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By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Disposing of Disposables

Uploaded: Nov 10, 2019
Several comments on previous posts in this blog have pointed out that it wasn’t too long ago that we were much more accustomed to reusing things. For example: “I remember my mother darning socks, mending tears, turning collars on my Dad's shirt -- in fact he bought shirts which came with a spare collar for when the first was frayed.” Only in the last few decades have we become so accustomed to disposables and single-use items. We need to turn back the clock on this and re-establish earlier norms for the next generation. One simple thing we can all do is eliminate disposables at our parties, and most importantly parties with kids and teens.

The City of Palo Alto offers “Zero Waste party packs” to help with that. (If you don’t live in Palo Alto, read on, because you can set this up in your own city.) A “party pack” is a set of 24 place settings -- plates, bowls, cups, napkins, and utensils -- that is intended to be borrowed, cleaned, and returned. In Palo Alto, there are about two dozen of these made available by “Zero Waste Block Leaders” (ZWBL’s) serving neighborhoods across the city.

The program was first piloted about ten years ago in Barron Park, and was officially started in 2012. Wendy Hediger, Environmental Specialist with the City of Palo Alto’s Zero Waste Group, explains that the goal is to change mindsets. “We are trying to move people up a level on the reduce/reuse/recycle continuum.” She points to the City’s goal to achieve 90% diversion of waste by 2021, noting that “we cannot simply recycle and compost our way to Zero Waste”. (1)


Source: Palo Alto’s Zero Waste Progress Report

Rani Jayakumar, a ZWBL in Midtown who has been involved since the pilot program, has noticed that usage is really starting to take off. “This year, something has changed. They are much more widely adopted.” Karen Saxena, a ZWBL in the Barron Park neighborhood, agrees. “I actually had a queue this past summer. I had to remind people to bring them back by a certain time because someone else was coming to pick it up.” In response, Hediger has purchased a few more party packs to be made available this coming year. “We’re so busy, we have had to turn people away.”

The dishware in the party packs is made by Preserve Products out of 100% recycled #5 polypropylene plastic. Utensils are metal, and napkins are generally a washable cotton that doesn’t need ironing.


A 24-serving party pack (minus most of the napkins)

Residents use the party packs for everything from parties in their homes and yards to bigger picnics, school outings, block parties, church functions, even weddings. ZWBL Shannon McEntee of Evergreen Park says people really like them, and are “as enthusiastic on returning them as on borrowing them.” Many of the block leaders are acquiring more regular “customers”. And as ZWBL Vickie Martin observes “The more they get used, the more other people are exposed to them.” Around 20,000 people have used one to date.


Several party packs were used for an outdoor wedding last year.

Loss remains an issue, though it has decreased over time. McEntee laments “We are so used to throwing things away.” Hosts need to take steps to prevent loss. The ZWBLs suggest arranging the waste bins thoughtfully, posting signs nearby, and making an announcement in advance. They have seen that napkins and utensils (especially forks) more often go missing, so designated bins for these are important. The packs cost about $275 each, with the City spending about $6000 on the originals and about $1700 on replacements. Hediger views that as a good investment in helping residents adopt new behaviors.


Party pack bins will often have a checklist like this for reporting lost items.

ZWBL Pamela Chesavage says people who use the packs are “very diligent about washing and reorganizing, marking what’s missing”, but larger events can be difficult. Jayakumar once borrowed fourteen (!) packs for an elementary school event, and even with people monitoring the trash bins, some loss occurred. Nowadays many schools have their own party packs, and some classrooms keep their own in case of severe allergies. Volunteers offer to take home and wash the dishes after the events, and the kids all experience a new way of doing things. Carla Matlin, a ZWBL in Miranda Green notes that “It takes some time to change habits.” Starting early with the kids is key, normalizing sustainable habits when they are young.



Along those same lines, Hediger is really happy with a program across all of the elementary schools to switch to reusable utensils, clamshells, and trays for school lunches. Laurie Shea, an instructional aid at Walter Hays Elementary, notes “The trash has been limited immensely.” Parent Joslyn Leve says “They are learning that our resources are limited. They are learning that you don’t just take something and throw it away after use.”

The Zero Waste party packs are generally popular and easy to use, but the hosts do get occasional feedback on how to improve them. Some customers would like something fancier or more resistant to sharp knives. The City looked into using Corel, but it was more expensive as well as heavier. Some residents have asked for smaller plates, or smaller cups, or table cloths, and Hediger continues to look at how best to evolve the party packs. In the meantime, Chesavage, who does some party planning on the side, recommends people use white fabric tablecloths, which look great, are reusable, and are very easy to clean with bleach.


