The Tale of the Plastic Plate

I am planning to do a proper wrap-up on Friday about the BlogHer Conference I attended in San Diego. For now, I will tell you that it was a really amazing experience, and I am still smiling to think about it. But I want to do it justice, and since it’s currently 11:22pm anything I write at the moment would be decidedly, erm, unjust? That doesn’t sound right, but hopefully you get the drift.

What I wanted to talk about today was the one glaring low point for me at BlogHer, which irks my hippie mama soul: disposable dinnerware. The San Diego Convention Center, where BlogHer was held, served all of its food and beverages on disposable dishes. The plates were made of type six plastic, or polystyrene, and were quite heavy so at first I thought they might actually be washing them. However, I observed the servers throwing them directly into the garbage, so that clearly wasn’t happening. Polystyrene is not typically recycled, and so if the dishes aren’t reused, they’re going to the landfill.

The polystyrene label

I decided to do a little bit of digging, and I found this info on the convention center’s website:

All food and beverage events … with the exception of plated meals, are accompanied by high-grade disposable ware.

They do go on to mention that if it’s absolutely necessary you can have food served on china for an additional fee. All the same, the disposables seem to stand in direct opposition to their snazzy YouTube video about their environmental practices:

On Friday I ate lunch with my fellow Green Moms. I sat beside my friend Beth Terry, who strives to live a plastic-free life. The plastic plates presented a definite conundrum for her, and she was not happy about it.

Plastic-free Beth Terry is not impressed with the plate

Beth decided to keep her plate and wash it between meals. I decided to join her in solidarity. I started by joining the “clean plate club” and finished all the food I’d taken at lunch.

The plastic plate I saved

I was carrying a very small purse at BlogHer, as my statement that I was child-free and therefore didn’t need a big bag to lug stuff. Needless to say, the plate did not fit in that purse. So my first stop was my hotel room to find a larger bag and to wash my plate. I used the baking soda I had on hand to wash my hair with.

I cleaned my plate with baking soda back in my room

I kept the plate throughout the weekend, and eventually added a bowl, too. I’ll admit that I felt a little awkward, pulling my dishes out of my bag and washing them in the convention center bathroom. Nobody said a word to me, but I was behaving differently from everyone around me and that caused me some social anxiety. I think it was a good experience for that reason alone, in fact. I feel good about not throwing out a bunch of extra plates, but I feel really good about doing something that made me a little bit uncomfortable.

Plastic plate and bowl

I am not perfect. I took free plastic toys in the BlogHer Expo Hall for my kids, and I left the dishes in the garbage in my hotel room when I left instead of keeping them to reuse at home. I don’t think that carting my plate around for a couple of days will, in and of itself, save the world. However, I also think that these little things add up, and the more that we stretch ourselves in small ways, the easier it will become to stretch ourselves in big ways. Bit by bit, I’m working to reduce my impact, and I feel good about that.

What about you – would you cart a plastic plate around in your bag in the name of reducing your plastic waste? Or would you be willing to pay a little bit more so that meals are served on china rather than disposables? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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    Comments

    1. Honestly, I’m not sure if I would have noticed the plates – which is not something I’m proud to admit. My partner is very good at recycling and being aware of how much of our rubbish goes into landfill – he’s made me better at it too. I don’t think I would have cleaned my plate and reused it (it simply wouldn’t have occured to me), but I certainly would be happy to pay a bit more for china plates. Well done to you for going against the social norm!

    2. I think that was an awesome decision with the little time you had to plan; particularly when you toss in the social anxiety component! I’m not sure what I would have done in your situation. #6 isn’t one of the plastics I feel comfortable reusing b/c of leaching… though, if I didn’t have my children with me, eating from the plates, I wouldn’t have worried about that aspect as much, I think. I’d like to think I’d have been as industrious as you. Rock on! :)

      PS: Have you contacted Blogher about it? I’m sure there MUST be many others who were concerned about the waste as well. If they didn’t want to use washable dishes (and the associated costs with that), could they at least have used biodegradable (like they have a Whole Foods, for ex.) disposables?!
      kelly @kellynaturally’s last post … Is it Enough?My Profile

      • Good point on the biodegradable option Kelly. Though, unfortunately, if it ends up in a plastic garbage bag (which is likley would) and then at a typical landfill, the biodegradability would likely not really help at all :(
        Nadia (@ Red, White and GREEN Mom)’s last post … Holy productivity Batman!My Profile

      • I have not contacted BlogHer about it, but I plan to.

