Every other year in early fall someone in my husband’s enormous extended family starts the process of planning the biennial Thanksgiving gathering of close to 70 guests (nope, that’s not a typo).

We outgrew anyone’s house a long time ago. Instead, the family splits the cost of renting a no-frills indoor pavilion at a lake club in northern New Jersey. Think summer camp mess hall.

The event is completely DIY. A global family email goes out. The organizer, different each year, starts a page on perfectpotluck.com for sign-ups. Guests bring the food, from appetizers to sweet potatoes to stuffing to coffee. We usually have four turkeys. Each family is assigned a time slot to help with setting up, serving or cleanup.

Guests come from as near as the pavilion’s town to as far away as San Francisco and Paris (France). Several live in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which is why it’s held where it is. My husband and I are the only Mainers. We never miss the affair.

After several years of working out the kinks, this family Thanksgiving now runs fairly smoothly. Much is done ahead of time. Hotel pans and hot plates are brought in for the buffet. The turkeys get sliced off site. One year, a cousin hauled two microwaves from Pennsylvania and worked backstage so we all got piping hot mashed potatoes.

It’s worked. But for years (too many years), we’ve resorted to disposable plates, plastic cutlery and paper napkins and tablecloths. Our numbers are large, and there is no dishwasher at the pavilion. All of the reusable serving dishes have been washed by hand – itself no small task – and the chore takes up the valuable sink space.

A family contingent finally said “Enough!” This was simply too much waste, and it all went right into the trash, not a recycling bin. This year’s planner, with too much on her plate already, metaphorically speaking, threw the task of greening our Thanksgiving to this principled group. A small sustainability subcommittee was formed.

You’d think that making a Thanksgiving gathering more environmentally sound would be an easy discussion, right? Not so. How far to take it was the prickly issue. Emails flew.

A few of us have long wished for real dishes and cutlery at our gathering and advocated renting dishware, cutlery, glassware and tablecloths from a nearby outfit (that delivers!). We could divide the cost among the many participants. And we could send the dirty dishes back for somebody else to wash. But our most ardent environmentalist disdained the rental route. We could get even more green, he insisted. When I pressed him to explain, he sent a thoughtful email:

“Glad you asked! Plate rentals require a dedicated building to be heated, cooled and lighted. And employees who will burn fuel commuting to work. Better that we use our money employing people to install solar and wind power rather than performing services for which we can be self-sufficient.… This subject raises larger questions about the environmental cost of conveniences, time savers, and non-essential services. Imagine if every dollar spent on bottled water, fast food and coffee-to-go were allocated to clean energy?”

The idea that everyone brings his or her own dishes and cutlery was brought up but quickly deemed impractical. What about guests who forgot? Or had to travel home on a subway? Others worried that washing dishware for 70 by hand in addition to all the serving platters we already wash was too daunting a task, and nobody would want to do it. We were there to enjoy each other’s company, right?

Someone suggested that it’s bad for our carbon footprint for all of us to drive or fly from different states to get together in the first place. (No one – not even the person who jokingly made the suggestion – is actually entertaining that thought.)

The upshot? A head count was done. A plate czar was named. Dishware was assessed. The ardent environmentalist branch of the family volunteered to bring large dinner and small dessert plates and take them home to run through their dishwasher, which runs on electricity generated by the solar panels they have on their roof. People will scrape their dishes into a big kettle, the contents of which will feed this family’s backyard chickens. (Did you know chickens eat turkey? This was news to me.) The dishes will get rinsed in cold water and stacked.

If there is the opportunity and space, the dad will wash them on site by hand, the old-fashioned way. He explained the method: scrape, rinse in one pot of water, wash in another pot of hot water, then rinse in cold water. This way, the hot water isn’t running the whole time, wasting energy.

Someone is bringing a cutlery collection purchased for $15 on Craigslist (from a jilted bride, but that’s another story). Disposable hot and cold cups will be recycled, but guests get only one cup for the day. We will label them with Sharpies.

Another relative is borrowing all the tablecloths from the private school where she works. She’s also got cloth napkins covered (one per person, so hold on to them, people). She’ll launder these at home. The tables are basic plywood with stains – too unsightly to go bare, even if it means we launder, using water and electricity. Convenience will be compromised somewhat, but I suspect barely anyone will notice except, perhaps, our intrepid and willing dishwashing, scrap-collecting family.

This year’s turkey will no doubt taste better on real plates, plus we’ll generate much less trash than in the past. Most important, our group mindset has now turned toward environmentally friendly choices. The momentum will be hard to turn back.

No one is clamoring for strictly local food. Yet. But who knows how green we will get two years hence?

Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer who lives in Brunswick. She can be contacted at: