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Trashing the holiday? Not so much!

Uploaded: Jul 7, 2019
I’ve enjoyed looking at photos from my friends’ Fourth of July holidays over the past few days -- parades, ice cream, red-white-and-blue outfits, picnics, lakes, even a big tug-of-war contest.

But I haven’t shared my photos yet -- they are debuting right here in this blog post! Maybe you’ll understand why when you see what they look like. Yes, that is trash.

This calls for some explanation. My neighborhood in Palo Alto has a big festival each year for the Fourth of July, complete with races, parade, marching band, (mini) floats, barbecue in the park, bake sale, field games, etc. I have done various jobs over the years, including cleanup, and the amount of trash we generate is kind of gruesome. So I thought this year we’d give “zero waste” a shot. It was a long shot, but at least we’d try.

So we called the city to get extra compost and recycle bins and some signs, and they told us we should use waste stations. Nice!

We signed up for some, hoping for diversion from trash into the compost and recycle bins. We also tried to reduce the amount of trash from the barbecue lunches (e.g., using paper plates and bowls instead of plastic, and offering chili as an alternative to bags of chips). We encouraged the bake sale bakers to avoid packaging their goods in plastic. We forewent (is that a word?) plastic water bottles and set up a water station with paper cups instead. And we made our own custom signs letting people know what trash goes where, customized for the lunch we were serving, and put them near the lunch line.

Then the party happened, the waste happened, and I took a bunch of pictures when it was over. Trash pictures!

So here’s what worked well and what didn’t work so well. In the end, we were more like “One Fifth Waste” than “Zero Waste”, but it was definitely an improvement.

What worked well

1. The extra bins (aka “waste stations”) were a big win. The city delivered them the day before and picked them up a day later, so it was really easy. A neighbor, who doesn’t normally enthuse about trash, sent me a note saying “Those waste stations in particular were game-changers.” (For context, he has also done the cleanup job before…)

2. The signs really worked. The bins were much more sorted than they have been in previous years, where everything was basically a trash bin. And some people learned something new. (For example, did you know that plastic utensils go in trash and not in recycling?) Just a few days ago, the City refused to take our recycling because someone had put a lot of pizza boxes in it. Maybe that won’t happen again now! Here are some photos of the compost bins at the end of the day:

And of the recycling bins:

Not perfect, but pretty darned good...

3. Attention and intention made a difference. Just by paying attention at the bake sale, we reduced the amount of plastic and throwaway items. Most people brought their items on the baking trays, on paper plates, in reused containers. We displayed things on big wooden trays, which made it look more homemade somehow. Instead of using festive throwaway paper table cloths, we used real cloths (which happened to be green). It looked fine, and didn’t hurt sales at all.

4. No one seemed to miss plastic bottles. The water station worked fine (well, until we ran out of cups), and there was also a water fountain as backup.

But we have room for improvement. Here are some lessons learned.

1. Simpler is better. It would have been easier if people who bought a lunch could have composted everything. As it was, plastic utensils and foil chip bags needed to go in the trash. Next year I hope we can at least do compostable utensils.

2. Plastic wrap is hard to replace! It was hard to avoid plastic wrap at the bake sale. Some people had to drop their items off early and wanted to protect them. Others wanted to wrap items so they were easier to take home.

We had waxed paper at the sale, but some items came pre-wrapped, and old habits die hard. Packaging was also an issue. One baker packaged her cookies attractively in cellophane bags with ribbons. They sold well. Another packaged her goods in compostable paper bags, which hid the items inside, and they did not sell as well. One purchased compostable plastic cups, for cut fruit, which looked fine but were expensive. Some used aluminum packaging, which we recycled, but it’s not ideal. So there were some tradeoffs here.

3. Plastic cups are everywhere. All of the cups we have in storage are plastic. So our sno-cones were sold in plastic cups, with plastic spoons. And when we ran out of cups for the water station, the only extra cups we had were plastic, which we didn’t want to use. We need to be sure that when we stock up, we use paper and not plastic, even if they don’t look as nice.

Coincidentally, my daughter sent me a text from her summer camp in LA yesterday. “Mom, is recycling #6 okay?” “Not really. Why?” “There’s like 3000000 of these cups. What’s wrong with paper anyway?”

I love when kids pay attention to this!

