Thursday, December 10, 2015

Pass the Plate (community version)

Why have I bought hundreds of plates these past few months? And a hundred cloth napkins?  And similar quantities of cutlery?

It was an exercise in community, in seeing how far I can extend the oddities of my trash-averse life, past the shark-filled moat of the "don't drive them crazy" mantra, into the broader public realm.

At my church, there's a woman who puts on amazing lunches for a hundred people, and she does this just for fun.  She's not a caterer, and our church has no kitchen, so this is no minor feat to pull off on her part.  She hauls in chafing dishes and crock pots galore; she jerry rigs everything together so that the circuit breakers don't blow.  She brings vast quantities of food she prepared in her own kitchen.  She sets up table upon table upon table.  She gets a few volunteers to help her with set-up and also with clean-up, but mostly she is a one-woman culinary force of nature.

Several times a year, thanks to this rather formidable generosity, a hundred people from my church gather together for lunch.  It's a wonderful gathering.   We come away with a stronger community, with connections to new people, and full bellies.  And we leave behind bag upon bag of trash.

My friend June says that at her church (a much more eco-crunchy kind of a church than mine) families bring their own plates and flatware to church lunches.  That, I just have to say, ain't gonna happen at my church.  We're not exactly a think-ahead, do-it-the-frugal-way kind of church.  So if there was going to be a change, it was going to have to happen top-down structurally instead of people-up structurally.

There was no way I was going to ask the Force of Nature to take on the task of washing plates and silverware and cloth napkins -- especially because our church has no kitchen, and in the space where there is no kitchen, there is likewise a conspicuous absence of a dishwasher.  (Ditto for laundry).  I took it as a given that I'd end up hauling stuff back and forth between the church and my home, and that I'd spend an afternoon loading and emptying the dishwasher, not to mention a lot of time folding napkins.  Finding plates that were unbreakable, good-looking, and light enough to carry in my bike trailer turned out to be one of the big challenges.  (So hurrah for the Restaurant Supply Store!)

But the bigger question -- beyond expense and time and such -- was how this would go over socially.  Would I be insulting the Formidable Generosity of a woman who is a distant friend, at best?  Would the mere act of inserting these plates (etc) into an already meticulously synchronized and complicated affair be one straw too many for an over-burdened camel?  Would the many lunch eaters roll their eyes about the burdens of being Ecologically Correct?  I had no illusions that I was a white knight in shining armor, rescuing the villagers from the dragon that terrorized them daily.  No, the dragon was all mine.

I bought plates.  I offered them to the Force of Nature.  She shrugged her shoulders and declared that washing plates (etc) was just "too much work".  I agreed that she shouldn't be the one doing any of the cleaning, and I insisted I'd do it myself.   It was as though I'd just offered to scrub the parking lot with a toothbrush:  "whatever: suit yourself".

And so, in this way I joined forces with a Force of Nature.  She, with her garrison of chafing dishes, crock pots, sternos, and extension cords.  Me, waving my little green (cloth) napkins and brandishing the shield of melamine plates.  And we prepared for the onslaught of a hundred hungry presbyterians.

And you know what?  People loved it.  They loved it.  I had friend after friend coming up to say, "I'm so glad we finally got reusable plates"; "I'm so glad we're not throwing away paper napkins."  I'm sure there were people who thought the whole thing was silly (or worse); but they didn't come say anything to me.  Instead, a bunch of people got to have one more previously-unshared wish answered in public.  In fact, I've ended doing much less of the cleaning than I'd originally offered to do, because so many other people have spontaneously joined in the sudsy fun.

Since then, several people from my church have borrowed the plates and napkins to host large events of their own, returning everything (washed, stacked, folded) when done.  I don't know how many bags of trash I've averted from our local landfills, but I'm feeling like a pretty successful crunchy eco-nut right now.

But I'm also, I have to say, really happy that this all worked out in a way to build the social good, that far from weirding people out, I got to give us all something to be collectively proud of.



  1. So glad to hear of your success. Our church has a nice kitchen, and a fully stocked cupboard of reusable plates, glasses and silverware. I am the only one who used them! When I was president of the women's organization I used them for any meal we served at the church. Not only are they eco-friendly, I think they are just nicer for an occasion. During the time I was president, the well that serves the church was contaminated and we couldn't use the water, in fact it was turned off, so we hauled all the dirty dishes, etc, home and washed them then returned them the next time we went to church. I also used cloth tablecloths and napkins, again, not just to be eco-friendly, but to add a little class and refinement to the meal. That's just who I am. None of the other ladies want to go to that much work. Good for you for showing the way and finding like minded folks among the group.

    1. It *is* a lot of work to wash stuff! I don't begrudge anyone else their paper plates; I can totally see that some people have much more worthwhile things to do than to haul/wash/return dishes.

      But I'm also glad we've found a core group who has the space, time, and inclination to reuse stuff -- if only that for the totally selfish reason, I don't spend as much of our group luncheons trying not to wince at the garbage proliferation. I just have more fun this way myself.