EcoWatch Illustration by Devon Gailey
With Thanksgiving and the holiday season right around the corner, we’re gearing up for a period of celebration and gathering with friends and loved ones.
Holiday events and parties – like birthdays, wedding showers, graduations, anniversaries – are often quite wasteful, but don’t have to be! Plan a party that’s fun, festive, and sustainable.
Instead of loading up your cart at the party-supply store with plastic, get creative and make your own party decorations.
Collect the packing-material paper from packages over time to decorate with, and utilize old sheets or used fabric from thrift stores. For themed parties, cut out and paint paper and used cardboard to create the desired atmosphere, or drape fabric from the ceiling, around the porch, or for a photo backdrop. Try out some more intricate paper decorations you can make yourself, like streamer chandeliers or giant pom-poms.
Flowers and floral arrangements are a common way to decorate, but usually have an environmental cost; most flowers sold in the U.S. are imported from Columbia and Ecuador, traveling long distances in refrigerated airplanes to reach consumers only 3-5 days after they’ve been picked, and create harmful runoff from heavy fertilizer use. Opt instead for flowers from a vendor that grows locally (and organically, if possible), and donate the blooms afterwards. Organizations like Random Acts of Flowers and NYC-based Repeat Roses will help rearrange and donate your blooms to hospice centers, nursing homes, and other facilities.
Decorating with nature can go beyond flowers. Bring greenery like hardy herbs, evergreen branches, wild grasses, and wildflowers indoors. You can even make your own confetti out of leaves using a hole-puncher, especially for an outdoor party, leaving you with no cleanup. For fall parties, try corn stalks, colorful leaves, and acorns, and during the holiday season, bring in holy and pine branches, pinecones, winter berries, and homemade wreaths to set a festive mood.
For larger events, rent or borrow necessities like chairs, tables, and tablecloths. Research party-supply renters in your area, or contact friends and family who have hosted similar gatherings and ask what materials they still own that they’d be willing to lend.
If you do buy decorations, seek out local artists who handmake pieces instead of buying mass-produced goods, and pick them up locally.
The food you choose to serve is perhaps one of the best ways to lower the environmental impact of your event.
Half of all plastics produced are designed to be used only once, according to the United Nations Environment Program, which includes the packaging for processed foods and pre-made meals. Make your own appetizers, snacks, main courses, and desserts instead of buying pre-made, plasticized party platters or packaged snacks, using fresh, organic, local, and in-season ingredients when possible; you’ll avoid plastic and all the carbon-intensive processes needed to create and store a pre-made food item. By using local ingredients, you’ll also cut out the 1,500 miles of travel needed to bring most meals to your plate.
Consider also preparing only plant-based vegetarian or vegan dishes for your party to cut down on the global greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, water use, and other environmental issues connected to meat consumption.
If you’re not able to make all of the dishes yourself (which is quite reasonable), turn your event into a potluck. Explain in the invitation that this is a waste-free event, and encourage guests to help reach your zero-waste goal. Ask them to bring dishes in reusable dishware and consider making plant-based items. It’s also helpful to ask guests to bring a specific course – like a dessert, appetizer, salad, or hot entrée – to ensure there isn’t too much of one thing, leaving behind unnecessary leftovers that will contribute to the 30-40% of the food supply in the United States that is wasted each year.
Save containers in the weeks prior to the party – like take-out boxes, plastic parmesan cheese or hummus containers, etc. – to hand out leftovers, or ask guests to bring their own Tupperware. Freeze uneaten food for yourself, or give away to neighbors and friends that couldn’t join for the actual event to prevent food waste.
Ditch bottled water and drinks by making your own!
Fill glass carafes with homemade drinks for guests to pour into their own glasses: infused water, sangria, lemonade, flavored iced tea, or your other favorite beverages that can be made in large quantities. For a big bash, consider buying a beer keg or other bulk alcohol instead of individual canned drinks
In the weeks before your event, collect glass jars from salsa, pasta sauce, etc. to be washed and used as cups at the party. The different shapes and sizes of the jars will add a creative flair, and they can be decorated with twine, fabric, lace, and tied-on paper labels that guests can write their names on.
