With Spring finally "sprung," and the last day of school soon approaching -- neighbors' minds and hearts turn to that annual homage to communal grilling, sidewalk chalk, water fights, and big-and-little-people tricycle races: The Block Party. A sacred thing in many places across the country -- not least in Oak Park and River Forest -- block party fun is serious business. And to some local citizens, greening their block parties is seriously cool and important business.   The great news is that the villages of Oak Park and River Forest are both supporting GREEN BLOCK PARTIES this year! Why? Read on below for the why's, who's, what's, and how's of green block parties.

Why Green Your Block Party?

Green Block Parties can go a long way towards protecting our planet, conserving resources, saving money (really!), educating and raising environmental awareness among neighbors, and building community. When you really look at it -- it's pretty easy too. What's not to love about all that?

When people come together, especially when food and drink are involved -- a lot of merriment can be made. So can a lot of trash. More and more cities and towns -- including many of our local schools in Oak Park and River Forest -- are now "trashing" the word trash in favor of "landfill waste," since the latter rightfully reminds us that when we put something in the trash bin, it doesn't actually go away. There is truly no such thing as away, and calling it landfill reminds us that our waste will be buried in our Earth, going on to create methane (a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2) and contaminate water runoff, among other disturbing nuisances.

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 25% of municipal solid waste is organic (food, yard waste, etc) and should therefore be composted rather than placed in landfills. Currently, only 5% is being composted. If paper waste is included, almost 60% of municipal solid waste can be composted. Here are some additional national and local statistics about waste:

In the US. In 2012, Americans generated about 251 million tons of trash and recycled and composted almost 87 million tons of this material, equivalent to a 34.5 percent recycling rate (US EPA). This means more than 70% of our municipal solid waste is still going to landfills. Here are some of the environmental issues surrounding landfills, according to the EPA.

In Oak Park. Waste reduction in Oak Park is going in the right direction. In 2007, Oak Park collected 20,783 tons of residential waste; in 2012, the Village collected 16,329 tons -- a 21% decrease. In that time, the amount of waste diverted from landfill (and into recycling or compost) increased from 35.6% to 37.9%. Despite this, in 2012, 62% of all residential waste collected was still sent to landfill. Citizens have been able to improve waste reduction and landfill diversion rates, and it can and should continue to be done.

In River Forest. Waste reduction in River Forest is also notably improving. In 2007, River Forest collected 4,867 tons of residential waste; in 2012, the Village collected 4,404 tons -- a 9.5% decrease. In that time, the amount of waste diverted from landfill (and into recycling or compost) increased from 39.4% to 44.5%. Despite this, in 2012, 56% of all residential waste collected was still sent to landfill. Citizens have been able to improve waste reduction and landfill diversion rates, and it can and should continue to be done.


Who's Already Doing This?

scrothers-headshot We caught up with Sue Crothers, River Forest resident and founder of the River Forest Green Block Party program. Sue is also President of River Forest Parks Foundation, a 501c3 organization that sponsors the program, together with the Village of River Forest.  Sue has been leading the Green Block Parties program for 3 years.

Why did you found the Green Block Parties initiative?   I founded it in context of the Oak Park and River Forest sustainability plan, called Plan It Green. Block parties are a great social environment to reach multiple generations all in one place. Even though I was the one who got the nuts and bolts going, it was really the residents that came up with the creative idea of using the block party as a forum for educating on waste diversion, and composting in particular. The reason composting is so important, is that block parties can be such a throw-away thing. Using block parties, we can get neighbors to change habits since their houses are right there and it's easy to bring reusable supplies and things. There are Compostable waste is a great deal of the waste stream -- and it is largely made up of water. Because we pay based on weight for our waste disposal, if you take out that section of it, neighbors and towns will save money on hauling fees.

