By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Summer brings so many excuses to luxuriate on the back patio with a icy lemonade or a cold beer and a bowl of peanuts.

There’s Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, the day with unusually good weather, sneak-out-of-work-early day, the Saturday we decide not to clean the house, the evening we invite the neighbors for margaritas…

But the season also comes with its special eco-unfriendly issues. It seems to spew a trail of plastic forks, Styrofoam cups, disposable table cloths, a mess of watermelon rinds and other waste.

Keeping our summer soirees green is not easy. Americans already heave off 1.3 pounds of food waste every day, according to the EPA. Toss in a summer potluck, shake, and out falls far more, for sure.

So here are a few ideas for consuming less and conserving more, while still keeping it balmy.

A Guatamalan tablecloth, like this one from Novica, adds panache and can be used for years.

1. Stop with the Styrofoam. Yes, it keeps things cold. So does an ice cube. So do cozies and you can reuse them. Disposable Styrofoam (is there another kind?) is just plastic wastefulness. You can live without it. Replace polystyrene cups with reusable plastic mugs or cups made from #1 or #2 plastics that can be recycled. Or serve beverages in aluminum cans, which can be recycled, or in paper cups. Eating indoors? Use glasses.

Getting the polystyrene out isn’t just our idea, it’s the first step that the Green Restaurant Association advises clients to take — because, they can.

2. Find a funky reusable table cloth that you really love. Check vintage shops where you can score old lace and linens, discount barns featuring last year’s patterned spreads or Fair Trade websites, like the Rainforest Site and Novica, depending on your style.

Many co-ops in developing countries make table linens that are affordable and will endow your affair with a personal touch — something a cheap plastic or paper table cover can never do. The key here is to be prepared, so you won’t be running out for throwaway accoutrements at the last minute.

Verterra leaf plates, completely compostable.

3.  Assemble a full table setting that’s entirely sustainable. Look for picnic plates in bamboo, which can be reused, or those made of compostable plant plastic or pressed paper.  Stalk brand plant plastic plates are available at many stores.

You can even get plates that are upcycled from fallen palm leaves and can be composted. We won’t swear that it’s completely sanitary but these Verterra plates, sold at Amazon and elsewhere, may be good for several uses. We’ve tried them and found that they can be washed and  go a few more rounds, depending on the party menu.

Next, get plant plastic utensils or use the ones in your drawer, if there’s enough to go around. Compostable utensils can be overpriced in retail stores. Look to the bulk market and you’ll find they cost no more than regular plastic. This material can be really sturdy — we’ve been using bioplastic utensils for years and no one even notices.

Durable stainless steel and glass serving dishes round out the table and keep it eco-friendly.

4. Get creative with green décor. It’s not just less toxic, it can be more interesting. We’re thinking of soy candles, paper lanterns and re-purposed vases. Get creative by painting old flower vases bold party colors. You can do the same with plain clay pots to arrange around the back deck. Fill them with cut flowers from the garden. Soy candles will add ambiance and fragrance, without emitting the soot churned out by petroleum-based wax candles. Find one in citronella and you’ve got a mosquito repellant. Paper lanterns, so natural and reusable.

If all this is too funky for your tastes, envision it a different way. Keep the paper lanterns, use solid color placemats and emphasize glass and stainless for a more modern look.

Your party doesn't have to end up like this.

5. Keep waste under control with a bin for recyclables and another for trash.  Simply slap a label on a waste bin or box: “Recyclables: Aluminum cans, plastic bottles” (if you’re serving soda or tea you may have some of these).

If you’re religious about recycling this will save you the ugly task of sorting trash post-party. A friend has a standing set of recycling bins in her pantry so she just points you there, even better.

Another quick way to slash plastic waste is to serve water and other beverages in pitchers or thermal dispensers. Even if you have to use paper cups, you’ve kept it biodegradable. Recycling is great, but it’s still second best.

6. Go with local food. Serving raw fruits and veggies keeps it sustainable, healthful and munchy.

Happily, summer delivers plenty of local produce choices. Cut up summer squash, broccoli, peppers, even greens. Add interesting cilantro, bean or hummus dips and you’re half done with the menu.

If you’ve got guests coming, treat them to your latest farmer’s market discoveries. When did they last have jicama, cactus or yellow watermelon?

Control waste by putting out just enough and keeping reserves in the fridge. The next day, transform your leftover uncooked veggies into a dinner stir fry.

If meat plays a role at your gathering, consider the sustainability aspects. Buy local and grassfed, if you can find it. You’ll be lowering the carbon footprint and staying away from antibiotic-dependent industrial meat.

Mini-mushroom burgers, courtesy Meatless Mondays.

It’s a downer topic, but if you’re grilling meat, you may want to take precautions against those carcinogenic  polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, that waft up from the fat splatter on your grill.

My instinct is to be generous here. How bad can it be if you’re only grilling ribs once in a while? But after reading all the precautions for making grilled meat safe as it can be (don’t burn it, but at the same time don’t undercook it; lay it on aluminum foil or better yet, wrap it entirely in aluminum; make sure its lean, trim the fat…), I think I’d rather roast corn wrapped in the husk.

‘Course there’s always poached fish. Baked beans. Potato salad. And dozens of other meatless options, which reminds us, if you’re looking for  vegetarian main dish options, take a look at Meatless Mondays (hey, works for Memorial Day).

Here’s a posting for mini mushroom burgers.

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