Where I live in New York City, there are systems in place to help me be environmentally conscious. For example, sanitation services provide houses and apartment buildings with both recycling and compost bins which are collected weekly. It is relatively easy for me to cut my waste that goes into landfills to a fraction of what it was a decade ago.

After participating in the Climate Crisis March on September 20th, I felt compelled to go further than I had before in reducing my footprint. I thought about ways I had tried to make change, only to give up when my initial efforts did not yield solutions. Could I now go further in pursuing solutions that aren’t as convenient as recycling and composting?

Soon after, I had a chance to test this out while planning a going-away party for myself in Andes, New York, a place in the Catskills where I have a vacation home (I am moving from Brooklyn to Washington State in December). 

The beautiful venue for my party is Willow Drey Farm. There are dishes, cutlery and glasses enough for everyone. But I was told that the cleanup needs to happen right after the party because there will be an event the next day. I contemplated using throwaway plates and cutlery but knew I could only justify this option if I used environmentally friendly disposables.

It would not be enough to simply buy compostable or biodegradable products. I also needed to ensure that they were disposed of properly. Otherwise they will not be broken down and will add to landfill problems. Proper disposal, however, is easier said than done.

I researched online the meaning of compostable and biodegradable products. The first thing I discovered was that most products labeled “biodegradable” and “compostable” cannot be recycled. So I needed to find other ways to dispose of them.

I chose to go with biodegradable and compostable cutlery and plates.  The plates were unbleached, dye free and made of naturally discarded sugar cane. They can be broken down in a home compost within a year. However, it is unclear whether they are allowed to be placed in the compost bin outside my Brooklyn home. So, if turns out they aren’t accepted in the New York City compost bins, I’ll find a friend with a personal compost upstate who will accept them.

The biodegradable cutlery are cornstarch based and can be composted in a natural environment after 6 months. Great, I thought, I’ll bury them on my land upstate – then return to see if, in fact, they break down within a year. (I am skeptical because a friend once buried a compostable golf tee that remained intact after five years in a house planter.) But then I read the small print and saw that they natural environment means, “any water-saturated environment upon exposure to moderate heat”.  Huh? Translation please.

One conclusion I drew from this exercise is that disposable items, even if more environmentally friendly than plastics, are not, ultimately, environmentally friendly. Waste reduction is the most conscientious way to handling waste, followed by recycling and composting.

I will use the“earth-friendly” disposable dishes and cutlery I already purchased. In the end, it would have taken less effort to stay up after the party and wash dishes for 50 people. However, taking the time to find out about more responsible waste management – including changing my inaccurate belief that environmentally friendly throwaways are good long-term solutions – was an intentional exercise that will have lasting benefits. For example, in the future if I forget my reusable cup at a place that only has single use cups, I forego coffee. That will teach me very quickly to remember it!

It’s important to know that we don’t have to wait until systems are conveniently in place to reduce our footprint. Being environmentally conscientious is not always efficient. But efficiency is not all it’s cracked up to be when it is part of addressing the sustainability problem. Taking the time to create new solutions as an intentional practice is meaningful and makes a real difference.

It’s not the point that everyone should give up their Starbucks or favorite coffee house in the morning. But everyone can start to think about alternatives to the throwaway cup. If every one of us commits to problem solving around our personal footprint, we can shift toward a fundamentally different way of living that is sustainable and rewarding.