Environmentalists seek greener Ramadan
Food waste spikes during the Muslim holy month
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.
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.
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.
“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 prepacked 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.
Paper plates are used at iftar buffets around the world.