Zero waste in a throw-away culture

Eric and I chaperoned the high school homecoming dance on Saturday, and I went from having no idea what I was going to write about today to having it all become crystal clear in a matter of hours.

Eric and I are both introverts, so when we were asked, we said yes, but only if we could work together and if we had an actual job. We got assigned the punch table, and the school staff kept alternating between thanking us and apologizing because apparently that’s a job no one usually wants.


I don’t have art for this post, so here’s a photo of a trash/recycling bin we saw at Crater Lake this summer.

It’s interesting being an aspiring zero waster in a world that really just isn’t. There’s a throw-away culture that’s generally obvious (oh look, another disposable coffee cup), but it’s events like these that make me realize just how far we collectively have to go to overcome that mindset of “toss and forget.”

The punch table was covered with a plastic tablecloth. There were two glass punchbowls and stainless steel ladles (nice touch) and three reusable plastic serving trays. Paper napkins. Confetti everywhere.

Countless boxes of 2-liter soda bottles for “punch” and a dozen boxes of cookies. Hundreds of paper cups.

The Dollar Store is awesome!, said the senior class advisor as we surveyed the scene.


We got to work, setting out cookies on platters (I had to wear plastic gloves to handle the food) and making punch (no gloves required, weird). My first thought was to wear the same pair of gloves all night, but they were hot and gross. Do you think I can just reuse the same ones?, I asked Eric, and he was like, do it. 

So I did. But it was a small victory compared to what came next.

Which was simply that kids would come and grab punch and cookies (not a lot of napkins were used, I noticed) and then come back for new cups of punch and more cookies. I think. We were so busy that I didn’t pay attention. Fun fact: We were supposed to be on guard against any potential punch spiking, so we solved THAT little issue by serving it ourselves. But since it flew off the table as fast as we could pour it — I was actually just handing it to kids at several points — that was the least of our worries.

We ran out of cups with an hour to go. Eric had to find us more. Out of all of those cups and all of those kids, I had only one ask if I would refill his cup or if he had to take a new one. I was like, I will TOTALLY refill your cup!, and then I had another kid hand me his too, so I had a grand total of two requests.

We were wiped out of cookies and punch with 15 minutes to go, so we started cleaning up. I knew it was going to be bad but had been distracted by the sheer volume of kids lining up at our table. Eric went around collecting the empty and half-filled cups of punch littering the place, and I tried to sort out the rest. The pop bottles were easy — in Oregon they have a 5¢ refund, but apparently the science class uses them to make rockets, so … we’ll hope the bottles don’t get destroyed in the process and eventually returned, but that’s kind of out of my hands. They got loaded up to take to the science department. Next the punch bowls and ladles went back to the kitchen. The rest of it was unceremoniously dumped.

Oh, my heart.

It’s easy to get all high and mighty at these events: I would have gone to the rental center for reusable cups! We could have gotten kegs of pop instead of making punch! Surely someone has a sheet or something we could have used as a tablecloth, and since no one used the paper napkins anyway, that could have been avoided all together! The lunch staff could wash everything for us Monday and then I’d have returned all that to the rental place!

The reality: You’d need collection points for the cups and then would have to count to make sure they were all there. And probably have brooms handy for the inevitable breakage. The lunch staff is already too busy as it is, and an extra load of a thousand cups would probably not be welcome. Kids are planning these events on limited school budgets and are trying to go cheap and easy.

So I don’t know where that leaves us. I can see reusables for a wedding or reception (and I’ll get to test my theory this June when we’re planning Abby’s grad party). But for a function with over a thousand people? Maybe I just lack imagination.

Bonus story: Before the dance, we hit our favorite pizza place for a slice to sustain us for our work ahead. I chose Canadian bacon and pineapple and Eric got the pepperoni right next to it, because even our pizza is in love. Anyway, the kid behind the counter was like, let me get you a box, and Eric was like, nah, we’ll just take it on that paper slip, and she was kind of horrified, but just because we might burn ourselves. The box is small! she said, and Eric was like, nope, we’re good. And then he gave me a look that just made me laugh — he was so proud of himself. We’re going to be the coolest kids on the block, walking around with our pizza slices, I told him, and he was like, just doing our part.

I love it when I’m not the only crazy one. P.S. Our last trash collection: Less than one bag of garbage and less than one bin of recycling for two weeks. Yay!

Next up: My six-month anniversary of the project is Oct. 15, and I’ve got a lot of sorting and updating to do. (And wow, that came fast.)

17 Responses to Zero waste in a throw-away culture

  1. This reminds me of an opposite experience I had at a wedding where we used real glassware. It was rented from the local liquor store that provided the wine, and we (as friends of the bride and groom) agreed to the task of collecting the glasses and returning them to the store the next day. What we didn’t realize was that although the glasses had to be returned clean, the catering staff wouldn’t wash them for us in the dishwashers because it wasn’t their glassware. So we ended up with boxes and boxes of dirty glasses in our car. We also had a pair of wedding guests we were hosting overnight. AND we were living in London where we had no dishwasher!

    We hauled all the boxes up to our 3rd floor flat, and we and the other two guests stayed up late washing and drying all the glasses by hand. At the time I was really annoyed (not to mention tired), although in retrospect it’s a funny memory and made for an enjoyable time getting to know our overnight guests.

    I suppose this illustrates the types of challenges that come with zero waste options at a big event. In our case, the problem was a lack of communication, as well as our friends doing a wedding on a budget instead of hiring all the catering – wine and glasses included – from the same company. That being said, though, it was all fine in the end; it was just a late night of washing dishes. But for that option to be possible requires a community effort, and a community of people willing to devote their time in that way – to tasks that might seem menial and may be a lot more hassle than a bunch of plastic cups.

