When Throwing Away 100 Plastic Bags Might Still be Green

The following post is from Katie of Kitchen Stewardship:

does one water bottle make a difference?

source: Kitchen Stewardship

I saved five.

Four hundred kids threw away their plastic water bottles after a hot field day at the park, but doggone it, I got five into our recycling bin.

Nevermind that recycling plastic is really “downcycling” or whatever it’s called, and that there are still plenty of resources wasted in the process. Nevermind that it wouldn’t be that difficult for each child to bring their own reusable water bottle and carry it along with them. They carried the disposable water bottles along until they were empty, too.

At least I did something.

In the world we live in, it’s all a game of starfish.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the story of the elderly woman walking along an ocean shoreline literally covered in beached starfish, picking them up one by one and tossing them back into the ocean. A child approaches her and says, “Ma’am, I hate to be disrespectful here, but don’t you realize that it’s impossible for you to throw all these starfish back into the water? They are in trouble as far as the eye can see in either direction! You won’t ever make a difference doing this one by one.”

The woman reaches down, picks up another single starfish, and pitches it with all her might into the ocean.

Made a difference to that one,” she says solemnly, moving on with her work.

The tale is often used to inspire educators, parents, and pastors to maintain their focus on the individual, even if it seems like big-picture systemic change or radical success might be hopeless.

I think it applies to any of the cultural battles we fight, from eschewing the constant stream of sugar pushed on our kids to saving the earth in a thousand tiny ways.

My five water bottles are the smallest of dents in the massive waste problem and disposable mentality we have here in America (and to an extent in much of the developed world).

But it’s a start, and an important one.

Can We Do Better Next Year?

I am making mental notes for next year to contact the gym teacher and offer to provide receptacles for the bottles and pick them up to recycle. Even that, which will take some orchestration and wildly large containers, is really just a slightly bigger dent in a massive problem. But we have to start somewhere, and if each of us could only take a few baby steps, think how much we could accomplish.

Let’s consider some possible baby steps for the field day that I might be able to help the school work through, bit by bit, such that people hardly notice the change. Rather than purchase and toss 400+ plastic water bottles (just thinking about it makes me sad), the school/coordinator could:

  • Baby step number one: Recycle the bottles.
  • Baby step number two: Use paper cups and a gaggle of 5-gallon water jugs all around the field. (Problem: Kids wouldn’t reuse water cups but would likely get water often, creating a good bit of waste and the need for far more than 400 cups, but tossing paper has got to be better than plastic water bottles and likely less expensive as well, right?)
  • Bigger step: Request that all parents send in a water bottle with their children. Ask the teachers to bring a large carrying bag so that the kids don’t have to be totally in charge of their bottle as they move as a class from station to station, hopefully reducing the number of “left behind” bottles. May need to have some jugs and paper cups anyway for those whose parents forget, since dehydration or heat exhaustion become safety issues with the heat and all that running.

Those five water bottles I saved did more than just conserve a few ounces of raw materials – they inspired me to make further change. I thought about our kindergarten party where we were about to do the same thing a few days later. We served mini water bottles to about one hundred children, and I did bring a crate for recycling.

Of course that day was much cooler, and the bottles were much cuter, so I think a lot of kids took them home. But I’m still happy I saved this dozen or two from the landfill:

Recycling Water Bottles from a Party

source: Kitchen Stewardship

Appreciating the Baby Steps, One Starfish at a Time

It’s not always all about the massive successes.

Some would say that it’s abhorrent to use plastic disposable water bottles at all. In fact, one commenter on my Facebook page actually said, “100 plastic water bottles? For shame!” when I shared my excitement about the fact that we were planning to serve water, apples and popcorn instead of, say, sweetened juice, doughnuts and candy, at nine in the morning.

Apparently she doesn’t get my baby steps perspective, nor does she understand how to pick your battles. I wasn’t about to use any of my metaphorical “cards” in our planning meeting to argue for some non-disposable or non-plastic option. I had to simply cheer inwardly that we were heading toward water without me having to be the one to bring it up!

I had to save my “ammunition” and mental energy for the push to serve apple slices instead of snow cones and deflect any attempts to give candy rewards for winning games.

I used such finesse with the snow cones – something to the effect of, “Oh, no, no no, I couldn’t imagine snow cones at 9 in the morning!” with wild, half-crazed eyes – that I think I was extremely covert with my secret plan to serve more nourishing foods (or better yet, no food at all) to the kids at our school.

