I recently threw my daughter a small party to celebrate her 2nd birthday. Here are a few details about that party alongside more ideas to help you reduce trash and be more eco-friendly at your next celebration.
Aim to do the best you can without getting more stressed than necessary. Sure, push yourself to make great choices but also let it slide if you’re unable to pull off exactly what you intended, are unable to find something package-free, or well-meaning family and friends bring food to share or presents with excess packaging.
The bottom line is: Parties should be fun! I love celebrating the people I love with food, music and friends and family. Creating several trash bags filled with single-use junk is not what I’d call a good time. Party clean up shouldn’t take longer than the party itself. The good news is that you can still create a Pinterest-worthy, fun party for your child without creating a lot of unnecessary waste.
Digital invitations or personal calls can be really nice these days. I might misplace a paper invite and have to reach out to the host anyway for details. If I have the information in my email inbox or on my iCalendar, I can easily find the time and place.
If you feel like it’s absolutely necessary and proper etiquette to send out a paper invite, use recycled paper or at the very least encourage invitees to recycle or reuse the invite paper after taking down the pertinent details. You can purchase recycled paper invitations online (ex: PaperCulture.com and others), or buy recycled paper at your local office supply store and print or write your own. If your child is old enough or likes to scribble with a crayon, have them help with the invites!
This often seems the most difficult task to undertake, but in my experience it can be less stressful than other areas of party planning. In an old LA Times article I found about hosting a zero waste birthday, I remember being a little sad that the author made it seem like making food for a party was stressful and labor-intensive. Unless it’s fun for you to try, maybe a party isn’t the time to attempt difficult or time-intensive recipes. My secret is to make things I am comfortable preparing and to make sure there are a few recipes I can make and store for a couple of days in advance.
For my toddler daughter’s recent (mostly adults) party, we made guacamole, hummus, cut up vegetables, roasted sweet potato “chips,” gluten free cookies, cut-up fruit, and the easiest zero waste snack ever… popcorn! We had pitchers of sparkling water made with our Soda Stream and mixed with juices by Santa Cruz that are organic and come in glass. Also some beer and wine (in refillable growlers) is great to offer to adults. Ask others to bring food or drinks to share. We did end up with a bit of landfill waste from others bringing snacks to share, but that’s okay! We appreciated their generosity and didn’t let the small amount of trash bother us in the slightest.
Even in areas where bulk/loose/unpackaged items are few and far between, baking ingredients like flour are often available. The star of my food table was a layer cake topped with pomegranate seeds – they happen to be my daughter’s favorite but they also do make excellent edible and zero waste cake decoration! The candle is beeswax, packaged plastic-free by the company Big Dipper Wax Works. If baking a cake is too far outside your comfort zone, consider cupcakes, cookies, brownies or even doughnuts. You can usually find these unpackaged at local bakeries and simply request that they are put in your own containers or cloth bags for transport.
We had some big pieces of cardboard hanging around in our garage so I painted some signs to make our space a bit more festive for a birthday. I used one of the big pieces as a kind of giant card that guests could sign. Some people shared memories, their well wishes, and some even drew pictures. I took a photo of it after the party, added it to my latest Chatbook photo album so we’ll always have a copy, and then recycled it.
I wasn’t overly focused on decorations because my daughter is only two, and I knew guests were more interested in hanging out together and eating delicious food than seeing a birthday theme come together. Also I’ve been totally zonked from my pregnancy so I took it really easy. If I’d had more energy or desire, I might have added a few more decor elements because I definitely like to get crafty for a party.
I’d use paper or fabric banners or flag bunting, photo bunting, paper lanterns and other reusable (and, eventually compostable/recyclable) decorations to add more flair to different corners of your house. Look to nature for flowers, twigs or leaves to make garlands and flourishes, too. Consider what produce is in season, too. Pumpkins, lemons, watermelons, pretty much anything can be used as a centerpiece or decor.
Ask around if family, friends or friends-of-friends have any reusable decor hanging around that you can borrow. This certainly isn’t the norm – but I believe it should be! You might be surprised who will lend out twinkle/holiday lights, flowers, banners and other fun items. If you’re looking to stick to a particular theme or cartoon/book/movie character asking for help from your community is especially helpful. Maybe someone has a big Mickey Mouse doll or poster you can prop up somewhere for your Disney party. Easily return it after the party and you won’t have added anything to the landfill …or your storage bins!
…what about balloons?
It’s a bummer, but balloons really don’t belong at an eco-friendly party. There are so many other ways to be festive and I don’t miss them. Balloons are cute but mylar and latex balloons last pretty much forever in a landfill or worse – in your back yard, neighborhood, local forests. If they’re filled with helium and get away, they pose a real threat to wildlife.
It’s not a perfect solution but if you are unwilling to compromise on this point and absolutely must have balloons, choose ones that are refillable and use at least a few years and for many events in a row. Instead of getting a numbered balloon (which I regrettably have done in the past), consider getting a letter balloon that can be used year after year. Assuming the child’s first letter of their name won’t change!
We graciously accept any gifts given to my daughter – along with any potential waste from packaging that might come along with it. It is very rare, but if the gift absolutely isn’t a good fit for her or our home, we might consider living with it for a little while and then passing it along to someone else who would better use it or we donate it.
Most friends and family reached out in advance to ask for gift ideas. We first suggested no gift and asked them to bring a snack or drink to share. Present ideas we offered up were new or used books (no wrapping paper, please!), a few specific things we know our daughter wanted like a full-sized basketball, a ukelele (thanks, Mom & Dad for this awesome gift!) and play silks. For family and friends with kids we asked for a hand-me-down gift – something their children have outgrown that my daughter might like. This is not the norm and made some people uncomfortable but I can honestly say that post-party, the “used” items have gotten just as much play time if not more than the brand-new things. We were so grateful that everyone stuck happily to our wishes, and my daughter got a few new-to-her toys and books that we know will get a lot of use for years to come.
Depending on the age cohort and guests, you may not even want to do a favor. Providing delicious food and fun activities is likely enough and many parents appreciate not bringing home a bag of items. However, here are a few easy ideas for kids if you want them to take something home. Fill little up-cycled jars or cloth bags with dried fruits and other snacks from the bulk bins. Fill them with bulk bin candy for older kids. Layer the dry ingredients for a cookie or muffin recipe in a jar that the kids can make with their parents later. Sometimes stationery stores have fun natural rubber erasers and pencils that can be a good take-home gift. Make or buy recycled/up-cycled notebooks or notepads and include a few non-toxic, natural crayons or colored pencils.
Overall, do your best!
If every aspect of the party can’t be completely zero waste for whatever reason, choose some obvious things to go without like disposable plates, utensils and cups. There’s simply no excuse not to try just because you might not be perfect. If you cut back even a little bit and save one or more bags of garbage from unnecessarily heading to the landfill, compounded over many years and many parties you will have made a huge difference.
If there’s something I missed or if you would like more information or details, please leave me a comment below!