A Zero Waste Picnic


This past Sunday, the environmental organization I work on with friends hosted a picnic potluck in Chicago, open to any and all who wanted to join. We gathered in a shady spot at a community garden, lush with overgrown squash plants and big plots of greens, to celebrate summer and just enjoy a meal with each other. And, of course, we thought through how to make it as low-waste as possible, always a bit of a fun challenge.

Picnics shouldn't be fussy, and neither should staying zero waste at them be. A picnic in a park with just yourself and your sweetheart/BFF/dog for company is, of course, easy enough to keep zero waste. Pop your meal in a reusable container, bring a water bottle and a fork, tuck some stone fruit in your bag for dessert, and you're done. A picnic with a larger crew and a potluck set-up requires a bit more planning, but we were so happy with how ours turned out.

In the invitation, we asked everyone to bring a dish to share, as well as a plate, fork, and water bottle for themselves. I made a simple summery vegetable pasta, as well as a few pitchers of tea that were conspicuously not as iced as would have been ideal. Other folks brought lemonade, quinoa salad, veggie dips, coleslaw, crumbles and scones, plums and berries, a killer beet tart, and a beautiful salad (pictured above!) that was entirely homegrown. It was a good spread, and the shared work of the potluck-style picnic meant that the whole affair felt easy enough on a hot day.

I loved seeing the creative ways that friends packaged up their food. Moira brought a bowl of potato salad covered with a simple sheet of Abeego beeswax food wrap. Amanda wrapped a big bowl of salad in the red scarf pictured below, furoshiki style (more on that, here). Other friends cut up a tart to fit in a metal tiffin, piled plums in a reusable produce bag, or simply brought food in a plastic container, which is lightweight enough not to be a pain to carry. And what would a zero waste picnic be without something in a mason jar, like the lemonade below?

Zero waste picnic with a furoshiki and mason jar

We made sure to have a few extra utensils and plates on hand for those who might have forgotten theirs. Empty jars served as extra drinking glasses that could go home with other owners if need be. We also kept an empty glass container nearby to take home for compost: things like peach pits, tart crusts, and other little scraps piled up slowly over the meal.

And, well, yes, there were some hiccups. It was a hot day, and we had too little extra water on hand. It turns out that lukewarm iced tea and lemonade do not, in a pinch, quite do the trick. There were a few too many heavy bags of supplies to tote to the site. We zero wasters sure do love our glass dishes, don't we? If this were to be a frequent occurrence, I might buy some lightweight reusable dishes (like these?) to keep around - lugging even a short stack of porcelain plates on public transportation is not an experience I am dying to have. Also, the party ended with us using a watering can to pour water on a few of the plates to get them clean enough to pack up and take home. I didn't mind - it was hot out and the water felt good! - but next time I could bring a dark-colored (read: stain-proof) towel to wrap them in, or better yet bring lidded containers like this for food instead.

Have you hosted any zero waste (ish) summer gatherings recently? Tips gleaned from them? Please spill, below. Happy end of July to you!