This “how to use” primer comes with the party packs

The biggest waste issue that Chesavage sees at parties is leftover food. She strongly encourages hosts to try to “right size” the amount of food they offer, and to have a plan for what to do with leftovers. Chesavage suggests providing take-home boxes for the guests and bringing full trays to a place like Ecumenical Hunger, after first calling ahead. She also has some experience with an app called Olio, which is like freecycling for food. You post a picture of extra food you have available and people can come by to pick it up.

Palo Alto’s Hediger notes that there are many ways people can reduce their use of disposables. She cites the recent Halloween costume swap as a good example, and also sees ways that people might share more tools, for example, through Nextdoor or other neighborhood connections. Matlin says that changes take time, but they do happen, highlighting how many people now bring their own grocery bags to stores and compost their food waste, while that wasn’t the case just a few years ago. The Zero Waste Block Leaders are enthusiastic about the response they are seeing to the party packs, and are encouraged for the future. Chesavage says she is “just thankful that these exist”. Matlin volunteered in order to be “more involved in local community, and be more mindful of how we use our resources,” and is glad to be able to help others do the same.

When you next find yourself looking at buying a stack of disposable plates or cups, think if you might instead use a Zero Waste party pack. Palo Alto offers more information about zero-waste party planning here.

Notes and References
1. The city is moving to a more intuitive metric, pounds of waste per person per day, as shown here, but I don’t believe goals have been set yet for this metric.



Current Climate Data (September/October 2019)
This was the warmest global September ever measured (140 years of measurements), and second warmest year-to-date (January - September) ever.

Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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Comments

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Guest, a resident of College Terrace,
on Nov 10, 2019 at 8:53 am

"This was the warmest global September ever measured (140 years of measurements), and second warmest year-to-date (January - September) ever."

Good Lord... Please help our children and grandchildren, as we are apparently unwilling to.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 10, 2019 at 9:10 am

@Guest

What on earth makes you think we are not?

I have said for many years that we should not be buying stuff that is used only once and then thrown out. In our home we hardly use any disposables on a regular basis and definitely not for large gatherings. We have plastic for outdoor use and china for sitdown gatherings.

Before you judge others, perhaps you should be wary of pointing a finger at others.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by artistic endeavors, a resident of Greater Miranda,
on Nov 10, 2019 at 9:42 am

"This was the warmest global September ever measured (140 years of measurements), and second warmest year-to-date (January - September) ever."


I'm with Guest (though I'm not putting words in her mouth like @resident does.)

Hottest September ever. Saving a couple hundred disposable plates a year will not effect the temperature in September 2020, 2030, 2040, or 2050.

If the 'feelgood' of saving a couple plastic or paper plates allows someone to assuage their guilt and not fully support the change needed, then those paper plates are part of the disaster we're leaving for future generations.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 10, 2019 at 2:25 pm

Posted by artistic endeavors, a resident of Greater Miranda,

>> Hottest September ever. Saving a couple hundred disposable plates a year will not effect the temperature

I'm not sure if there is an official name for this paradox, but, sure, in any election, one single vote seldom matters. A couple of hundred plates don't matter in the grand sweep of history. etc, etc, millions of times. Yet, a couple hundred billion plates are significant, a couple hundred million votes are significant.

Looked at from a different perspective, "virtue is its own reward"



 +   2 people like this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 10, 2019 at 2:35 pm

If each of us don't do what we can to make a little difference, then it is unlikely that a large number of us are going to make any change that will make a difference. Change comes because people do what they can, not because of marches, or political speeches, or laws, but because individual people change their habits.

If we don't start with changes in our own home and allow ourselves to cater to the whims of big business or governments, then why bother. If all of us stop buying plastic the way it has been marketed since the 60s, it will make more of a difference than any legislation.

If we can take our reusable bags to grocery stores then we can wash a few extras after a party. (Mind you, not sure about how much water is used to clean those party packs).


 +   5 people like this
Posted by big mama, a resident of Midtown,
on Nov 10, 2019 at 4:23 pm

Count me with artistic. I recall Malcolm gladwell, and the second season of his podcast talking about this kind of thing. For example he said: once somebody voted for Obama, they felt they did not have to vote for a minority or a woman in the future, that they had already checked that box.