        And I agree on the biodegradable question. While I know that most biodegradable waste does not really biodegrade in a landfill, I also think that using renewable resources trumps using petroleum products. I also saw in the video that they do composting, and using biodegradable plates and having green waste bins would be a much better solution than plastic waste in garbage bags in my book.

        • Very impressed Amber! In Toronto, NY, and Anaheim trade shows we found the convention centres using bio-degradable corn based cutlery and plates. A step in the right direction.

    3. I commend you on your efforts… I would have been irked by the disposable dishes also. I don’t think I would have had the presence of mind to think of washing my own dish, but had someone else suggested it I would have gladly joined the club. I think the effort is worth it. And even though it doesn’t seem like much, if even half of the people at the conference did the same thing, the impact would be substantial. Not to mention the fact that you likely made a few people wonder and start to question the use of disposables just by their seeing what you were doing. So, I’m sure the akwardness you felt for being “different” wasn’t in vain… You likely had some positive influence on others just by your actions, and that’s how you change the world!
      Nadia (@ Red, White and GREEN Mom)’s last post … Holy productivity Batman!My Profile

    4. I was so proud of you and Beth for keeping your plates – you guys rock! And good for you for getting over your social anxiety about it. Wish I could say I did the same….
      So great to meet you Amber – it makes such a difference to know someone for real!
      Micaela

    5. Hi my plate-carrying sister! I love this post. I love how you revealed the anxiety you felt about carrying your plate and washing it in the bathroom in front of people. But you never know what impact you have. One woman who saw me washing my plate in the bathroom got very excited and thanked me for doing it. Positive influence!

      I’m glad you plan to contact BlogHer about the plastic plates. I’ll also forward this post to BlogHer. Yay! I’m not the only one this time!
      Beth Terry’s last post … Remove Hair with DIY Homemade Sugar Wax: Cheap, Plastic-free, and Dangerous in the Wrong HandsMy Profile

    6. I applaud your stance – as Jen Arbo tweeted today, everybody needs to take a stance but not to be competitive over what that stance will be (i hope i’ve summarised it OK). Maybe I wouldn’t have picked up on the non-recyclables but I do cringe inwardly about some of the BlogHer sponsors – not IMO ethical, healthy or something I would prefer not to be linked with. Last year, one of the sponsors was promoting the ghastly smell of female genitals that needs covering up with special deodorant – way to go with empowering women. That would have been my stance but I’m not sure what I would have done. Amber – you are a marvel. You actually did something!
      pomomama’s last post … wordless wednesday: there’s a theme hereMy Profile

    7. I enjoyed the weekend at BlogHer too. I noticed that the plates were plastic, but assumed they were washed and reused. Would I carry my plate around with me to re-use at a conference? Absolutely – I’m carrying around a shopping bag full of swag anyway and one plastic plate isn’t going to slow me down… and washing it in the bathroom between meals – wouldn’t shame me a drop. Well done, you!
      Cori Kesler’s last post … Breezy Birthing DayMy Profile

    8. Hi Amber,

      I think it’s great that you reused your plates over the course of the weekend! And I think Nadia is right when she said that “you likely made a few people wonder and start to question the use of disposables just by their seeing what you were doing”.

      I am involved with an organization called Greener Footprints that works towards reducing waste in British Columbia, Canada and we focus specifically on single-use disposable items. One of the things I’ve found over time is that my actions (and other people seeing them) have more of an impact than almost anything else I can do. People DO notice you washing your plate in the sink – and I bet that some of them might even blog about it! Keep an eye on the blogosphere!

      I feel compelled to add a comment regarding recyclable vs. biodegradable plates…

      It’s really critical that you evaluate what type of biodegradable we’re talking about. The truly biodegradable stuff (like the stuff made out of corn that Kristen suggested) is a fantastic alternative and can be composted in many facilities. Many “biodegradable” plastics aren’t truly biodegradable – they photodegrade and that means that rather than breaking down (essentially turning into dirt), they simply break into smaller and smaller bits of plastic that remain just that – plastic. This is probably more harmful to things like ocean life than recyclable but non-biodegradable plastics. So in these cases, recyclable is actually a better option than “biodegradable”.

