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Green Scene: Two Steps Back

Trying to help at a school picnic and avoid plastic is kind of the spider web of doom.

What's good enough for me isn't always good enough for others.

I kind of failed as far as plastic and procuring food for The Boy's seventh grade picnic tomorrow (the last day of school, at last). They were desperate for anything for the kids, and there was low parent participation for this event — the only thing they had was tomatoes. There's something like 150 seventh graders. I looked at the food list and volunteered to take brownies, some beverages, hot dogs and buns, and potato salad. I had some potatoes, and figured I'd just grab a package of hot dogs. It's $1 for eight, right?

Heh heh. Sure, for the plastic-wrapped hot dogs, it's $1. Sure, about the same for a plastic bag of bakery buns. Sodas? Juice? Cups? What to do? I went to the regular grocery store, , again pushing my cart through the aisles with increasing desperation. Can I send glass to a school function? I'd better not — liabilities, middle-school rough-housing, someone will get cut and they won't recycle the glass. Soda is bad for them. So is the fake fruit punch. Real orange juice comes in a gallon but has to be kept cold. Real juice costs a fortune. Water? They didn't ask for water. Water in plastic is a different kind of scourge. (did you know that 9 out of 10 plastic water bottles isn't recycled?)

Round and round went the internal argument. They also need cups. Should I get the plastic cups made of recycled materials? Guaranteed, no one will recycle them afterward. Paper cups? But they come in a plastic bag. I will get aluminum pans for the brownies and potato salad — there are recycled options there. But, oh, no! The aluminum trays are wrapped together in plastic. What if I get this one without plastic? Well, it's a turkey roasting pan. No plastic, but it's way too huge to bake brownies.

What can I get in bulk, to feed a lot of kids, not break the bank, and still avoid plastic? What can I do to minimize the impact, staying true to my cause? Budget, time crunch, other obligations, driving around ...

So I compromised. I bought more potatoes loose from a bin instead of a plastic bag. (They cost about twice as much or more then the plastic 10-lb. bag.) I bought a pack of buns and a pack of hot dogs. I bought two reasonable-sized aluminum pans strapped together with plastic. I bought a gallon jug of the least-worst fruit punch I could find (Hawaiian Punch, yuk) and a plastic-wrapped package of paper cups. I plan to mitigate the plastic by removing the plastic bags from the buns, pans and cups, and recycling those myself. I will package everything in foil or waxed paper, in a large paper grocery bag, and deliver it myself to the park, so it will stay cold and won't get too squashed by 13-year-old kids forced to lug supplies. I will add stick-on labels that say PLEASE RECYCLE ME to the juice and aluminum pans. Maybe someone will.

I'm making potato salad and the brownies tonight. But I must confess to pretty grueling feelings of failure and frustration. I have to just stop and step away from the guilt, I guess, because most of this school outing is out of my control. Geez, I can't prevent the world from using plastic! I could have gone to three different places to get exactly the right thing (whole wheat bakery buns, hot dog links, recyclable cardboard cups, or pretty baby unicorn horns).

But reality strikes: Who has that kind of time? Who, even the least considerate gas-guzzling tree-hater, can afford to blow money on expensive fuel to go to a couple of different stores for the right thing?

The bottom line for today's adventures is that sometimes you compromise, make the least-bad choices, and do what you can within your means. I hate — HATE — that my choices are so limited, however. I really hate that I have to choose between money and good food, or good food and perceived fears of hygiene (plastic = "cleaner food" to some people). I wish I could afford to feed a whole class of middle school kids a good meal that doesn't harm the planet or their bodies. I wish, I wish...

 Oh, the dreams of a bleeding-heart treehugger. How they flutter in the wind.

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Laura West June 16, 2011 at 04:10 PM
Congrats Julia on trying to stick with a plan and making the best choice you could in this situation. That your children have the concept of protecting the environment is great. I know that I wasn't green in middle school and I suspect that's true for you as well.
Jennie Van Heuit June 16, 2011 at 05:15 PM
Such a pain. I've been following your experience with interest. And I think you're right; it's really hard to do any sort of bulk buy without involving plastic. Argh!
James Chen June 16, 2011 at 05:44 PM
At my child's parties and functions, I gather the plastic cups and utensils and bring them home for washing and resuse.
Michele Kuttner June 16, 2011 at 08:20 PM
As a parent of two teens and a teacher here in Alameda, I really feel your pain. I'm on a mission to prove that schools can throw celebrations without creating lots of trash but it's such a challenge. It's especially hard when you are the lone eco nut :-) When I've tried to rein in the waste and make sure stuff is recycled at my own kids' middle school & high school events, I'm shocked at how unfamiliar parents are about what they can put in our green bins. At my elementary school we are working towards achieving a goal of reduced trash parties. I have resources and support to do this and we choose our battles. There is still plastic involved and always enough to make me cringe. No bottled water or Capri Sun type drinks. We serve drinks in large dispensers with paper cups composted. We set up and monitor a recycling station and encouraged families to bring their food offerings in reusable containers. We promoted the event without any paper flyers-all electronic. The end result for our last all family picnic with more than 300 attending? One bag of trash and the rest went into the blue and green bins to be recycled and composted. It's a lot of work but it feels so right.
Julia Park Tracey June 20, 2011 at 03:27 PM
Michele, that is awesome. I so appreciate your efforts. Thanks for posting -- it's definitely hard to feel as if you're the only eco nut in the bin. :)

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