Fireworks celebration in Washington, DC on July 4, 2015. Anthony Quintano / CC BY 2.0
As ocean plastics and landfill levels are on the rise, Americans are gearing up for another litter-heavy holiday. Whether you’re participating in Plastic Free July or just want to cut down on waste this Independence Day, here are 13 ways to have a plastic-free Fourth of July get-together that’s every bit as patriotic as it is eco-friendly.
According to the National Retail Federation, Americans will spend about $7.52 billion on food items for the 2021 holiday alone, and 29% of the NRF’s survey group reported plans to purchase additional patriotic items this year. Use the following tips to reduce plastic pollution at your backyard barbecue.
Plastic-Free Fourth of July Cookout
When planning your plastic-free Fourth of July menu, keep in mind how your ingredients are sourced. Here are a few tips to cut down on food packaging waste:
1. Think Outside the Bun
Cling-wrapped meat on styrofoam trays, bags of buns, plastic condiment bottles — the waste produced when putting hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill can add up quickly.
A sustainable alternative is to grill skewers. Grab fresh produce like tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, pineapple, peppers and zucchini, add your meat of choice (as long as it’s purchased plastic-free), and assemble everything on compostable bamboo skewers. These are also a great option for picky eaters and kids — like with burger toppings, everyone can build their own skewers based on palate preference.
If you’re set on burgers, there are a few things you can do to eliminate your plastic waste:
- Bring your own container to the grocery store butcher counter
- Buy buns from a local bakery or make them yourself
- Buy condiments in glass jars
- Get toppings like onion, lettuce and tomato from a local farmers market to avoid produce stickers
2. Go Fresh for Sides
Typical Fourth of July fare usually revolves around plastic tubs of dip, bags of chips and other containers that will end up in a landfill. Thankfully, summer is a great season for fresh fruits and vegetables that you can enjoy without plastic packaging.
Go plastic-free with a trip to the farmers market and load up on the essentials: corn on the cob, potatoes for grilling or making into wedges, veggies to cut for a crudités platter, whole watermelon and more.
3. DIY Desserts
While red, white and blue ice pops make for a refreshing sweet treat, the individual plastic wrappers aren’t recyclable in a curbside bin. Instead, make your own frozen desserts. Fresh fruit sorbet can be made in large batches if you have many guests to feed, or you can get creative with ice pop molds.
For a plastic-free Fourth of July dessert you can leave out and forget about, scratch-baked zero-waste cookies can be made pretty easily.
4. Drink Responsibly
Most drinks that typically come in single-use plastic bottles, like lemonade and soda, also come in recyclable cans. If you’re going for zero-waste, mix up your own fresh fruit punches and lemonade in five-gallon sports coolers (and don’t forget to freeze your own ice).
For the adults, you can also opt for canned beverages. Even more fun, get 64-ounce growlers filled at a local brewery or bring in a keg.
No matter your age, stay hydrated with plenty of water. Rather than handing out single-use water bottles, fill pitchers from your kitchen or have a dedicated sports cooler for ice-cold H2O.
Low-Waste Party Supplies
Now that you’ve nailed down your plastic-free Fourth of July menu, let’s talk general party supplies. When planning your get together, keep the following in mind:
5. Use Washable Tableware
Have your guests use real cutlery and plates instead of disposable plastic silverware and paper plates (which are often coated in plastic, anyway). If you don’t have enough to serve everyone, ask guests to bring their own from home.
For drinks, make sure you have reusable cups and glasses handy. You can also ask guests to bring reusable water bottles to fill. And if you must have straws, opt for paper (just make sure they don’t come in a plastic bag) or a reusable straw made from glass or metal.
6. Ditch Plastic Wrap
When eating outdoors, many people prefer to keep bugs out of their food using plastic wrap or cling wrap. Aluminum foil is a plastic-free alternative. Or, if you want to go zero-waste, cover your dishes with a cloth, beeswax wrap or mesh food dome.
There are also plenty of natural ways to keep insects away altogether.
7. Avoid Plastic Foam Coolers
Whether you’re keeping things cold in your own backyard or attending a BYOB bash, skip the foam cooler. Popular brands like Igloo have created reusable coolers made from biodegradable materials that are widely available. Better yet, get a hard or soft-sided cooler that you can use for years to come.
Making Your Plastic-Free Fourth of July Party Festive
Red, white and blue decor can transform a regular summer cookout into a Fourth of July celebration — but it can also create a lot of unnecessary waste. You can go both plastic-free and patriotic with these tips:
8. Invest in Quality Decorations
Like most holidays, Fourth of July comes around every year, so you’ll end up saving time and money in the long run if you purchase reusable decorations to bring out annually. Items like throw pillows, ceramic candy dishes and banners can be placed around the house and easily stored during other months.
If you’re looking for something simple, you can’t go wrong with respectfully displaying a cloth American flag.
9. Play With Your Food
It doesn’t get much more American than a homemade pie with a creative star-spangled design baked on top. Make one (or two) and place them as your plastic-free Fourth of July table centerpiece.
Or, assemble a red, white and blue fruit plate with whatever you can pick up at the farmers market: strawberries, raspberries, cherries, watermelon, blueberries, blackberries, bananas, apple slices or anything else you come across that roughly fits the color scheme.
10. Make a Patriotic Playlist
A great way to add ambiance with zero plastic waste is by streaming holiday-themed music. There are plenty of pre-made Fourth of July playlists available on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, or you can make your own mix. (If you don’t have a speaker to use outdoors, ask your guests — chances are someone will have one to bring.)
11. Use Digital Displays
If your party is indoors, use digital decorations. Set your TV to play Independence Day-themed videos or display a patriotic screensaver. This is a little easier if you have a smart TV, but even with a standard display, you usually can hook up a laptop using an HDMI cable and broadcast it from your computer.
12. Keep the Kids Entertained
Outdoor fun doesn’t have to be wasteful. Ask your guests with kids to bring outdoor games to share, whether it’s a hula hoop, football or cornhole set. You can also set up your own games: burlap sack (local feed stores typically have some to spare) or three-legged races, obstacle courses, wet sponge toss — feel free to get creative.
If you have smaller children, blowing bubbles may be more their speed. You can create your own plastic-free bubble solution with household items like biodegradable soap, water and sugar. Then shape old wire coat hangers into wands for hours of fun.
13. End the Night at a Community Fireworks Display
Although fireworks emit high levels of lead and toxins — and many come wrapped in plastic — they’re still a Fourth of July staple in most parts of the U.S.
Rather than light the sky up with your own sparklers or bottle rockets, consider watching another city’s display on television or going to a local fireworks show in your community.
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