      Nice work on reducing your footprint!

      Jen

    9. I absolutely would do exactly what you did.In fact I have done that very same thing. When I was in high school I attended a weekend long conference and all of our drinks were self-serve in styrofoam cups. My town had just started taking recyclables and so I planned to keep mine, re-use it and eventually recycle it. Then, one of the teachers noticed and I told her what I was doing. With her support I decided to tell the rest of the students what I was doing and see if they would come on board. So right in the middle of lunch one day with the teacher beside me I hollered for everyone’s attention and told them what I was up to and asked everyone to either do the same or throw their cup in a separate bag at the end of meals and snacks and I would take them home. I accumulated 3 full garbage bags the night before we were the leave. That night a janitor came and took them away even though they were marked to leave alone. I ended up only taking 1 bag home the next day, feeling sad but recycling about 75 cups nevertheless. It made the local papers and to this day I am very proud of it and the recycling program that Mt. Washington started up in a small part due to my actions. I am sure you guys made a difference even if it only made a few people more aware of their own actions, so good for you Amber.
      Melodie’s last post … My Health Scare (or Why I Had To Write A Post Today)My Profile

    10. Love that you did that. I probably wouldn’t have done it, I would have silently complained about it. So way to go!!! Frankly I’m surprised by it. You’d think they’d be all over greener options, at least recyclable plastic!
      Amber’s last post … the toddler hallucination theory: Car SeatsMy Profile

    11. Well, you already know that I didn’t reuse my plates. And I felt kind of crappy about that once you pointed out that they were just tossing them. The plates really were sturdy enough that I thought they were being washed. I think a big convention center like that should be using real plates that are washed. I really do. And totally tell BlogHer! I’m fairly positive that the hotel in NYC used real plates last year (and therefore will again).
      Marilyn @ A Lot of Loves’s last post … Summer Days, Drifting AwayMy Profile

    12. I would totally do this. It makes me so sad to see that much plastic being used so carelessly, especially when there are better alternatives. I would have felt a little anxious too. But I keep thinking, it would have been so cool if it had spread through the conference, until everyone was washing their dishes in the bathroom and the convention centre would have had to do something about it. Good for you for pushing past that anxiety, and standing out for a good reason. And to Beth Terry as well. Next time I am confronted with this situation I will think of you guys and do the same.
      Katy’s last post … Good ProblemsMy Profile

    13. Where I live, group dinners in the desert mountains behind our neighborhood are popular events. But the food is typically served on Styrofoam plates. So I take several stainless steel plates with me for my dinner – and whoever else is willing to walk to the buffet with their own plate!! I carry them in a cotton bag and just bring them home dirty (since water is an issue in the desert) and wash them later. I was a bit uncomfortable the first time I did this, but now it’s easy. :-) I would also happily pay a bit more if they used china!

    14. That is really sad. Good on you!

      Who wants to eat off plastic plates. Yuck. They feel horrible not to mention their environmental impact. Yuck.
      Amber Morrisey’s last post … Oh (gleefully), are they twins? No.My Profile

    15. I hate plastic dinnerware and would pay extra for real china.

      I also hate how hotels started putting little “we’re environmentally friendly cards” in their bathrooms some two decades ago and that is basically the extent of their environmental efforts.

      I hope this post gets the Convention Centre’s attention.

      I think blogging about the washing your plate in the bathroom is even more important than washing your plate in the bathroom.

      You rock.
      Betsy’s last post … Looks Like Pebbles Acts Like BamBamMy Profile

    16. Good for you and Beth for reusing the same plate; I would have done the same thing had I forgotten my reusable glassware. I would most definitely pay more for “real” plates opposed to disposables.

      I bring my glassware everywhere I go and wash them in different bathrooms. I get what you are saying, the uncomfortable feeling. I personally don’t feel uncomfortable anymore.Actually i think I make others uncomfortable with my green ways! And thats not a bad things, maybe if they feel uncomfortable enough they will change their ways!

