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.