How are residents taking to it?  It's come a long way and we've seen great successes. We now have 5 families composting just on my block alone. We have had increased amounts of backyard composting, and increased awareness about waste diversion and the need for it.  Plus, it supports the local green economy with people learning through the block parties and then going out to get their own compost bins. That part is hugely successful. We've seen increased inter-generational communication on the need to address waste. I love the grandmother who says "I used to do this at home. I know how to do this!" This kind of inter-generational communication about the issue is really awesome.  We've had hugely positive feedback from residents. The Village of River Forest wants to embrace it too.

Moving forward, what is the outlook for the program? The program will be successful when every block party is a green block party and you don't even need to call it that. It just is. That's when I know we'll have been successful. It's like your seat belt. We don't have a campaign anymore to tell us to put on our seat belts. We just do it. That's a huge order, I know. But that's how it should be, right? When we're not calling it a green block party anymore, it's just the block party -- but it's green! I think the program has been a wonderful success story and I'm really excited about how the Village of River Forest and our residents have received it.  I'm really excited that it has expanded into Oak Park! It is a huge success for me that Oak Park has now picked up the Green Block Party baton and run with it.


What do I Need to Green MY Block Party?

Green Block Party - drink stationFood/Drink Considerations. Food and drink are often a key piece of any gathering, and clear, easy steps can be taken to minimize the environmental impacts from a communal meal. The simple goal is to focus on reusables rather than disposables when it comes to serving and distributing food and drink.

  • Instead of water in plastic bottles, consider a large multi-gallon refreshment cooler -- or several -- that you can make available all day on a porch or table halfway on the block. Maybe provide ice water (with or without lemon, orange, cucumber slices, or fresh mint leaves!) and/or lemonade in the large coolers, and then ask neighbors to mark (with their name on masking tape at the bottom) and loan reusable plastic cups that can be placed at the "drink station." Provide 2 bins as well, one marked as containing CLEAN cups for use -- and the other marked as containing DIRTY cups that can be cleaned and reused. Other thoughts regarding zero waste drinks include focusing on large containers (e.g., juice) rather than single servings (juice boxes or small bottles), since the latter is more energy-intensive to manufacture and generates more landfill waste. Be sure to make visible, labeled recycling bins available wherever drinks are served, so all cans, bottles, and juice boxes can be properly recycled (no caps or straws in the recycling bins, please). If opting for juice pouches, note that some of our local District 97 "zero waste schools" accept empty, "cleanish" juice pouches which they can recycled through Terracycle in exchange for cash-back to the schools; to donate empty juice pouches for recycling, email beyegreen@gmail.com.
  • For zero waste snacks during the day -- ambitious neighbors may want to make homemade smoothies, pour them into small paper Dixie cups, and freeze them for a midday treat on a hot block party day. Let people know -- maybe put out clear signage -- that the empty cups can be composted afterwards. Store-bought snacks can be made less wasteful if bought in large containers (think: large bag of pretzels, large block of cheese that is later cut into squares or slices) rather than individually-sized snack packs.
  • For main meals enjoyed communally, ask neighbors to (mark with their name underneath and) loan reusable plastic dishware for a group collection -- or have each family bring their own reusables to utilize for themselves at the meal. Ditch the plastic forks, spoons, and knives for reusable plasticware (e.g., standard plastic utensils are not at all compostable or recyclable; Preserve makes an entire line of reusable cups and dishware). Have neighbors bring reusable plastic plates, bowls, and utensils for themselves or to loan to a group "stash" for mealtime. Or, real platters, bowls, and utensils can be used for serving and distributing food. NOTE that the Village of Oak Park curbside composting program accepts (soiled) paper napkins and (soiled) paper towels, as well as (soiled) cardboard -- e.g., dirty cheese-smeared pizza boxes are compostable through the program!


Waste Considerations.

