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Eco-friendly, festive parties

Palo Alto's 'party packs' enable waste-free celebrations

by Kimberlee D'Ardenne

In Palo Alto, you can reduce, reuse, recycle -- all while partying in style.

The popular phrase describes environmentally friendly practices and also the way the city of Palo Alto is working towards its goal of having no landfill waste by 2021.

Zero Waste Palo Alto, in the Public Works department, has the task of implementing the goal.

"First and foremost, our goal is to reduce the amount of waste created and then reuse, recycle or compost what is discarded," said Wendy Hediger, a Zero Waste coordinator.

Since 2005, when City Council set a goal of zero waste, Palo Alto has reduced its solid waste. The city offers recycling, and according to the Zero Waste website, it is possible to recycle almost anything.

Palo Alto also reuses. One way Palo Alto reuses is by scattering "party packs" throughout the city. Party packs are portable containers -- filled with reusable dishware, utensils and napkins -- that are housed at Zero Waste block leaders' homes throughout the city.

"Zero Waste block leaders are neighborhood experts who go through training so they can answer questions about what goes where for recycling and also foster reduction projects," Hediger said.

Block leaders, educated by the city, become a local resource for recycling and waste reduction.

"The training gave us a deeper understanding of the solid-waste system," said Debbie Mytels, a Midtown Zero Waste block leader. "We learned why you couldn't just put plastic bags into the plastics recycling bin. We saw the (plastics) shredding machine and (thought), 'Ah, that makes sense.'"

Mytels described Zero Waste block leaders as "citizen ambassadors" and when she learned about the opportunity to host a party pack, she thought it was a wonderful idea.

"I got the set," Mytels said, "and I told everybody."

Currently, there are around 17 block leaders hosting party packs, Hediger said.

To use a party pack, Palo Alto residents can search the Zero Waste website for the contact information for a Zero Waste block leader near them. An added benefit of the party pack program and the Zero Waste Block Leader structure is building community, Hediger said.

"People have to contact their neighbor and work with them to pick up the party pack," she added.

Annette Isaacson is a Zero Waste block leader in Midtown who hosts a party pack.

"(The party pack) is a way of preventing refuse going into the dump and helping people to think about what they're doing," she said.

"In 2013, we lent the pack out to 71 different events, to an estimated ... 1,700 people," Hediger said.

The data for this year is not in yet to Zero Waste, but according to block leaders Isaacson and Mytels, Palo Alto residents are becoming more aware of party packs.

One such resident is David Kassel, who recently borrowed the party pack hosted by Isaacson. Kassel has used the party packs several times for his children's birthday celebrations.

Each party pack contains 24 reusable place settings and napkins. The napkins are royal blue and there are eight dishware settings each in red, blue and lime green.

"The dishes are nice because they're bright, crisp colors," Mytels said.

Isaacson said the colorful party-pack dishware could be made to accommodate many kinds of celebrations.

"There are still many ways to make a party festive," she said, "but this way, you do not have a whole garbage can full of refuse at the end."

"It can be hard to incorporate the colors into a Dora the Explorer theme or a princess theme, but for our boy's parties, (the colors) are easier to manage," Kassel said. "Regardless of the color-matching challenges, we feel the environmental benefit of using the party pack is far more important."

The most recent celebration was his son's eighth birthday party, where they set up a green and red table, Kassel said.

Palo Alto's party packs have been used for block parties, children's and adult birthday parties, picnics at the park and a wedding, said Hediger.

They even exist in Palo Alto schools. Each classroom at El Carmelo Elementary School, where Isaacson is a teacher, has its own party pack.

"The PTA at El Carmelo bought the containers, and we filled them with little plates, cups and bowls from Ikea," Isaacson said. "Teachers have the plastic box, and they keep it in the classroom. After a party, one parent takes home the party pack and washes it."

Getting party packs into more classrooms is a goal of some Palo Alto school Green Teams and supports district-wide efforts to decrease the amount of waste going into landfills.

"The district has had a Sustainable Schools Committee for quite some time," said Rachel Gibson, head of the Green Team at Lucile M. Nixon Elementary School and member of the Palo Alto Unified School District's Sustainable Schools Committee. "From what I've seen, the district has been incredibly receptive, and not just a willing, but a really engaged participant, in the effort to make school campuses more sustainable."

The amount of waste diverted from the landfill by using a party pack can be appreciated from data on disposable cups. ReThink Disposable, a project of Clean Water Action in collaboration with several Bay Area governments, advertises such data, Hediger said. According to ReThink Disposable, the amount of disposable cups that end up in landfills equals the combined weight of all people living in Houston, Texas.

The reusable cups, plates and bowls in Palo Alto's party packs are made from recycled plastic, which is also BPA-free.

"(The dishes) had to be durable," Hediger said. "Then we wanted them to be affordable, dishwasher safe and microwave safe. If they were all of those things, we wanted them to be made from recycled-content materials."

Using a party pack is an easy way to decrease the amount of waste a celebration generates and also reminds his family and others about their impact on the environment, Kassel said.

To request a party pack, visit Zero Waste.

Freelance writer Kimberlee D'Ardenne can be emailed at dardenne.kim@gmail.com.

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