According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), almost half of the trash in the United States is from food and food packaging materials. Even if you’re a careful composter and recycler in your everyday life, it’s easy to generate waste at a backyard barbecue—from uneaten food to disposable utensils to spent charcoal.

We can’t help you cook your steak perfectly medium rare, but here are some tips to help make sure your recycling is well done.

Clearly Label Recycling and Compost Bins

A meticulous sustainability plan is useless if it isn’t easy to follow. Make it easy for your guests: put out plenty of recycling and compost bins and clearly label what goes where. Correct disposal should be obvious and effort-free for everyone.

You should also make clear what things shouldn’t go in each bin. For example, a well-intentioned guest might put a greasy paper plate into the recycling bin without realizing that soiled paper cannot be recycled (and may compromise the recyclability of anything it touches). 

Don’t Crush Your Aluminum Cans

Speaking of cans: though aluminum, along with glass and steel, is one of the easiest to recycle materials on the planet, a carefully labeled bin can help avoid a common recycling mishap.

It stems from how materials are sorted in single stream recycling flows. “Single stream” refers to a practice of putting all recyclable materials into a single bin, rather than specialized bins for each material. A crushed can may evade the sorting mechanisms used to identify it as a can, thereby passing through to a landfill or even contaminating a batch of different recyclables.

This is less of an issue if you live in an area that practices multi-stream recycling, but up to 80 percent of recycling programs in the United States are single stream. 

Try to Avoid Disposable Plates and Utensils

Single-use plates and utensils are a major source of waste by their very nature: you use them once and then throw them away. One of the easiest ways to reduce waste at your cookout is simply to stick to reusable dishes and cutlery. 

An estimated 40 billion plastic kitchen utensils are thrown out in America each year. Most end up in landfills, where they may never decompose. Even when made from recyclable materials, they are rarely recycled successfully—being small, they can literally fall through the cracks during the sorting process. Furthermore, food-soiled utensils and plates are considered to be contaminated. Since too much contamination can compromise an entire bale, they’re often excluded from recycling streams. 

Better an extra dishwasher load or extra bit of scrubbing than an extra bin full of landfill trash.

Paper is More Sustainable Than Plastic, But It’s Still Not Ideal

If you truly can’t avoid disposables—such as when you’re cooking out away from home, or simply have more guests than plates—it’s important to choose your disposables carefully. Avoid plastic. 

If buying paper plates, opt for unbleached paper and make sure they’re marked “PLA” or “compostable.” Some paper plastics are wax-coated or plastic-coated, making them neither recyclable nor compostable. And as mentioned above, plates are generally no longer recyclable once contaminated with food waste—but they are compostable.

Nevertheless, the production of paper products contributes significantly to deforestation: 68 million trees are cut down for paper products each year in the United States alone. 

Bamboo is the Most Sustainable Option for Disposable Plates

Bamboo plates offer a more sustainable alternative. Bamboo grows quickly—up to four feet per day, reaching maturity in three to five years (whereas an oak tree requires about 20 years)—and requires very little care or fertilization. After harvesting, its stalks can be used for construction, and its leaves and roots can be used as mulch or animal feed.

Bamboo products are also sturdier than their paper counterparts, and can even stand up to being washed—by hand, not in the dishwasher—and reused multiple times. Like paper, they’re fully recyclable (if clean) and compostable.

But as with paper, beware: bamboo is often combined with plastic and marketed as ecologically friendly. Avoid, for example, plates and cups made with bamboo plastic composite (BPC). When practical, always do your research to ensure a company’s production process is ethical and efficient.

For Disposable Utensils and Cups, Consider Bamboo, Wood, or Plant-Based Fibers

Unsurprisingly, bamboo is also a solid option for disposable cutlery. For example, nearly all “single-use” chopsticks are made from bamboo. Wood cutlery is also a compostable option.

For those who dislike the “taste” of wooden utensils, consider plant-based alternatives. Polylactic acid, a polymer derived from corn, is carbon-neutral and compostable; bagasse, derived from the fibrous left-over material from sugarcane processing, is compostable and causes less deforestation than wood.

Such bioplastics are rarely recyclable, as they can’t stand up to the heat required in the process. But once they’ve been used—and even if they haven’t—compostability is more important.

Monitor Recycling Changes Around the Holidays

Depending on where you live, the recycling schedule may be different around the holidays. Be sure to check local resources to ensure you don’t miss a pickup.

If Using Charcoal, Avoid Additives

As a general rule, gas grills—especially natural gas grills—are more environmentally friendly than charcoal. But if you’re determined to use charcoal, get additive-free lump charcoal. This gives you a few options other than sending it straight to landfill:

  • Keep a few pieces in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator to kill odors.
  • Feed your compost pile to increase the carbon content.
  • Place a lump at the bottom of a flower vase to make cut flowers last longer.
  • Suppress garden weeds and maintain soil moisture by using charcoal as mulch.
  • Fertilize plants (it’s a good source of potash and alkalinity)

Compost Uneaten Food

As always, organic matter (like food) should be composted, not thrown in the trash. Composting reduces waste, feeds plants, and keeps harmful methane out of the atmosphere.

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