4. So. Much. Trash. There is a seemingly endless number of ways that we create trash. How do you have otter pops or parade floats without trash? Many of our decorations are reusable and stored away each year, but some are single-use. And so on. So it’s fair to say this is a work in progress and we may not get all the way there.

But overall, we did okay. If you look at the contents of the trash bins at the end of the day, much of it was still in fact compostable or recyclable.

Do you have any observations about what you saw trash-wise on your holiday? A friend shared this photo of trash her kids scooped out of beautiful Lake Tahoe, of all places. Ugh.

There were some comments on the last blog about the chili cook-off. Did that work out okay? The City put out a huge number of “waste stations” for it…

To sum up, I’d say I’m encouraged that small changes made a big difference, thankful that people seemed to care and do their part when encouraged, a bit awed by the sheer amount of throwaways we have embedded in our culture, and grateful that we live in a city that is trying to make a dent in this. Our neighborhood will keep pushing on this next year, and the kids may learn some new ways.

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Posted by Judy, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Jul 7, 2019 at 2:11 pm

There is no reason to bring disposable plates, cups, napkins and utensils to a barbecue/picnic, no reason at all. I've been to several barbecues in Germany. Everyone brings their every-day dishes, utensils, etc. with them. After the picnic they bring everything home again. I don't know why this is such a difficult concept here in America.

My apartment complex had its annual July 4th barbecue. I brought my own porcelain plate, a glass cup and silverware. I could have brought along reusable hard plastic dinnerware, but I don't own any. I then took everything back to my apartment and cleaned it off. No garbage. My neighbors were impressed and said they will try and do the same next year.

So the photo of all the trash you showed is absolutely unnecessary. There's no reason at all for that garbage. It just takes a little planning to bring re-usable, everyday dinnerware from home and then bring it back home to wash after the picnic. No need for the recycle bins if dishes, cups, etc. are taken home and washed.

Posted by David Coale, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 7, 2019 at 10:51 pm

The city has lots of info on Zero waste and also has zero waste Party Packs to reduce your waste at parties/events. The Party Pack is a set of 24 reusable plastic plates, bowls, cups and silver ware that residents can barrow when they have large events to help them reduce their waste. See: Web Link
for more info on this.

Posted by David Coale, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 7, 2019 at 10:57 pm

PS What the city really needs to reduce our community's impacts is valet bike parking at all city events, The Chili Cook Off, the music series, the art and wine event, the world music day. Other cities have this and Stanford has had this for a long time for their football games. This will reduce car traffic and the parking hassle at all city events and is much better then being stuck in traffic.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Jul 8, 2019 at 4:22 am

Chili Cook Off got mixed reviews, at least among the commenters -- Web Link
Maybe should have crashed your event instead.
Trashwise, yes we had plenty of waste stations set up. Water stations similar to yours.
Our spirited Downtown Streets Team kept the grounds cleaner than Disneyland.
I couldn't really gauge how much landfill, compost or recycling was generated.
Looked like much less than University Avenue's unsorted volume over the weekend.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Jul 8, 2019 at 11:02 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

I love these comments! A couple of thoughts:
@Judy -- Great observation. Honestly, I never considered that, because even the small steps we were taking seemed big. Maybe we can be more ambitious next year. FWIW, we have run potluck barbecues asking people to bring their own dishware, but this event, with over 350 lunches served and over 500 attendees, with friends and family from out of the area, seemed like a different scale. It’s also tricky because people stay around after lunch for games, pool, etc, so they need a bag or something to store their dishes and a place to put their bag. It can of course be done, it would just need people to get used to it. Maybe we could offer a lunch discount or a special cookie to encourage people to bring their own…

@David -- Yes. We have two of those party packs in our neighborhood. I have used them before for events. I didn’t even think of them in this case (see above). I am pretty sure we would have lost items -- especially silverware, but sometimes even the plates/cups are thrown away, even with signs. We would also need another volunteer or two to wash everything. Worth thinking about. This event is pretty hard to organize already, though, without the overhead of washing everyone’s dishes and monitoring the trash cans...

What problem is valet bike parking meant to solve? Space for parking bikes? Or theft? Or something else? I’ve never heard of it. But theft is rampant. It would be nice to address that at least.