Not!

I outed myself as “that mom” so completely that when another mom on our committee decided that she was going to make 100 clown cookies for the children, she called me to let me know so I wouldn’t feel like I was being ambushed at the party.

Kindergarten party - clown cookies

source: Kitchen Stewardship

It really was a thoughtful gesture, since in fact I probably would have felt a bit ambushed if the cookies had been a total surprise. One of my pet peeves is over-serving to kids, which usually results in them taking everything and wasting way too much food, almost always the more boring, healthy stuff.

The “carnival cookie ambush of 2014” actually has a very happy ending in my opinion, one that spotlights moderation and my personal best efforts at tossing one starfish at a time without freaking out about how many there are still to address.

My initial response on the phone was that I just felt so sorry for the allergy kids (at least one needs to be gluten-free). She thought of that and already bought GF cookies to substitute.

At the risk of saying too much when, “Thanks for the heads up!” might have been the best scenario, I went one step further: “I guess I worry about the number of items now – since we had two things already, to add a third with only 10 minutes to eat makes me wonder if the kids will just eat the cookie first, a bit of the popcorn, and throw away everything else. It might just be too much…”

Her response was very gracious as she quickly offered to bring little baggies so that the kids could take the cookies home.

Since the cookies were already lovingly made, I wasn’t about to pitch a fit about it. Nothing gained there but dissent. I told her I thought that was just perfect, because then it would allow the parents to help the kids decide if and when they could have the treat.

The “green” issue, of course, is that we now caused 100 plastic sandwich bags to hit the trash. Sigh. It’s hard to be a crunchy/healthy type and function in the greater world we live in sometimes! Hopefully we were able to save some food from being wasted in the process.

Good Intentions, Dangerous Mentality

I admire this mom’s intentions, which were twofold: To show love to the kindergarten kids in the way she does it best, and to utilize her (truly amazing, look on the table in the photo of my daughter above) baking/decorating talents. Everyone needs to share their talents generously to feel accomplished and fulfilled, and I definitely understand wanting to give gifts to children.

What bothers me is the mindset she demonstrated when she explained why she made the cookies: “I just really thought they needed something fun.”

That one irks me a little. We had already planned a two-hour party jam packed with fun. As far as food went, they had the cutest water bottles in the world, plus popcorn, which makes kids think of movies and was to be served in perfect little bags with darling “big tent/popcorn” stickers on them.

When this well-meaning mom said she thought they needed “fun,” she really meant “sugar.” And that’s where I simply feel bad for this generation of kids, raised to stand on the certain fact that sugary sweets equal fun, and that it’s nearly impossible to have fun without something sweet.

It’s a dangerous cultural mentality that is selling our kids short, and it’s making them sick.

With the collateral damage of 100 sandwich bags (I’m so sorry, Earth!), here’s how the situation played out in real life:

  • There was quite a bit of confusion among the snack station adults about whether the cookies were to be bagged up automatically or children just offered the bag as an option.
  • I quickly volunteered to be an extra set of hands there, covertly situating myself as a spy. I’m so sneaky…
  • For the first group of kids, right at 9 a.m., the other moms held a plate of cookies and a sandwich bag and asked, “Would you like your cookie now or a bag to take it home?” One guess what 100% of the kids said!
  • The system in my opinion was 100% flawed at that point. It allowed 6-year-olds too much choice and too much temptation, plus too many foods. Three foods in less than 10 minutes always means that something is going to be wasted.
  • Perhaps because secret-spy-Katie seemed so visibly uncomfortable with the situation, we adults decided that for the next 8 groups, we would use a different tactic, a much more strategic one, for lack of a better term.
  • We served the water, apples and popcorn first. After about half their time at the snack station, we walked around and offered the cookies, already in their bags.

The Main Points of Balanced Strategy

  1. Ensure a healthy option. Plain and simple, all the food wasn’t junk food. I would have rather had no cookies, obviously, but with the hand of cards I was dealt, I was still happy that we had apples and organic popcorn (with butter and Real Salt on it) too. Guess who volunteered to make the popcorn, by the way? If you’re wondering, filling 100 little bags with home-popped popcorn takes much longer than I expected…
  2. Offer healthy foods first. Kids who would never eat apples still wouldn’t eat them, but many who like apples but would be otherwise tempted by the other, unhealthy foods, would likely eat the apple slices without even thinking about it. This is the same strategy savvy parents use at the dinner table when they put fresh veggies out first for hungry people to munch on. (We could have delayed the popcorn a few minutes as well, come to think of it…)
  3. Remove time pressure. Since both the popcorn and the cookies were in portable bags, the kids were informed that they could take home any of their leftovers. There wasn’t that pressure to chow down on everything in a limited time because they’d have to throw it away as soon as the 10 quick minutes were up.

