As the clock approached midnight, volunteers in the kitchen of the Islamic Center of Minnesota’s women-only clubhouse washed cutlery and ceramic plates to be used for the next iftar dinner in the days to come.
It made more work, but that meant less trash after the traditional evening meal to break the fast during Ramadan.
“A few years ago, when we decided to organize iftars, we reached out to the community and asked for old plates, silverware, dishes and cutlery. We have been using them since,” said Sally Hassan, director of the clubhouse, called Club ICM. “People are used to the convenience of using plastic or paper plates. They want the easy way out.”
Mosques and Islamic centers in Minnesota are increasingly turning to zero- or minimal-waste approaches during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. Organizers of iftars across the state are coming up with ways to ensure that there are no overflowing garbage bags, piles of plastic bottles or wasted uneaten foods at the nightly events that can draw a handful or a few hundred people.
American consumers waste more than a third of all food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that food comprised 22% of the trash sent to landfills in 2015, more than any other single material.
Against this backdrop, Muslims in Twin Cities and beyond are forming green teams to gradually switch over to eco-friendly mealtime habits.
“As Muslims, we have to be stewards for this earth,” Hassan said. “You cannot be a good practicing Muslim and not take care of planet earth. The two do not match.”
The Indiana-based Islamic Society of North America has been reaching out to mosques and Islamic centers to join the “Greening Our Ramadan” campaign by adopting practices such as conserving food, using relatively quick-degrading paper products and giving a khutbah, or Friday sermon, on the Islamic imperative to conserve and protect the environment.
Outside mosques, a few restaurants have also rolled out green Ramadan initiatives. Ruhel Islam, the owner of the Gandhi Mahal, an Indian/Bangladeshi restaurant in Minneapolis, said that he has been following a zero-waste approach since he opened the eatery in 2008.
The iftar buffet has compostable dishes, people are served small portions and the cooking oil is recycled into bio diesel. Many of the herbs used for cooking at Gandhi Mahal are grown in the aquaponic facility in the basement of the restaurant.
“I grew up in Bangladesh in a community which grows its own food and believes in reducing carbon footprints,” Islam said.
Depending on the budget and manpower, Islamic centers are adopting practices ranging from no-plastic usage to composting to sorting recyclables out of the trash.
“We choose to serve our guests at our buffet, offering modest portions first, and allowing them to return for more after each person is served,” said Jessica Wayman, communications coordinator of Minneapolis nonprofit Building Blocks of Islam, which serves about 300 guests each year at its annual fundraising dinner.
The organization’s iftar dinner on Friday will have 100% compostable and biodegradable dinnerware and no plastic water bottles.
“Any remaining food is packaged for guests to take home and eat as their suhoor, the pre-fast meal in the morning, or for iftar the next day,” said Wayman.
She said that young Muslims across the country raising awareness of climate change played a role in the shift from conventional to more eco-friendly Ramadan meals.
She also noted “there is a global push for greener practices as the situation gets more dire in terms of water shortages, the destruction of forests and seas, and the threat to wildlife.”
Still, going green comes with its own set of challenges. Degradable and compostable items cost more than the regular ones, and the logistics of composting and recycling can be tricky.
However, educating people about waste practices and why they matter has been a far bigger challenge, said Salim Altaf, part of the Northwest Islamic Community Center’s green team.
“We cannot expect that everyone would know about identifying and segregating waste,” Altaf said. “Every Ramadan, we explain the concept to them in the first week.”