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Lance Cheung, USDA
People serve themselves on paper plates from a buffet during the U.S. Department of Agriculture Interfaith Iftar Celebration in Washington, D.C., on June 22, 2017.

Neekta Hamidi usually gets a few strange looks when she sits down for an iftar, the evening meal that breaks the Ramadan fast, at her mosque in Boston.

Her fellow worshippers are digging into disposable plates piled with rice and meat. Her meal, though, is in a reusable glass Tupperware container. Next to her sits a reusable spork and thermos.

“Bringing my own reusable dishes is such a simple thing to do, but it makes a difference in my environmental footprint,” said Hamidi, who holds a graduate degree in environmental health from Johns Hopkins University and blogs about her minimal-waste lifestyle.

Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, is meant to be a month of simplicity and spirituality. But at mosques around the country, Hamidi said, garbage bags typically overflow with disposable cups, half-filled water bottles and half-eaten plates of rice and meat.

A report by Qatari sustainability advocacy group EcoMENA estimated that one-fourth of food prepared for sometimes lavish Ramadan iftars ends up in the trash. In Malaysia, officials say more than 270,000 tons of food are thrown away during Ramadan. Dubai officials say food accounts for up to 38 percent of domestic waste – a number that can spike past 55 percent in Ramadan. In Abu Dhabi, food waste jumps 10 percent in the holy month, leading the government to ask residents to cut iftar portion sizes.

David Chang, Food Systems Lab
Tammara Soma.

Such staggering statistics have caused a slow awakening about food waste. Last year, a waste-conscious iftar in London used primarily ingredients that supermarkets usually discard; this year London mosques will host several plastic-free iftars. Three years ago, Dubai began using electronic containers to measure the amount of waste produced in Ramadan. In Saudi Arabia, the Etaam food bank initiative launched a campaign to encourage food preservation at Ramadan tents, hotels and restaurants.

“The modern pattern of overconsumption and wastefulness has never fit into Islam,” said Tammara Soma, co-founder of Toronto’s Food Systems Lab. “The Prophet Muhammad said if you have food for one person, it’s enough for two. If you have food for two people, it’s enough for four.”

Now, in the U.S., too, leaders at mosques and Islamic centers are rolling out initiatives to lead their communities toward a zero-waste Ramadan – or at least a minimal-waste one.

Plates piled high

At home, Hamidi aims for zero-waste iftars: She avoids plastic, buys food without packaging whenever possible, composts leftovers and uses reusable dishes. “I always count the number of plates in my cabinet and then send out my guest list,” she said with a laugh.

It’s a little more challenging to make that happen at the mosque-wide level.

ICCNC
Payman Amiri.

“You know how it is during Ramadan,” said Payman Amiri, one of the founders of the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California. “People are a lot hungrier than their stomach will actually allow them to eat.”

Indeed, some experts suggest that short-term fasting might stunt the appetite. After hours of abstaining from food or drink, worshippers ambitiously overfill their plates, only to dump the majority into the trash as they rush off to complete their evening prayers.

One recommendation is to ask mosques not to serve iftar meals in overflowing pre-packed containers. Instead, the ICCNC and other mosques now have volunteers serve the food, doling out half-portions to everyone and offering smaller plates to children. Worshippers are encouraged to come for seconds and thirds, rather than get their entire iftar at once.

To go a step further, Hamidi recommends first filling up on plant-based foods, such as salad and lentils, before grabbing carbs and meat. If you accidentally load up, Hamidi recommends setting up a compost.

“Even if they can’t afford reusable dishes, all mosques should at least switch their dishes to paper or bioplastics and set up a compost bin,” she said. When leftover food and dishes all go into one compost bin, it means none goes into landfills.

It might cost more, but organizers involved with these green iftar efforts say it’s worth it.

“As a Muslim organization, I believe we should be exemplary when it comes to social responsibility,” Amiri said. His center in Oakland has spent the past decade integrating green initiatives that reduce waste “and instead using our resources to help those who don’t have the means to feed themselves.”