And the Results?

  • Some kids tore open the sandwich bag immediately and tore into the cookie with equal gusto, polishing it off and tossing the bag in no time. Hopefully those kids had already eaten some apples. :)
  • Many, I would venture to say more than half, took their time. They would eat perhaps about half the cookie, then were happy to bag it up and take it home with them. I think defaulting to the bag, even though it wasted some plastic in a big way for the kids who ate the whole cookie right away, really made a difference here. I’m hoping it was worth that collateral damage.
  • A few chose to take the entire cookie home. Impressed!
  • When we remembered to offer seconds on apples, we were pleasantly surprised by how many kids accepted, even though they had the popcorn and cookies in front of them.
  • Not a soul complained that there was no juice.

It may not have made a massive difference in either the kids’ health or their mature decision making, but it’s the baby step I was able to take this time.

It’s similar with the quest to conserve and preserve the environment. We have to do the best we can:

  • We don’t use four pieces of paper towel or 10 baby wipes when one would do the job, or better yet, non-disposable options. But at a friend’s house, I’m not going to hand a paper towel back and say, “Can you get me a towel to clean up this mess instead?” That’s just rude – save the friendship at that point, not the earth.
  • We recycle and compost what we can, but can’t beat ourselves up when we can’t do it all, all the time. Everyone needs to acknowledge seasons in your life when you just need to roll with it and accept some conveniences of the modern world.
  • We walk to another room to recycle tiny pieces of paper a note was written on rather than saving 20 seconds and just throwing it away – the epitome of tossing starfish in a world of massive industrial waste, perhaps!

What starfish can you throw back today to save the earth in your own small way?

Katie Kimball has been “green” since 5th grade when she read 50 Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth. She remains slightly disappointed that she didn’t actually save the whole thing back then, but now that she has 3 kiddos counting on her, she keeps plugging away hopefully. Katie blogs at Kitchen Stewardship about real food and natural living and is the author of Healthy Snacks to Go and other eBooks, available for Kindle.
  • Jen

    Your article is interesting, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that the mom who made those clown cookies simply wanted to jam the kids full of sugar. By “fun”, she simply could have meant that those clown cookies LOOK fun. She did an amazing job decorating them. They are so cute. I hope that mom doesn’t read your blog, because if I were her, I’d be so upset by the stuff you said in this post.

    • Katie Kimball

      Thanks for your comment, Jen, and I do appreciate your concern. I know that once on the Internet, anyone might read this article, including the mom I quoted. I tried to be really sensitive to that, and you’re so right – the cookies were amazing. I can’t imagine how long it took to decorate them!!

      It’s just been my experience this year while trying to make change happen in food/birthday policies at our school that parents truly won’t let go of the sugary treats – that they honestly believe that without the sugar, there is no fun to be had. So more than commenting on one mom’s words, I think there is a greater mentality here that she is just going along with because most people DO go with the flow. I don’t fault the mom in particular, but I have a big problem with this cultural concept that seems so prevalent. The popcorn and water bottles, as I mentioned, did actually LOOK super fun too, so there wasn’t a gap there in the fun factor.

      :) Katie

  • http://myoverflowingcup.com Heather @ My Overflowing Cup

    Thanks for the great article. I love the story of the starfish. Why is it that we often think that if a problem is too big to solve, we shouldn’t even attempt to work at it? I’ve heard the same thing when it comes to world poverty. Just because Jesus said we would always have the poor with us, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feed the hungry that we can. I appreciate the grace you show for the times we aren’t perfect. I agree that we should all do the very best we can without always focusing on the end result as a pass or fail proposition. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

    • Katie Kimball

      Thanks Heather! I like the way you worded “pass or fail proposition” – good stuff! :) Katie

  • Lily

    I agree with you that sugar and junk food is the norm now. It’s awful. There are “special occasions” ALL the time and if we give them junk and sugar at all of these…they are going to get too much from just these times alone! The cookies are really, really, really cute but when my littles go to school, I do NOT want sugar offered to them. We wonder why we have such an obesity and disease prone society today…..
    Fun can be healthy too…and SHOULD be. Again, the cookies are gorgeous….and if this were the ONLY time in the entire year sugar was offered, I would be okay with it. But just like I don’t want my kids being around people who are smoking, because it is unhealthy, I don’t want them given sugar either.

