As a general rule of thumb, I limit my backyard barbecue guest list to 22 people because that is how many enamel camp plates I own. Their shallow compartments keep baked bean juice from softening hamburger buns, and their construction means that no harm is done if one gets dropped on my brick patio.

Reusable dinnerware is also, almost always, more sustainable than single-use alternatives. It may take more energy and resources to produce a reusable plate, fork or cup, but after a certain number of uses (studies say 15 to 120 uses depending upon the materials in play), the environmental cost is lower than it would be to make and toss a plastic plate, fork or cup even once you account for all the washing up.

I try to be as green as possible, but I’m not crazy. When I was planning my daughter’s high school graduation party with a guest list 100  people long, I went looking for sustainable single-use plates and cutlery. (We ran with recyclable cans for beer and soda and tapped my 50-strong collection of wine glasses for sparkling water cocktails.)

Biodegradable and compostable plates and utensils. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

My search was easy because Google turned up options made of recycled paper, vegetable starch bio-plastics, wheat straw (crushed fibers and stalks after the wheat has been harvested) and pressed bamboo and palm leaves. The first two I could buy at Hannaford, the others at Home Depot. There are plates and cutlery made of sugarcane, too, but I could not buy those locally.

Sorting through these to determine which ones I could use and then send through my curb-side composting scheme took a bit more work. First, my options had to pass my baked bean test. Extremely scientific in nature, this test entails letting a pile of baked beans sit on the edge of the plate for the time it takes to get through the buffet line at one of my family’s summer potlucks (about 12 minutes). The test is two-fold: First, can you still carry the plate to the nearest lawn chair without it caving in when you reach the chair? And next, will the bean juice leak through while you balance the plate on your lap to eat? The recycled paper plates failed this test miserably, while the remaining three passed with aplomb.

These options all boasted the word “compostable” on their packaging. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you can throw them into your backyard compost pile. To dissolve into organic matter in a reasonable amount of time, these plates need a commercial composting system. And you must check with your composting service as some will accept the disposables (I use We Compost It and they do accept these products as compostable) but others do not. A customer service representative from a second local composting service, Garbage to Garden, explained that plates, bowls and cups advertised as industrially or commercially compostable are fine to throw in their buckets, as are bio-plastic utensils. But the company cannot accept utensils made of wood or bamboo as they are too dense to break down in its compost piles.  

The last consideration boils down to price versus aesthetics. For a 10-inch plate, wheatgrass costs 28 cents per plate; bio-plastics, 40 cents; and bamboo or palm leaves, 55 to 75 cents.  My husband saw a clear winner on this front alone. But I factored in how the plates look. Not only because I like a pretty table, but also because every time I feed people it’s an opportunity to open a conversation about taking small steps to a more sustainable way of eating. The wheatgrass is a dull tan, lackluster plate that could be made of anything so no one notices them. The bio-plastics look, well, like plastics, so by using them you’re not really making a visible point about reducing your plastics consumption unless you get into a nitty-gritty conversation about chemistry of the plate. With either bamboo or palm, each plate is naturally beautiful, naturally unique because they are made with different leaves of these plants. So when my sister says, “These are lovely plates,” my reply is “And they are a sustainable option compared to other disposable ones.”A very delicious, teaching moment even when school is out for the summer.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Zucchini stands in for some of the chicken, making this burger a better choice for the environment. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Chicken, Zucchini and Cumin Burger with Lemon Yogurt Sauce

I am always looking for burger recipes that cut the meat in half by adding vegetables for a healthier, greener meal. This recipe, adapted from one Yotam Ottolenghi included in his only omnivore cookbook, “Jerusalem,” comprises a sturdier mixture than his does, so they are better suited for the grill.

Makes 4 burgers

FOR THE SAUCE:

1 cup Greek yogurt

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon sumac powder

FOR THE BURGERS:

2 cups grated zucchini

Kosher salt

12 ounces ground chicken

3 scallions, finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 clove garlic, grated

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon smoky red pepper flakes such as Aleppo or Marash

1 egg, beaten

3/4 to 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs

8 slices toasted bread

Sliced cucumbers

To make the sauce, combine the yogurt, lemon zest and juice, olive oil and sumac in a bowl and set aside.

To make the burgers, combine the zucchini in a colander with a ½ teaspoon salt. Wait 15 minutes and then squeeze the zucchini into a ball in order to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the zucchini water. Combine the dried zucchini, another 1/2 teaspoon salt, chicken, scallions, parsley, cilantro, garlic, cumin, pepper, egg and 3/4 cup breadcrumbs.  The mixture should be firm. If it is still loose, add the remaining breadcrumbs. Form burgers into 4 equal patties. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before grilling to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Serve burgers on toast, topped with sliced cucumbers and yogurt sauce.


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