Once somebody saves a few paper plates, maybe they're less interested in fighting for renewables and saving the planet instead of burning fossil fuels.

I believe folks have to fight for the big win, and not get caught up in the trivial.

Of course, we should do both.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center,
on Nov 10, 2019 at 4:54 pm

Neal is a registered user.

I'll stop using paper plates and plastic cups when mothers stop using disposable diapers.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 10, 2019 at 6:07 pm

@ Neal
And what about fathers using disposable diapers? Should they get a free pass or do you think it is only women who change the baby or do the laundry?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Exxon sez, a resident of Woodside,
on Nov 10, 2019 at 8:14 pm

Take the time and money applied to plastic cups and use it instead to elect politicians who will get us off fossil fuels.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown,
on Nov 11, 2019 at 8:40 am

I was gonna refrain from posting here because the blogger is friendly enough, and I didn't want to get all negative over the groupthink/propaganda-fueled virtue signaling and navel-gazing that runs rampant in Palo Alto and CA at large.

What artistic and big mama describe is the phenomenon known as *moral licensing*. Its what allows a smug Los Altos Hills resident to park her Escalade at the Trader Joe's parking lot and pull out the tote bags (which she spent tons of electricity and water to wash in her state-of-the-art washing machine) in smug reassurance that she's fighting the good war against the evil scourge of plastic and saving the environment and the world because she has "reusable" tote bags instead of those evil, evil plastic bags.

All of these zero waste measures are infinitesimal when faced with the big picture, and I find the holier-than-thou banning of this and that, the endless environmental legislating, and acting like we are on some enlightened path by annihilating everything plastic, to be rather irksome.

I may have a nihilistic outlook but if climate change is man-made then we are all part of the "crisis" simply because we are all humans who always crave more and more and who will always consume and destroy natural resources because that is what we are.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Marc, a resident of Midtown,
on Nov 11, 2019 at 8:49 am

Why?

"...or example: “I remember my mother darning socks, mending tears, turning collars on my Dad's shirt -- in fact he bought shirts which came with a spare collar for when the first was frayed." Only in the last few decades have we become so accustomed to disposables and single-use items. We need to turn back the clock on this and re-establish earlier norms for the next generation...."

Sorry, not just the last few decades, maybe for the last 70 years this has been going on.

I think this fantasy of darning your socks, making your own bread, having housewives go to the local butcher and getting their meat wrapped in butcher's paper and carrying it home s just not going to happen.

/marc


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Common sense, a resident of another community,
on Nov 11, 2019 at 10:34 am

Common sense is a registered user.

Keep in mind the economics behind throw-away consumption of durable goods. (A habit much of which, despite Marc's opinion above, emerged far more recently than 70 years ago).

People reused and repaired when replacement was far more expensive than today. People forget now that ordinary clothing items were pricier before shifting of the labor-intensive assembly tasks to cheaper international labor markets made them commodities. That shift happened within memory of the average Palo Altan. Until a few decades ago, no one thought of discarding a houshold electronic device (radio, TV, tape recorder) because they were expensive to buy, and built for repair (which was a whole secondary industry). Now people discard home computers when they get new ones, and small entertainment appliances are cheaper than movie tickets. Soft-drink bottles had always carried a deposit, and been reused by bottlers (why waste a durable container)? until a short interlude when "no deposit, no return" was touted as a consumer convenience, whereupon waste concerns brought back bottle deposits, but now as state laws rather than bottlers' protocol.

A lot of the behavior is just shaped by the costs consumers encounter.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Nov 11, 2019 at 2:28 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Wow. Your comments are easily the best part of this blog! So many interesting thoughts here.
- What is the relative impact of individual action vs marching vs voting vs political speeches vs laws?
- Is it inherent in human behavior to consume and destroy? Is it a fantasy to think we could return to sustainable living?
- Do pricing signals change our behavior, and how much? What impact could future pricing signals have?
- Aren’t there bigger fish to fry, like diapers? Shouldn’t we wait for action there? (cf similar arguments about India and China)
- What are the water implications of using reusables?

I’ll answer the easy questions :)

According to a few sources I saw, a decent amount of water is used to produce paper dishware, on the order of quarts or gallons for one paper cup or plate. In contrast, a dishwasher load uses around 5 gallons. So reusables are a win in terms of water.

Diapers are indeed a big source of residential waste. But not the biggest. Below is the composition of residential trash in Palo Alto, from a 2017 study. (Commercial trash is obviously pretty different.)



