Scouts are the ultimate planet protectors.
We use public lands responsibly. We pick up litter left behind by strangers. We volunteer our time for service projects that improve trails, control erosion and protect animals.
These efforts are laudable, but we should ask ourselves whether we can do more. Just like the Scouting advancement trail includes goals that are progressively more difficult as a young person works toward the Eagle Scout Award, our efforts toward conservation can (and perhaps should) get more intense as our troop’s daily practices become refined.
With that in mind, here’s one for troops that are up for a true challenge — a change with significant stakes for our planet. Consider taking steps toward becoming a zero-waste Scout troop.
What is zero waste?
The concept of “zero waste” has many definitions, and its goals include changes that begin far beyond the scope of an individual Scout troop. For example, many businesses are striving for greener manufacturing processes and more environmentally friendly packaging.
But there’s plenty that can be done at the troop level, too.
Simply put, a zero-waste Scout troop is one that does as much as it can to eliminate trash output during weekly meetings, weekend campouts and weeklong trips.
Before we get into the specific tips, please take note of the careful phrasing in the previous sentence — specifically the bit about a troop doing “as much as it can.”
Your troop’s shift to the zero-waste lifestyle won’t happen overnight. It’s best approached by taking small steps rather than trying to do everything at once.
The term “zero waste” can be a bit misleading, because you shouldn’t approach this change as an all-or-nothing proposition. Your troop can make an impact even if it never reaches absolute zero.
Even the greenest companies and most successful zero-waste bloggers haven’t completely stopped adding to their local landfills. But they’re doing as much as they can, and it’s making a difference. (As a bonus, zero-waste efforts also save money.)
By incorporating some of the ideas below, your troop will be making a difference (and saving money), too.
Zero-waste troop meetings
Your weekly troop meeting might last only 60 to 90 minutes, but all that time adds up over the course of a year. All that trash adds up, too. Are there ways to reduce waste during meetings?
- Instead of printed agendas, project the schedule on a screen.
- Replace take-home flyers, packing lists and other parental communication with social media and email messages.
- If Scouts must write something down for a meeting activity or other purpose, use scrap paper instead of fresh sheets. Ask your chartered organization or workplace if they have any to spare — perhaps some documents printed on just one side?
- Hold troop elections electronically, using the tips here.
- Ask your chartered organization whether your meeting place recycles and/or composts. If not, offer to set up a program. And until one is started, suggest to the patrol leaders’ council that they appoint a “recycling patrol” responsible for collecting all recyclables at meetings and taking them to a local recycling center.
- If you’re serving snacks or refreshments, try to get an accurate headcount so that you don’t overbuy. Consider compostable dinnerware and cloth napkins.
- Start a uniform closet. Scouts who outgrow their uniform shirts and pants donate those items to the closet and can select a larger size from items another Scout donated.
- For troop meetings where refreshments might be served, such as a court of honor, announce in advance that plates, cups and utensils will not be provided. Your Scouts should have these reusable items in their mess kit, so ask them to bring those instead.
- Go fully digital with a no-paper policy in your troop.
With its overnight lodging sans air conditioning or heating, camping is one of the greenest ways to spend the night. But Scout leaders know from experience that car camping can still generate a lot of garbage.
- Ask all Scouts to use refillable water bottles instead of disposable ones.
- Ban paper plates, throwaway cups and disposable utensils. Ask Scouts to bring their own mess kits instead.
- Outlaw paper towels. Encourage Scouts to bring their own set of reusable napkins. Scouts could make these from old T-shirts and bring three or four to use over the course of a weekend.
- Instead of replacing broken troop gear, try repairing it first.
- Recycle. If the campground or park where you’re staying doesn’t offer recycling, ask your PLC to consider selecting a “recycling patrol” to be in charge of collecting and depositing recyclables.
- As Scouts plan meals, encourage them to buy only what they’re sure they will eat. Save unexpired leftovers (like that half-used bottle of ketchup or maple syrup) for future trips, and divide up any food that won’t last so it doesn’t get thrown away.
- Encourage your Scouts to switch to rechargeable batteries for flashlights, headlamps and other battery-operated camping gear. You could even start a troop battery exchange program where Scouts can swap out their empties during the campout.
- Replace single-use zip-top baggies with reusable, resealable silicone bags.
- Buy used camping gear whenever practical.
- Ask your Scouts to rethink their grocery shopping strategy. Stop using produce bags, buy bulk items when possible and bring their reusable bags to the checkout.
- Compost food scraps like fruits, veggies, eggshells, rice and grains. If there’s no onsite composting option, pack it out and compost at home. (You shouldn’t compost bones, meat, fish, dairy or oils.) If you’re composting, be aware of animals like bears that might be attracted to this very smelly smellable.
- To eliminate the plastic bags that typically come with packaged ice (like you might buy at a gas station), make your own ice bags at home. This will likely take a few days of prep to build up enough ice to fill a cooler.
- Buy reusable squeeze bottles for toiletries (toothpaste, soap) and condiments (ketchup, hot sauce) so you can buy these products in bulk and take along what you need.
Leaving the trailhead behind for several nights? Adopting a few zero-waste strategies will lessen your load on the environment — and maybe even your shoulders.
- Pack it in, pack it out. By merely following the backpacking mantra of carrying all trash, including food scraps, with you throughout your journey, you’ll end up wasting less. If there’s a choice between eating that last helping of jambalaya or scraping it into a bag that’ll end up in your backpack … the choice is clear.
- Make your own trail mix by buying the ingredients in bulk instead of purchasing a prepackaged mix. (Bonus: You’ll get to add exactly what you want to the mix! Dark chocolate M&M’s, anyone?)
- Buy used backpacking gear whenever possible. For items you’ll only need once or twice a year, considering renting or borrowing from a friend.
- Buy reusable squeeze bottles for toiletries.
- Make your own backpacking meals. Dehydrated meals meet two big requirements of backpacking: they’re lightweight and easy to make. But they come in plastic packaging. For a true challenge, try making your own backpacking meal. Google “DIY backpacking meals” for a few recipes.
Beyond zero waste
Being an environmentally conscious troop is about more than keeping trash out of the landfill.
You could work with your chartered organization to make your meeting space more energy efficient, choose closer campout locations to reduce your carbon footprint and work with local organizations to find planet-friendly service projects.
All of these changes will work best when initiated by your Scouts. Youth-led efforts to protect our planet are bound to be better received by your Scouts and more likely to stick.
Share your ideas
What does your troop (or Cub Scout pack, Venturing crew or Sea Scout ship) do to help protect the planet?
Share your ideas in the comments section below.