  • http://www.northerncheapskate.com/ Christina@Northern Cheapskate

    I loved this post! I’ve made a point of sending my kids’ snacks in reusable containers, but am sometimes met with resistance because it’s not what all the other kids are doing. But I was pleasantly surprised when my oldest son’s teacher had the kids bring in a reusable water bottle for snack time and prohibited candy, chips and cookies from the list of acceptable snacks. I love that it put all the kids on the same page in a eco-friendly, and kid-friendly way.

    • Katie Kimball

      Go, smart teacher, go!!! :) Katie

  • PaulVik Kay

    I bring along a snack for after church each week; either vege sticks and hummus or a plate of fruit. The kids LOVE it and there are never any leftovers. But, yes, it DOES take longer than buying a packet of cookies and tipping them onto a plate!

  • Donna

    I really loved this post and I especially loved your concern for the kids. Since I wasn’t working hard at being “green” when my kids were little, (they are grown with their own kids now) I can only imagine the frustration you were feeling. By the way, your daughter is beautiful and the first thing I noticed was her beautiful skin and her rosy cheeks! She is definitely showing the signs of being raised healthy. I always tried keeping the sugary treats to a minimum in my home, but we did make an exception for parties so that my children didn’t feel like I was not allowing them to have “fun” or “sugar” like other kids. I think it worked out OK, because they also got the feeling that stuff like that was meant for parties and not for day to day living. So they developed healthy eating habits with an occasional, allowable, sugary treat. I can tell you that your assumption that some parents feel that sugar is necessary to have fun, is absolutely true. But, it all comes from the idea that people always have cake and ice cream for birthdays and lots of Christmas Cookies, and Easter Candy and Halloween Candy and Homemade sugary Ice Cream for the 4th of July–we are a nation that celebrates with sugar and we were all taught to do that. I am guessing that it has been going on for the last 3 or 4 generations ever since sugar became readily available, probably after WWll, and I think it’s here to stay. Thank you for helping to cut down on the sugary stuff for our kids, and to help everyone to be a little bit “greener”. I think little changes make big differences down the road and I applaud you for doing it, but don’t worry if you can’t stop sugar consumption. I have often heard the statement “it all comes out in the wash”. We just need to moderate everything. Thank you for your fantastic article. I really enjoyed it!

    • Katie Kimball

      Thanks Donna! I do agree that some sugar in moderation is okay, and my daughter truly enjoyed her cookie…which she ate after lunch, not at 9 a.m. when her group came through the snack station. :) I hope hope hope that I can teach my kids that fun foods are for special occasions, too, and that they come out balanced at age 18. Parenting is a tough game to play!! :) Katie

  • Robyn Whitlock

    Great job, Katie! I love your baby steps approach on this. I am so grateful our school is 100% treat/snack free. The kids can bring fresh fruit or vegetables from home for a snack, but no food whatsoever is given out to the kids in the classroom. (Obviously, they bring or buy lunch…)

    This is mostly due to the huge prevalence of food allergies and risk of cross contamination in the classroom, but it has the benefit of just ending these food battles.

    The kids are allowed to choose a book on their birthdays, they earn extra recess for “rewards,” and parties are about games and fun, not food.

    With the waste, one thing that has really helped at our elementary school is the implementation of an “environmental club.” A teacher started it, and it’s a club to learn about the environment and take steps to help the environment. One of the things the club implemented is “Waste-free lunch Wednesdays.” They encourage all of the students on Wednesday to pack a lunch with zero waste. Suddenly, bringing tupperware to school was cool! My kids asked for re-usable bags!

    Participation was voluntary, but peer pressure began and the tide began to turn…now…even in junior high…it is COOL to bring a lunch in reusable containers. It means you care for the environment. :-)

    Keep taking those baby steps, and hopefully someday soon the tide will turn!!!

