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Eco Etiquette: How To Be A Gracious Green Guest (And Proselytizer At The Same Time)

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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

I went to an elegant dinner party a few weeks ago where the hostess had thought through every detail of the menu: The place settings were just so, the wine was delicious... Between the main course and dessert I offered to help clear plates in the kitchen. I was horrified to see every bit of trash -- paper cocktail napkins, uneaten food, glass bottles -- all thrown into enormous black plastic bags. Even worse, I joined in! I almost said, What, you don't recycle? You don't compost? But I didn't think that would have been very polite. What could I have said or done to educate this woman without offending her?

-Sarah

Boy, is it hard to bite one's tongue in these types of situations! Or not: Your temporary case of Sustainability Stockholm Syndrome (where one identifies with the trashers) is a common reaction, and who could blame you?

This woman had welcomed you into her home and cooked you a lovely meal. To have called out your hostess at that juncture in the evening (right before she brought out the hand-piped profiterole tower, no doubt!) would have made you a most ungracious guest.

Nor would it have been a very effective means of encouraging her to change her ways; in my experience, most people respond to criticism by either clamming up or going on the defensive. No one enjoys being admonished, especially by an environmentalist who, just a few moments before, had no problem polishing off the filet mignon with her third glass of South African syrah.

So what could you have said to enlighten your hostess? The situation is tricky, because it sounds like this woman is an acquaintance rather than a close friend. A close friend would probably know by now that you're the ardent environmentalist who sometimes needs to espouse her green beliefs with gusto. My friends do; though I still take care not to annoy them too much. (Another eco etiquette tip: People tend to tune out a nag.)

I know you're hoping I have some sort of brilliant diplomatic catchphrase that I use in these dinner-party-type situations, but quite honestly, I have yet to find one. Some might suggest a surreptitious method of getting your point across:

You: Oh, I don't bother sorting my recyclables anymore, either. Since the economy tanked, there are so many homeless people going through my trash that I know those bottles will get recycled whether or not I'm too lazy to throw them in the blue bin.

But most people are smart enough to recognize passive-aggressiveness when they hear it. And they don't like it.

If, when you had first noticed the bottles being tossed into the trash bags, you had cheerfully offered to the hostess, "Want me to be in charge of recycling?!" -- that would have seemed innocent enough.

Let's be realistic, though: Assuming the house even had a recycling bin, that solution may have saved a few glass bottles from a landfill fate, at best. I doubt your hostess would have been eager for a green overhaul -- let alone a larger conversation about what America's lagging recycling rates bode for the future of humanity -- as she was rushing around trying to clear tables, percolate coffee, and plate dessert.

If you're truly interested in converting your hostess from prodigal to proactive, the only way to open her eyes is to do it on your own green turf: Invite her to a dinner party where the fare is farmers-market fresh, the wine is served out of growlers filled at your local vineyard, and the handcrafted soy candles cast a soft organic haze over the delighted diners gathered around your reclaimed railroad-tie dining table. Feel free to go eco-crazy.

When it's time to clean up in the kitchen, recruit your former hostess to scrape plates into the compost bin. Then, when she asks what compost is, that's your entrée to explaining (in an excited, never preachy way) the hows and whys of your green household.

Seriously, though, before you invest all your energy in converting this woman, ask yourself: Why are you so determined to "educate" her, as you say? If it's because you think the world will be a better place when this woman learns to recycle, then go for it.

If, though, it's because you're frustrated by the widespread ignorance surrounding environmental issues, I say invest your valuable energies in an effort that could have far broader reach, like volunteering for an environmental literacy organization like INFORM, or petitioning FDA to require labeling for genetically modified food. It may not feel as immediately satisfying as chiding someone for not composting the cocktail napkins, but it'll pack more sustainable punch in the long run.

Today's question came to me from Sarah Finnie Robinson over at PracticallyGreen.com, a great starting place for new greenies who want to make a difference.

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