A’s class had a Valentine’s Day party yesterday, and I volunteered myself as the PITA zero waste parent. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but here’s what we did yesterday.
I loaded up our little red wagon with my almost-zero waste party supplies:
3 boxes of Ikea’s inexpensive glasses, leftover from my wedding 11 years ago – We bought 200 of them because it was less expensive than renting glasses, and we’ve been using them for parties ever since. Ikea has discontinued the glasses I have, but this new style costs about 25 cents per glass and is stackable, an improvement over my older glasses.
1 basket of folded, clean cloth napkins, collected from garage sales and thrift stores, no more than 50 cents each.
1 basket to hold dirty napkins. I’ve learned from experience that I don’t want the dirty napkins piled on top of the unused clean napkins in their basket. I brought A’s Valentines to school in this basket, which is why it’s not empty in the photo.
1 bucket for chicken scraps – I have a plastic bucket with a tight lid that I got for free from the bulk department of our local grocery store.
1 bucket for compost – I have a galvanized metal bucket with a tight lid from our local hardware store. I use this at home to store our food waste before until it’s degraded enough that our neighborhood rats won’t eat it. I have to give it a quick scrub before I bring it to school, since the fragrance of compost isn’t a huge hit at most parties.
The red wagon comes in handy because I have to park across the street and down a ways from the school. Maybe someday they’ll have a loading zone for zero waste party supply drop-offs, or better yet, they’ll just have these supplies inside the school building for everyone to use. For now, I have to be prepared to haul these things a good distance, across some mud and uneven ground; the wagon helps me do that all in style.
Other parents sent in cupcakes, compostable plates, and juice in cartons (A’s teacher is collecting 1/2 gallon cartons for a project at school, so these will be re-used for that). I brought in a tray of pink heart onigiri – Plain old short grain white rice colored with some beet juice, then pressed into a heart-shaped mold while hot. These were always popular with our homeschool crowd, but it seems that the school-schooled kids we’re hanging with this year are looking for something different in their school party treats; I came home with leftovers (a first), but a few of the kids tried them, and some of them loved these and asked for the recipe.
We set the party treats up in the classroom and the kids helped themselves, then brought their plates and leftovers back for sorting into the chicken scrap and compost buckets – I was really impressed with them! When I brought these buckets in for the Halloween party, not everyone wanted to put their plates and food scraps into the buckets, and I fished a lot of good things out of the regular trash can. This time, everyone was on it! There were a few excited questions about what would happen to the plates and how the chickens could turn the food scraps into eggs. Everyone was a bit sad to learn that the chickens would not lay cupcake-flavored eggs if they ate the leftover cupcakes. I love this part of talking about waste with kids – The idea that leftovers have value, that a class party can join the compost-soil-vegetable garden loop or the food scraps-chickens-eggs-breakfast loop makes instant sense to them, and they really do get excited about that. And that makes me happy.
After the kids sorted out their plates and food scraps, I emptied the last bits of juice from their glasses, then packed the dirty glasses back into the cardboard boxes the glasses came in – After 11 years of storage and use, these original boxes are still in great shape. I’m sure this part may be too much for my germaphobe friends, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t started any epidemics by storing dry but dirty glasses in the same boxes that they’ll go into once they’re clean again. What can I say? I’m just not all that worried about germs. In fact, and I’ll save this for another post, I think we Americans, as in United States of Americans, are doing ourselves more harm than good, in many ways, because our society seems convinced that humans are better off in sterile environments. Anyway, back to the class party – I packed the dirty glasses back up, closed the buckets up and headed out into the rain. The trip out is always a bit harder to manage, on account of the compost and chicken buckets. Fortunately, the parent who organized the class party volunteered to help; without her carrying the buckets, I would have needed to make two trips.
In the end, here’s what we had that couldn’t be recycled or reused:
20 foil cupcake liners – I only brought 2 of these home; the others went into the classroom trash can.
2 non-recyclable plastic pull-off seals from the cartons of juice. Technically, since my kids are currently using these as hats for their dolls, they’re not waste just yet.
2 non-recyclable plastic wrappers from the compostable plates.
Room for improvement:
I could lower my own carbon footprint if only I had a cargo bicycle to get me back and forth from home and school. I’ve been dreaming of an Xtracycle or Surly Big Dummy with a Stokemonkey, or a Madsen bucket bike with a hub motor – Something that would get me, 2 kids, 2 small dogs, groceries, chicken feed, and all our other gear up and down our hilly island roads. I’m convinced this is possible, but I’ve got some wrinkles to work out before I can realize my car-lite plans. More about that in another post…
Next time, we could ask the volunteer baker of class treats to use compostable paper liners, or no liners at all, for the cupcakes/treats.
A beverage without any packaging would be great – Not everyone has the time and containers necessary to put together and deliver a big old jug of homemade lemonade or other beverage, but we’ve seen it done at other parties.
Local food would be delicious and have a lower carbon footprint, of course.
Reusable plates and utensils would be lovely. The trick, of course, is in finding something durable enough for travel that is also free of lead and nasty chemicals. The problem with buying plates from thrift shops is that, unless you test everything as you shop (using an infallible instant-results test kit, which I’m not sure even exists), there’s no way to guarantee lead-free glazes, and plastic dinnerware has its own safety issues. The compostable plates we used yesterday were made of wheat straw, designed to break down in home compost systems, but they’re made in China. The label says that it’s a zero carbon footprint product, since the company offsets their impact, but still – Shipping compostable plates from China to the US seems a bit high impact to me. As always, there are pros and cons to pretty much everything.
I’m not mentioning the Valentines the kids brought in for each other, but it’s an interesting thing to think about. A went through the Valentine’s Day ideas at The Crafty Crow and decided to make some felted wool fortune cookies. We typed the fortunes up on our new-to-us-but-really-quite-old Royal De Luxe typewriter, a gift from one of my wonderful sisters, who found it abandoned in the bushes 10 years ago. A packed each wool cookie into a homemade construction paper envelope with a foil-wrapped chocolate heart. Except for the chocolate hearts, we had all of the supplies in our house, mostly thanks to lucky Freecycle scores. But there is no getting around the fact that we are well trained to equate celebrations with giving and receiving of goods. I think this impulse runs deep in human nature, and we’re not likely to jettison our gift giving ways. Instead of outlawing tangible tokens of affection, or making people feel bad about this desire to create and share, I think we could instead focus on shifting to more sustainable gifts along with gifts like shared time, activities, etc. But what exactly would a more sustainable child’s Valentine look like? This is one of those luxury questions, asked by someone living in a culture of obscene plenty.
For now, how about you – Do you have any zero waste classroom party tips to pass on? Ideas on how to combine our human desire to give gifts with a more sustainable lifestyle? Suggestions? Questions?