    • Katie Kimball

      Robyn,
      Oh, my goodness, that school gives me such hope! What a DREAM it would be to have all that already in place at our school. I’m jealous. :) Our principal said there just aren’t many kids with food allergies in our school, so she’s not worried about serving them with a policy like your school has. I have a feeling that will change as the years pass and hope she’s amenable to cutting the amount of food shared with the whole class because of it. I’ll have kids there for a while and would love to watch the tide slowly turn like you described! Love the Wed. lunch thing…copying that down for a later brainstorm. Thanks so much for sharing!!! :) Katie

  • ashleyb

    @Cinnamon Vogue:disqus “I think she meant it looked interesting and the sugar issue was probably not something she thought about.” I think you hit the nail on the head, and that’s the main issue: our society doesn’t even think about how much sugar we consume…

  • Casey

    Great post and as a parent who pays my kids when they say “no thank you” to the school sugar overload, I really appreciate your efforts!

  • Kathleen

    Great article and it made me think of so many things. To get out of the disposable water bottles, how about seeing if a local business will donate reusable water bottles for each child. The business can put their name on the bottles and then they get some advertising off of it. I’m sure there is a way they could write off the donation. Just a thought. We very rarely buy disposable water bottles anymore and I’m always after people to recycle what they can. As far as the cookies are concerned, they were beautifully decorated. I wish I had that talent. 9am is a little early for cookies in my book, but I don’t like to eat sweet stuff in the morning.

  • Emily

    I really like the way you have addressed the issue that I often have of trying to delicately manoeuvre around healthy options and being gracious to a well meaning, sugar-offering friend. You’re right. Baby steps in education of friends/family/general public are the key, I feel. This way you can be good friend/citizen and a champion of our children’s health too. Thanks for the thoughts here. :)

  • Beth S.

    On the plus side, the cookies weren’t huge like they sometimes can be. I’ve noticed the sugar mentality equals fun in myself. I really have to watch it. I worry about it too. When I had baseball snack, I made custom “stickers” (paper w/ double stick tape) with the team’s logo to put on the baggie of grapes to up the “fun” factor. I had one kid who sneered, “I don’t like grapes.” And a couple say “Yay, grapes.” No one seemed particularly disappointed (except the kid who didn’t like grapes!). And I got several “cool, look, it’s our team logo on the grapes” comments too. Whew!! :)

    • Katie Kimball

      Absolutely, Beth, I was happy they were on the small side too. Interesting to note that many kids only ate half, when you think about how BIG many treats people bring to share are!! Your stickers sound AWESOME and I love it. So happy you got more positive comments than negative. I have a friend who brought bananas once for a sports treat and one kid cried!! I think it’s hilarious..maybe she needed cool stickers on the peels. :)

  • Johanna

    I left the classroom a few years ago, but our school had a policy that every kid ALWAYS had a water bottle at school. Our principal knew that kids’ brains need water, even if it meant spills. Even six year olds can learn to be responsible for a water bottle!

    • Katie Kimball

      Wonderful!!

  • Lindsey

    Great post. I am feeling so frustrated with this issue right now! I just can’t fathom why parents bring glazed donuts and Kool Aid to kids for an after-soccer snack! Even if I weren’t concerned about the sugar, that wouldn’t taste good after running around for an hour in the sun.

    I too, would like to see less treat-bringing in general; the way parents feed their kids is so different and so personal and I’d much rather everyone just make the choices for their own kids. My daughter is allergic to food dye (it started with behavioral symptoms and now she gets hives) and so we have a good excuse to opt out of the junk, but my son just finished kindergarten and I’m so annoyed with all the junk he got this year. The last day of school his teacher gave him a koolaid drink with a note “I hope you have a kool summer.” It’s so true that people equate fun with sugar and we should really re-think it! Like you said, when kids are given healthy options, they are usually fine with it.

    I proposed your birthday book idea to the owner of my kids’ school and I’m really hoping she goes for it! I’m wondering if I should risk being annoying and send her some articles about the dangers of sugar ;)

  • Melanie

    really enjoyed this post, thanks Katie!

  • Lucy

    Why are you prohibited from sharing your ideas? Just curious.

    • Katie Kimball

      Lucy,
      It’s a long story, but the principal basically didn’t want to deal with the very strong, impassioned, and sometimes rude opposition from other parents. So because they act like children, I can’t even share ideas to make change…frustrating!

  • Jamie Larrison

    Unfortunately our school district doesn’t allow any snacks to be brought in unless they’re prepackaged individual serving sized ones. So the healthy homemade oatmeal cookies were sent back home and the teacher asked for Little Debbie’s instead. But I do agree that we shove sweets at our children waaaay too often.