This year, the ICCNC is joined by 18 other Bay Area Islamic organizations to reduce food waste as part of the San Jose-based Islamic Networks Group’s initiative to end hunger.

“Food waste and hunger go hand in hand,” ING’s Ameena Jandali said. “When you throw all this great food in the garbage, then walk outside the mosque and see homeless people, it stares you in the face that the U.S. isn’t immune to these problems.”

Some mosques have considered canceling iftars altogether because of the sheer amount of food waste, Jandali says. But the mosques ING is working with have come up with better solutions.

Lance Cheung, USDA Media
A photo of the halal food served during the U.S. Department of Agriculture Iftar Celebration in the patio of the Whitten Building in Washington, D.C., on June 28, 2016.

Every night this Ramadan, the ICCNC is distributing about 100 packages of food – about 1,400 meals total – to Oakland’s homeless population. And it’s not just leftovers. Before worshippers break their fast, volunteers box up food and deliver it to homeless shelters or those on the street.

A bigger problem may actually be food-associated waste. Unless the food has already been touched, “there’s always someone to give leftover food to,” Soma says. It’s the dishes, utensils, trays and boxes packaging the food that are harder to deal with.

Bulging trash bags

When Amiri walks into a mosque and sees a plastic-foam cup, he can’t help but cringe.

“That should be a complete no-no,” he says. “I’m immediately like, OK, I need to talk to these folks about Styrofoam and the impact it has on the environment.”

Nearby, in Pleasanton, Calif., youth from the Muslim Community Center of East Bay ordered compostable dinnerware and utensils for Ramadan and ensured that caterers only use recyclable packaging to deliver the iftar meal, one organizer said.

At their first iftar of the year, organizers say, they diverted more than 400 gallons of compost and 130 gallons of recyclables from landfills.

The ICCNC began its own green initiatives when Amiri noticed about half of its Ramadan trash ended up being plastic drinking bottles. “That’s not acceptable in this day and age,” Amiri said. “So we invested in a water cooler, implemented multicolored garbage bags for recycling and started spending more money on compostable plates and utensils.”

Volunteers who monitor the trash say it’s been reduced “tremendously” over these years. That gives him hope that people are becoming more conscious, Amiri says.

That’s part of a larger trend among U.S. Muslims. A 2017 survey by Pew Research Center found that 62 percent say protecting the environment is “essential” to their identity as Muslims. That number is slightly higher among those under 40 years of age, those born outside the U.S. and those who say religion is very important to them.

Making the change

The Muslims who attend the ICCNC’s center tend to be highly educated, successful professionals who have been in America for many years. A green Ramadan can be a harder sell at mosques attended mostly by recent immigrants.

“A lot of people think the U.S. is the land of plenty,” Amiri says. “But they don’t think there are hungry people a block or two blocks away from their place.”

Lance Cheung, USDA
A close-up of food served at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Interfaith Iftar Celebration in Washington, D.C., on June 22, 2017.

Young Muslim environmentalists, Hamidi said, need to appeal to the common denominator of faith to convince immigrants, as well as older generations. “When you read some statistics about waste and our environment, then you read the Quranic verses about how Allah doesn’t love the wasteful, it brings the religious injunction to life,” Jandali said.

That was also the goal of the Green Khutbah campaign in Toronto, launched in 2010 to challenge imams to deliver a Friday sermon on a topic related to environmentalism.

Organizers say buy-in from mosque leadership gives green initiatives lasting power. “Environmentalism isn’t exactly the hottest topic for Friday sermons,” Hamidi said. “But an imam reminding congregants to bring their own reusable cups and to eat like the Prophet Muhammad would eat can make a huge difference.”

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“And once or twice a year,” Amiri suggested, “take the youth out to clear a creek near your mosque.” At ICCNC’s Saturday school, teachers take students out every few months to clean the block around the center. The hope is that the children remember those images – Styrofoam pieces and plastic six-pack rings sullying the environment – and it will shape their lifestyle going forward.

“Once you work on the youth, it’s embedded in them by the time they’re older,” Amiri said. “Then it’s easy. It’s the first generation that it takes more work.”