Spring is the perfect time for a backyard dinner gathering. After all, the sun is warm, the birds are calling overhead, and there are new tulips and daffodils everywhere you look—all of it brought to you by the Earth.
Therefore, it’s only right that you do your part to give back. And you can certainly do a lot when you choose to go green with your outdoor dining. There are plenty of ways to get the environmental stamp of approval on your soiree. Read on to find out some of the best.
All the Barbecue—Without the Emissions
It’s no secret that grilling comes with a hefty environmental price tag. Grills let off smoke and carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. In fact, if all of America’s grills were fired up for two hours, it would generate around 882 million pounds of CO2, about as many emissions as your average coal-fired power plant lets off in a month.
And charcoal is one of the worst offenders. Researchers have found that gas grills have about one-third the environmental footprint of comparable charcoal units—and they cook much more efficiently, too. Charcoal lets off harmful fumes and smoke that travels out into the atmosphere, whereas many of these are avoided by switching to natural gas or propane.
But it’s possible to set up your grill so that it’s practically emissions-free. Smaller electric grills can be powered by portable solar panels—or plugged right into the outlet if you have solar in your home—for fresh-off-the-grill fare that has the clean taste of green power.
Planning a Menu with the Earth in Mind
According to a recent study led by the World Resources Institute, there’s a definite link between red meat consumption and climate change. Beef production generates about 20 times the amount of emissions as plant-based proteins and is also really resource-intensive to farm. In fact, about one-third of the farming water footprint goes straight to that burger.
We’re not necessarily advocating vegetarianism, but you will keep the Earth cleaner and happier if you opt for more eco-friendly proteins, like turkey burgers or chicken breasts. You can also reduce your footprint by opting for local fare sourced from nearby growers, CSA programs, or farmer’s markets—even if just for your non-meaty ingredients. Local doesn’t just mean it’s fresher (and therefore, tastier!). Food that has to travel fewer miles to your plate will also shrink your meal’s carbon footprint. At the very least, avoid produce grown in South America or New Zealand. Anything coming to you by airfreight racks up about 50 times the emissions of ground-transported food, so even making this small change offsets a lot of carbon dioxide.
Lastly, turn an eye over to the drink cart. Many of the ingredients in our favorite adult beverages come from water-intensive grow practices. For instance, in California, about 80 percent of the state’s water footprint goes to agriculture, including growing grapes for wine. Don’t get too excited, beer lovers, because brews fare no better. In fact, it takes 300 liters of water just to make one liter of beer.
To keep your party’s spirits on the up and up, look for beer, wine, and alcohol produced by biodynamic growers. These farmers try to use as little water as possible in their agriculture, offering a finished product that will quench your thirst without leaving the Earth thirsty in its wake.
Putting the “Reusable” in Reduce, Recycle, Reuse
One of the best ways to green up any outdoor fete is to ditch the plasticware. Disposables may be more convenient, but they swell landfills and require a lot of energy and resources to make. Generally, most plastic products are made from petroleum, a raw material whose ecological impact is already well-documented. The petroleum turns into the plastic we recognize by “steam cracking” refined ethane and propane using a steam bath heated to 900 degrees Celsius or more. That means a lot of fuel and resources go into the process—all of which can be avoided when you use reusable silverware, plates, and cups.
You can even have some fun with it. Mix up a signature boozy punch served in a glass dispenser and served in these elegant, recycled glasses. Or cook your food in a natural stone crock that doubles as a serving vessel. Have your guests drop their plates and silverware into a decorative tub filled with water and dish soap, and offer clearly-labeled spots for trash, recycling, and compost. Clean up has never been so easy!
Make It Easier for Guests to Take Leftovers
Any seasoned dinner party host knows it’s better to have too much food than too little—but not when the end result is a lot of food waste. Around 40 percent of the food we grow in the US gets thrown out. Not only is that a waste of resources, it also means a lot of fuel and water was used up producing that food—all for nothing.
If you know you can’t finish the leftovers yourself, encourage guests to dish out a second plate to take with them. Provide easy-to-transport, travel-ready containers (durable enough to be reused and hopefully returned, of course). Or look for plasticware that uses over 30 percent post-consumer materials. That way you won’t be solving one problem by creating another one.
All in all, sustainability should be a group effort, so don’t be afraid to get your guests involved, too. Tell them that this gathering is a low-impact party, and let the environment be the real guest of honor at your outdoor fete!
Guest contributor, Lauren Pezzullo is a writer, editor, and musicophile who's passionate about vegetarianism and sustainable eating. As an editor for Modernize, she writes about energy-efficient living in the home. She's currently writing her debut novel.