12 October 2015

Sustainable catering

Last month Tyson and I organised the catering for a one-day retreat.

Back in May I wrote about taking cutlery and crockery from home to attend a conference, to avoid using the disposables provided. In fairness to the organisers of that conference, I should have noted that they were all volunteers (some of whom read this blog) and that they had made the effort to provide compostable disposables, which cost quite a bit more.

So when it was our turn to cater, we thought we had better listen to my own critique and aim for sustainable catering. Primarily, this meant not using disposable cups, plates or cutlery. We were ready to wash dishes ourselves, but set the kitchen up so others could easily wash or dry. We found that the friendly retreat participants were mostly happy to pop into the kitchen and do it themselves.

The central kitchen sink had its own hot water system. We opted not to turn it on and have it run all day, but rather to use water from the urn (a wall unit that was permanently on anyway) to top up the sinks. We provided Fair-Trade tea and coffee. We also offered a compost bin, to reduce the amount of food waste going into landfill and use it instead for our garden.

Initial Time: The set-up time was no greater. A little extra time for thinking around how to do it, perhaps.
Initial Cost: Zero. The cost of a few teaspoons of washing up liquid and laundry powder is negligible. There was a cost saving in not purchasing single-use items.
Ongoing time or cost commitment: 
Actually washing dishes was a small part of our day, shared between the three of us running the kitchen and many of the retreat participants. The chatter around the kitchen sink was a lovely community-building space.

There were small follow-up tasks, like carting the compost home to put into our compost tumbler and putting the tea-towels through the wash, but these were very minor within the overall tasks of organising the food.
Impact: As discussed in May, Australians use about 2.7 million disposable cups a day, and probably nearly as many plates and pieces of cutlery. In China it is disposable chopsticks that are a problem - causing deforestation to keep up with demand for tens of millions of chopsticks each year.

Catering for thirty people, we saved from both production and disposal around thirty dinner plates, thirty dessert plates, thirty bowls, sixty coffee cups, fifteen water cups, sixty spoons, thirty forks, and ten or so knives. That's a small dent in the millions used each day, but a dent none the less. 

And as often happens when we take an action in a public space like this, even quietly, it generated quite a few conversations and hopefully set people thinking at least a little about their consumption and disposal.

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