      Hope to share a meal on a nice china plate at Blogher’12 with you! :)
      Good Girl Gone Green’s last post … Reality check: Climate ChangeMy Profile

    17. I got to this post via Beth Terry’s Plastic Free Life blog. I love you women for doing what you did — re-using your plates and sending the feedback that made the change. And the truth is, I have often saved various plastic plates and cups (these fancy things I’ve gotten ice cream served in), cleaned them off and stuck them in my bag to bring home and re-use. Plus I have one friend who I know has done the same thing — and I was so grateful to know there was at least one other person as nuts as I am! However, I feel that there is a further step I need to embrace and that is one of refusal. I will refuse the plastic bag, opt for metal utensils over plastic ones when they are offered, etc., but I don’t think major change will happen until many of us begin to refuse taking the plastic thingy (whatever it is) in the first place. Thanks for doing what you did — each small step one of us takes supports and encourages the rest of us!

    18. I am very happy you took the time to reuse your plate all weekend & wrote about it for us. This is the exact same type of situations that all of us encounter every day, and your experience and effort to reduce the waste is one worth copying.

      It just never ceases to amaze me though that restaurants, caterers, etc. claim that using china is more expensive. Is it really more expensive to reuse a set of plates and wash them than to literally throw away their money by using ‘disposable’ dishes and plastic ware? It would be great to see a real cost analysis of dishes vs. disposable that includes all the costs [initial cost of dishes, cost over time, cost of water, soap, labor, etc., vs. initial cost of plastic, cost over time (i.e. each use), trash/recycling service, etc.]

      Does this exist anywhere online? It’d be a great info-graphic or article not only to learn more but to be able to share with companies, restaurants, & caterers to help illustrate the difference.
      Jessica Bourland’s last post … Yield: Making Fashion Without Making WasteMy Profile

    19. hi – great post! I came here from My Plastic Free Life. I too cringe when I see use of plastic’s in this way. Way to go for going against the norm. I would certainly have joined you and try to do similar acts here in Ontario.

      Recently when we travelled up north I took refill containers (they are plastic but we are continuing to use them unitl they die) for our restaurant leftovers as well as our condiments and fabric napkins. I haven’t yet found a great container to cart everything around in yet. I did have to wash them out a few times in the restaurant bathrooms but I was okay with that. I also carry a squirt bottle of dish soap with my dishes.

      I am on an ongoing crusade at our church to cut out the disposable use. We have managed to get corn-based drinking cups but still use styrofoam for coffee and eeks even plates. It is so frustrating. When I host the ladies showers we use china and I wash up the dishes myself however Sunday mornings I have my 18 month with me and time does not allow for dish washing. I did manage to collect all of the plastic spoons used at camp to wash and resuse and we will be using real cutlery next year. When we went to the theatre for a movie as a group I collected all of the leftover drinks (water) and popcorn bags and took them home to recycle and compost. For 75+ people that was a whole bag of garbage they would otherwise throw out. We recycle the pop tops and compost the cups and bags where I live. One yay! I am known as the tree hugger at church but the commenters are right – the more you “just do it” the more others consider doing it too.

      Thanks again for bringing options to light.

      PS I saw a GREAT resource on another blog and found the source here at http://www.maxistentialism.com/prints/
      it is the plastic spoon one. I hope to get one when it is available again, or will make my own (credited of course).

    20. subscribing to future comments…:)
      Alison’s last post … Helper or Hinderer?My Profile

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    Trackbacks

    1. [...] week I attended the BlogHer conference in San Diego. I’ve written several posts about the experience over at Strocel.com, and I’m not about to repeat myself in this [...]

    2. [...] of the conference. Blogger Amber Strocel agreed to do the same thing with me. (Read Amber’s excellent post about the plate situation [...]

    3. [...] Amber Strocel, another green blogger at the event, wrote: [...]

    4. [...] released, but I consider Beth to be a friend. I met up with her at BlogHer and we joined forces, carrying our disposable plastic plates around so that we wouldn’t be adding the landfill at every meal. Her blog, My Plastic-Free Life, is [...]

    5. [...] the chance to meet her at BlogHer in San Diego, and she was lovely and charming. She inspired me to keep and wash my disposable plastic plate throughout the conference, rather than take a new one at each meal and snack. It actually [...]

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