So if you want to point fingers, you are probably better off saying “I won’t stop using paper plates and plastic cups until everyone is composting.” Or maybe you want to wait for adoption of both composting and cloth diapers. Which brings me to my larger point, which is that I am pretty confident that finger pointing is not a winning strategy for managing our environment.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Alice Barr, a resident of Monroe Park,
on Nov 11, 2019 at 7:20 pm

"What is the relative impact of individual action vs marching vs voting vs political speeches vs laws?"

All good, just don't lose track of the big picture.

Recent tactics of deniers fall into a couple catagories: doomerism, and distraction. Diapers are distracting. Important in their own way, of course.

But focus on just how hot the planet is, and will be.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown,
on Nov 11, 2019 at 10:35 pm

I was not saying that humans are inherently destructive, but that the concept of climate change being "manmade" implies that we are, unless you're indeed willing to engage in finger pointing...


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Live/Eat Responsibly, a resident of Community Center,
on Nov 12, 2019 at 11:30 am

Fast food outlets & dining take-out are also major contributors to this ongoing problem.

Everyone should keep a wooden bowl & spoon for their outside dining needs & wrap their leftovers or lunches in ti-leaves.

Artistic presentation of food is unimportant & irrelevant. Once chewed & digested, it is visually insignificant.

Only fools pay big money for artistic & costly dining experiences.

Walk with the Buddha & keep it simple...he did not contribute to global warming or plastic wastes floating in the ocean.

You can do the same by avoiding/eliminating processed foods and commercially-grown meat products.

Tofu + brown rice & a garden salad OR a diet of rice & beans will cover most nutritional needs along with some FRESH fruit.

Eating crappy food (i.e. fast/processed) = a crappy environment. DUH


 +  Like this comment
Posted by BahHumbugbutGreen, a resident of Community Center,
on Nov 12, 2019 at 1:01 pm

I was just thinking about the shear waste of holiday cards. I think I won't send any this year. They wind up right in the trash.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 12, 2019 at 1:05 pm

"Edible Food Scraps". This one makes me sigh. It sounds so easy to eliminate it, and, at times when I'm preparing and eating food for myself, there is virtually no waste. Unfortunately, the more people who are being served, including, for example, the whole family or extended family at Thanksgiving, the more waste there is. I've struggled for decades with this. Now, unlike some people, I don't fret over wasted potatoes or rice. But, expensive, high-value food that embodies a lot of energy, water, etc., and, money, shouldn't be wasted, right? Sounds easy. Happy Thanksgiving!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 12, 2019 at 1:29 pm

Food scraps or leftovers? One man's leftovers is another man's soup.

Unless the food has been put on a plate, the leftover food makes great soups, stews, casseroles, etc.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Don Keedick, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Nov 12, 2019 at 1:53 pm

Don Keedick is a registered user.

Im all for reducing trash.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Diapers, a resident of another community,
on Nov 12, 2019 at 5:24 pm

The problem with diapers is that disposable are not any worse for the environment than washable/reusable. It takes at least two cycles with today's HE machines to get diapers clean, not to mention all the detergent needed. Pick up services while likely more efficient, still have to travel to your house every week to do pickups/drop offs. Unfortunately they're equally bad.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Nov 14, 2019 at 9:19 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Diapers -- That is a great point. I read about a hybrid diaper, where you dispose of and/or wash the liner separately. Maybe that is better? I don't know. I also wonder what we should ideally be doing about pet waste. I'm guessing disposing of it in our sewers is best (and tossing the bag), but I don't know if that's true, and I don't know how practical that is. (Would people even do it?) Anyway, great comment, thanks.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by eileen , a resident of another community,
on Nov 14, 2019 at 4:19 pm

I have absolutely no deep, meaningful, environmentally significant comments to make about the party packs but I went to a picnic where we used one. I'll just say that the stuff looks great, the plates and bowls were easy to hold, napkins were nice, flatware was clean, and it was easy to unpack, rinse and repack. I don't even own picnic stuff in sufficient numbers. If I planned a picnic the party pack would be no waste, no trip to the store to purchase or Web purchase/delivery, no plastic being produced just for me. All very easy with no downside. Small stuff, but so what?


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Live/Eat Responsibly, a resident of Community Center,
on Nov 16, 2019 at 10:21 am

"Edible Food Scraps" (providing they are not spoiled or contaminated) could be used to feed the homeless & poor people.

Palo Alto has some pretty decent restaurants & this option would provide a viable dining opportunity for those who cannot afford to eat in certain establishments.



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