@musical -- Maybe next year I will go around and take pictures of the bins at Mitchell Park. Or maybe not :)

Posted by Sheri, a resident of Midtown,
on Jul 8, 2019 at 12:09 pm

Sheri is a registered user.

We use compostable plates, ice cream cups, drinks cups and utensils ordered from World Cetric ( for our annual ice cream social. Also helps to have people stationed at the bins to direct people to correct one.

Posted by Judy, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Jul 8, 2019 at 1:25 pm

Cutting down on/eliminating waste takes a little planning and effort. People need to stop making excuses if they really care about their planet.

Separating garbage into bins is a little bandaid on a big problem. We need to stop generating so much waste, especially plastic, to turn things around. If we don't, it will soon be too late.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Jul 9, 2019 at 6:15 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Sheri -- Thanks for the pointer to a source for compostables. Re stationing people at bins, I don't think we are quite there yet in terms of willing helpers... (I'm pretty sure a bunch of people thought even the signs were overkill.) Have you ever tried asking people to bring their own plates/cups/spoons? I'm curious if that worked.

@Judy -- Yes, it does take some planning and effort, though some things more than others. I am getting pushback right now on reducing waste (e.g., eliminating plastic bottles and juice pouches) for an event that I am involved in. What should I do? I’m not sure blaming the people involved for making excuses is productive. People have different circumstances and different priorities. So I encourage, try to find easy wins, do what I personally can, celebrate success, and keep going. What is another approach?

You mention that if we don’t stop generating waste, “it will soon be too late”. Can you elaborate? I am more up on emissions than on plastics, and even with emissions there is no real “too late” deadline, though there are worrying “tipping points” that accelerate the rate of change. Is there some sort of deadline or tipping point for our waste? From what I understand, emissions is a much more pressing problem, in scope and urgency. But I honestly don’t know much about waste, and happy to learn.

Posted by sequoiadean, a resident of Los Altos,
on Jul 11, 2019 at 11:21 am

sequoiadean is a registered user.

We just had a big party this past weekend at our house. We had it catered by a great food truck which served food in compostable containers. We also borrowed dishes and silverware from a friend for salads, etc. so we avoided disposable plates and silverware as much as we could. We weren't perfect, we still had more trash than usual, but I think we did a pretty good job for 80 people. It's also much nicer to dine on "real" plates and silverware, then plastic/paper stuff. And of course there were NO plastic water bottles at our party!

Posted by Sheri, a resident of Midtown,
on Jul 11, 2019 at 11:41 am

Sheri is a registered user.

@Sherry Listgarten
Pretty hard to ask 300 people to bring their own stuff, especially when kids and ice cream are involved. We do what we can.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 11, 2019 at 12:08 pm

It is very hard to envisage changing a big event when people are reluctant to do these things for small extended family events, etc.

Many years ago, when our kids were small, we invested in decent quality plastic dinnerware with the idea of using it outside, camping, for children's parties, etc. The one mistake we made was getting them all the same color, it would have been much better if we had bought them all in as many colors as possible so that people could easily recognize their own. However, the idea works great and these are now 20 or so years old and very few have broken or gone missing. Throwaway items are expensive but reusable ones may be expensive the first time, but over the years they pay for themselves.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Jul 11, 2019 at 2:19 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

It’s interesting how readers made the distinction in the comments between reusables and compostables. I was thinking “Yay, compostable and recyclable”, but they are right that non-disposable is better. So our holiday efforts were far from perfect, but a good improvement nevertheless, and we’ll keep things interesting by trying to do something better next time. @Sheri, your ice cream party is already 100% compostable, which is amazing. And @sequioadean introduced some non-reusables as well as finding a caterer that would make the effort. Impressive!

@Resident, I think big events are important because for kids/families that aren’t seeing it at home, it’s good for them to see it elsewhere -- sort of starts to normalize it. That said, yeah, I can’t imagine requiring people to bring their own dishes. But I was thinking that (next year!) we could *encourage* people to, and reward them with a small cookie or something instead of handing them a plate. We are in a pretty diverse area, and I’m confident that some people (Europeans?!) will want to bring their own, especially for a cookie :) Hopefully we’ll try it next year and I’ll report back.

I’d love to hear what else people are trying, or what challenges they’ve run into... It can be tricky to do this at some big events without being seen as a pushy eco weirdo. But the more we do it, the less weird it will seem.

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