Green Block Party - sorting stationA critical piece to green block party success -- BOTH in terms of creating sustainability education/awareness, and reducing waste -- is to set up the logistics in a clear and easy-to-use manner, so that people will quickly understand what to do, and then actually do it. You will want to make available visible and clearly labeled waste sorting stations at 1-2 points on the block throughout the entire green block party. The Villlages of Oak Park and River Forest may each be able to loan you well-labeled bins for Compost and Recycling. (See How do I Get a Green Block Party Going? below for details.) In any event, each waste sorting station should include 5 bins, in the following order, since it is the order in which you would like neighbors to utilize the station. Clicking the bin types below will bring you sample signage that you can simply print out -- or adjust and print out -- as you wish. *Be sure to find out what your municipality will take in terms of these waste streams, before adjusting and using any of the signage below -- or similar signage. The "How Do I Get a Green Block Party Going?" section has links to each municipality for guidance.

  1. Compost bin. Clearly marked as COMPOST, and clearly describing what items are ok to deposit into this bin. In Oak Park, for example, the compost effort will be supported by the CompostAbles program, and will therefore be able to accept: ALL FOOD, any organic yard matter (sticks, leaves, branches, flowers, soil, etc),  cardboard (even if soiled), and any paper products (even if soiled), including paper napkins, paper towels, newspaper, and sheets of paper. In River Forest, there is no municipal composting program at this time that would accept food and yard waste as well as paper and cardboard -- so signage would state that ONLY food and organic matter (yard waste) is permitted -- and that meat, dairy, sauces, and oils are not permitted.
  2. Liquids Bin. Clearly marked as LIQUIDS, preferably with a snug-fitting strainer at the top to strain out any "chunks" from liquids. Any 5-10 gallon bucket will do, and can be dumped out midday if need be, and certainly at the end of the day, in any utility sink such as in a home laundry room. This is to make sure any recyclable containers are empty before they are deposited in the recycling bin. A full milk carton, generally speaking, is landfill waste; an empty milk carton is generally recyclable.
  3. Recycling Bin. Clearly marked as RECYCLING, and clearly describing that NO COMPOSTABLES should be placed in the recycling bin (see what is compostable through Oak Park's program in "Compost Bin" above).
  4. Landfill Bin. Clearly marked as LANDFILL, and clearly describing what should be deposited -- basically, anything that cannot already be composted or recycled. It is a good idea to spell out on signage that NO COMPOSTABLES and NO RECYCLABLES should be places in the landfill bin.
  5. Reusables Bin. Since you are attempting to run a zero waste event with your block party, and have likely asked neighbors to utilize reusable cups, plates, bowls, utensils, serving-ware, and perhaps even (cloth) napkins -- it is a good idea to CLEARLY MARK a large bin or two that can capture these items once used. This is so they won't be lost or accidentally discarded, and each can be returned to its owner at the end of the block party.


Community Considerations!

Often when people talk about sustainability, they're talking not just about protecting and preserving the earth and its resources, but also about building community because we share our planet -- and the responsibility to conserve it -- with all of humankind. And we share many of our treasured natural, local spaces -- parks, parkways, trees, critters, paths, even storm and sewer drains -- with our neighbors.

On the note of building community at your block party, two clever sustainable block party activities were shared with us by the students and Green Team members at Beye Elementary School in Oak Park. Both are easy to set up and to implement, and both can involve children and adults alike.


How do I get a Green Block Party Going?

Green Block Party - table candles   In Oak Park. Keep Oak Park Beautiful, the local chapter of Keep America Beautiful, can help coordinate green block parties. They can help your block obtain waste sorting bins for compost, as well as for recycling. They can also provide an environmentally-themed children's activity, and come to your block party to run a composting demo. Complete the Village of Oak Park's Green Block Party Request Form to request help with greening your block party.

In River Forest. Green Block Parties began as a grassroots effort in River Forest and are now an official program of the Village of River Forest and the River Forest Parks Foundation. Visit the Village of River Forest's Block Party Permits page to learn how to obtain a Green Block Party Kit. The free kit is available when applying for a green block party permit, and includes "how to go green" tips to use at your block party, a composter valued at $100, a kitchen caddy (under-counter compost collection bin), and the opportunity to schedule a free, kid-friendly composting demo at your party.