    • I’m in the UK. Everytime we have hired or borrowed glasses from an off licence (liquor store) we have had to wash them beforehand as well. Not just because I am fussy but because they were horrible!

        • …What I mean is that I’ve wondered since then if maybe they would have been washed by the off license, and we were wasting our time, but now I suspect not! At least we weren’t the people returning the dirty glasses.

    • Oh, wow, that sounds TERRIBLE but does make a great story! Your friends were lucky to have you! I think when we do Abby’s grad party, we’ll be using pint jars, since I have a bunch already.

  2. I recently went to the Common Ground Fair in Unity, ME where, all around the fairgrounds, they have garbage stations set up with recycling bins, garbage bins, and (I believe) bins for food to be thrown away. All the food vendors are supposed to use recyclable or compostable food trays, cups, etc. Then you can trade hours worked around the fair for free passes into the fair, so some friends and I worked in their recycling center. All the garbage, recyclables and food were brought in, dumped on large tables and sorted by the volunteers. The food and the compostable containers went right into the compost piles, the recyclable items went to the appropriate containers and the rest went into the garbage – most of which were items brought from outside the fairgrounds like juice boxes, pudding cups and chip bags. There were plenty of volunteers, it wasn’t as gross as you might think and it really taught us a lesson on what is possible with some effort and planning.

  3. If you’re regularly involved in the school, it might be worth bringing up. I suspect that there are students who are of the mindset to reduce waste and would be willing to pitch in to wash dishes or come up with creative alternatives. I think there are a lot of people who care about these issues but don’t want to be “that guy” during planning conversations. If someone is brave enough to bring it up, others might be willing to support the idea. As a fellow introvert and new parent, I would gladly volunteer to wash a few hundred rented dishes after a school event rather than have to interact with people all night.

    Around here (Louisiana), it’s super common for schools to produce reusable cups (plastic, unfortunately, in part because they’re often thrown from parade floats and need to be able to safely bounce) with the school name and mascot on them. Kids and parents get/use them at events and then take them home to reuse. Maybe a variation on that theme would work for future events? It’s pricier, but it’s also a fun gift that could be partially covered by other parts of the even budget.

    • Oh, I’m sure there’s an eco club or something already at the high school, it’s just getting people to pitch in that’s the problem. It would certainly be a good life-lesson, putting your money where your mouth is, to have to clean up like that. (And word up, I would happily wash dishes too for exactly the same reason!)

      Anyway, all food for thought. You’d definitely need a committee for a function this large in order to pull off a minimal waste event. And a major mindset shift. I wasn’t in on the planning part or I would have tried to find at least some kind of compromise. And sadly, no, I don’t volunteer much because of my schedule.

      • First off, no guilt on the not volunteering much front. You volunteer way more than most people I know!

        Second, if you’re feeling ambitious, I think you might get somewhere with just a quick response to whoever got you in to volunteer with a note that says thank you, we had a lot of fun, but 1.) there was a lot of waste, 2.) it’s bad for the environment and for the budget, 3.) if there’s an eco club at the school, maybe they’d like to pitch in to come up with an alternative for the next dance, and 4.) if they do, you’d be happy to help out a bit with washing up (or planning, or whatever you’d help with that isn’t too time consuming).

        It won’t change the world, but it might plant a seed for them to think about next time.

          • The comments seem to be playing up (or it’s just me) but my comment re the deposit on the cups was meant for gepee! But I agree with V about planting a seed, sometimes that’s all it takes to slowly create change. One step at a time I suppose!

  4. I have seen this done on a small scale so not sure it would work on a large scale, each person puts their name on the cup with a permanent marker and told that that is their cup for the night. No extras. That way at least you wouldn’t have people using several cups each destined for landfill. Your story made me feel ill because I see it being duplicated worldwide at millions of functions everywhere. Yes a long long way to go.

    • Yeah, that’s the problem — how do you convince several hundred kids to keep their cups while they’re at a dance? Where would they put them when not in use? Could something like V’s idea of logo cups be sold to kids to encouraged them to reuse them?

      It’s possible, just really hard. It would have to be a very purpose-driven event and have the support of everyone involved.

      And yeah, it made me sick too. I’m curious how much garbage is generated by events like that each year, although how you’d figure that out I have no idea. It’s one of those times where I felt like my own accomplishments were quite small in comparison to the larger picture. Never a comfortable feeling.

  5. Really not easy to solve this problem …
    something that came to my mind, perhaps not possible at school events, but here in Germany at christmas markets, for example, they have one type of reusable cup designed for this special market that all vendors use. If you buy mulled wine or something else, you have to give a really big … security? …not sure about the word … for the cup, something like 10 Euros. Then you can keep the cup if you like, or return it at any stall and get the security back.
    I have seen similar at many events, I think apart from the other problems like the washing up afterwards, it needs to hurt moneywise for people – not only kids – to look after reusable cups.

  6. I also thought lately how much more one realizes the amount of garbage all around when one starts trying to produce less waste. I have small side job delivering newspapers and letters, so every morning I unwrap my packages of newspapers all wrapped in plastic and only recently noticed HOW MUCH PLASTIC that is …. more plastic waste than I myself produced even without zero waste aspirations. Now, the newspapers have to be packaged so that everyone gets the right amount needed for their special round, and the plastic also protects on rainy days, so I don’t have any idea how to do it different – and if I had, I of course have no influence whatever on how this is done.
    But really, soooo much plastic everywhere ….

    Two comments because still the “post comment”-button vanishes if a comment is to long ….

    • I LOVE the idea of a cup deposit — not sure how that would work in a school setting, but what a great way to encourage reuse!

      And I think you’re right: Once you start paying attention to trash, you notice it EVERYWHERE. (And yes, our newspaper is just as bad — the amount of plastic used for delivery is just sick.)

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