imported fruit in July and August," says Maria Katsantones, outreach assistant at Ashland Food Coop. "Then party down with tomatoes in August and September."
Cloth instead of paper towels. Have a bin with soapy water and use a cloth to wipe off plates and tables and to clean up spills.
Bins for plastic flatware and glasses. Collect, wash and re-use all plastic items; many are dishwasher-safe.
Dedicated bins for recyclables and compostables. Pack out what you brought in and recycle back at home; add compost to your garden.
"The first step towards an economical, zero-waste event is to have reusables rather than disposable," says Paige Prewett, coordinator of the Jackson County SMART (Saving Money and Resources Together) Program.
That means no throw-away anything, including food containers and table settings. With careful planning, this mission is not as difficult to achieve as it may sound.
Make a list of what you hope to accomplish. Create a team and delegate responsibilities such as setup and cleanup, being sure to designate an area for collecting reusables and recyclables.
"Then communicate with your guests," advises Maria Katsantones, outreach assistant at Ashland Food Coop. "Tell them you're making 'one small change' like asking them to bring their own reusable place settings or not to bring any disposable or packaged items or suggesting they carpool or bike or walk to the event."
Consider discouraging disposable water bottles and any throwaway plastic party favors. Offer coolers of water and reusable glasses and bouquets of fresh-cut flowers instead.
If disposable is the only thing that makes sense, opt for paper over plastic. "Paper is better than plastic because at least it can be burned and it doesn't sit in the landfill for hundreds of years," says Katsantones.
Make a contest out of the challenge by creating a theme. Perhaps an old-fashioned Fourth of July where guests are encouraged to remember there were no plastic bags and paper plates 150 years ago. Offer an environmentally-friendly prize like a cloth shopping bag or a gift certificate for the family that uses and produces the least waste in their packaging and picnic supplies.
Don't be afraid to add gentle reminders, like a polite sign that explains your goal of a zero-waste event and invites guests to place used items in bins that are labeled "plastic flatware," "plates," "recyclables" and "compostables."
When it comes to planning the menu, the key word is "seasonal."
"Any time you're eating in season, you're going to be eating economically because that's when the bounty is," says Wendy Siporen, director of THRIVE (The Rogue Initiative for a Vital Economy) in Ashland. "Shipping from far away adds to cost."
Try shopping at grower's markets, farm stands and grocery stores that feature local products. If you shop wisely you won't be spending any more than on conventional foods.
Even locally-sourced specialty products like cheese and chocolate can be an affordable addition — just buy a little bit.
"The flavors are significantly more clear and assertive allowing the cook to use less of the ingredient but still obtain a more flavorful and beautiful finished product," says Tim Keller, chef at Nunan Estate in Jacksonville.
Don't pass up an invited opportunity to pick produce from a neighbor's garden or trees. Wash well, then serve to a crowd.
"This reduces the transportation footprint of getting food for your picnic," Prewett points out. "It also really reduces packaging."
Bake homemade cookies or cupcakes rather than "buying those weird day-glo cupcakes in clamshell packages that are not recyclable in our area," Katsantones suggests.
Stretch your baking budget by doubling the recipe and freezing half for the next picnic.
Keep guests cool with local fruit juice sparklers.
"Apricot, pear, apple, melons and berries are all available in the summer and can be mixed with soda water to give a light, fresh and healthy juice," Keller suggests. Simply purée the fruit at home, chill in a covered container and mix the drinks on-site.
If 25 percent of the Rogue Valley started making small changes like these, "we'd be making baby steps toward a real difference," says Katsantones.
And that makes sense for future generations, who also deserve their day in the sun.