If you do go single-use, buy beverages in cans made of aluminum: one of the most recyclable materials.
Along with glass jars, swap the rest of your party-dishware for reusables.
Disposable paper plates and bowls are not recyclable, given that the paper absorbs oil and residue from food. Plastic dishware might sometimes be recyclable, but must be washed, and still contributes to the massive amounts of plastic waste generated in the world: over 380 million tons a year. Plastic silverware is generally not recyclable also because of its shape and the type of plastic used to make it.
To minimize dishware, consider serving mainly finger-foods that guests can enjoy without utensils, although collecting and washing plates, bowls, and silverware is relatively easy, especially with the help of a dishwasher. If you expect to have more guests than you have dishware, ask friends and family to borrow a set of theirs, or search secondhand retailers like Facebook marketplace, local thrift stores, or yard sales for cheap dishes and utensils that you can use and store for all your upcoming gatherings.
Reusable napkins are also a worthwhile investment for parties and for the household in general; put out napkin rings that can be labeled so people know which is theirs throughout the day, and have a receptacle near the food for used napkins, which can be tossed in the washing machine the next day and reused over and over again.
If you choose to go the disposable route for a particularly large party, or if washing many dishes isn’t possible for you, seek out compostable dishware and create a plan for composting it correctly. Sending compostable plates and silverware to landfills – which are airtight and don’t allow aerobic degradation – doesn’t do much good. Find a nearby commercial composting facility to bring them, or place in your compost bin, if the product specifies that it can break down in residential composters. Make sure you know how the products you buy can be properly disposed of beforehand.
Dishware isn’t the only thing to be properly disposed of. Set up a station near the food with separate vessels for trash, recycling, and composting. Label each with a list of what should go in it; you can even hang an example of each piece of waste (pieces of silverware, different plates, etc.) above each bin as a visual. Set up a receptacle for reusable dishware and napkins next to these bins so guests know exactly where their items should go.
Trash and recycling are easy to manage in most places, but composting can be slightly more tricky. Make sure guests know what can be put in the compost: no meat, dairy, or non-biodegradable items. Place the scraps in your own compost, or research composting drop-off centers or services in your area. In some locations, composting services will provide residents with buckets for a fee, and will then come collect the scraps on a specified date. Look into what options exist in your area for properly disposing of your organic waste.
To go the extra mile, divert plastic waste from the trash with Terracycle: a company that collects and recycles practically anything. Visit one of their public drop-off locations, or purchase your own Terracycle Zero Waste Box to fill with accepted items and send back to the company to be recycled. Let guests know what to put in the box, such as candy or snack wrappers. Terracycle even sells a box specifically for Dining Disposables and Party Supplies! Or course, the best option is to avoid creating this waste altogether, especially as these boxes can be rather expensive.
Games and Party Favors
To avoid unnecessary plastic waste, replace party favors and prizes for party games with more thoughtful, waste-free gifts: day passes to museums or classes, gift cards to local businesses, propagated plants or potted herbs with instructions for growing, baked goods or homemade candy, seed packets, or waste-reducing items like reusable straws, to-go mugs, and produce bags.
Instead of playing games that require buying specific things – like props, sports equipment, complex crafting equipment, etc. – opt for easier activities like Hedbanz (with DIY cards), charades, or board games that you or other guests can provide.
Gift-giving is a wonderful part of the holiday season – as well as birthdays, showers, or other events – but giving gifts without thought can be an unnecessary source of waste.
Instead of doing a Secret Santa or exchanging individual holiday presents as a group, play a round of White Elephant with the best thrifted finds, items you already own, or gifts that will help others reduce waste in their lives, like an at-home composting set-up for a friend who doesn’t yet have one.
If the party is for a more gift-oriented event – like a birthday, wedding shower, or anniversary – ask guests to consider the impact of their gift, and request experiences, donations, or money for a specific purpose, like a honeymoon. A registry or Pinterest board of gift ideas will also nudge folks in the right direction and make sure you’re only being given things you actually want/need, and they won’t end up in the donation bag right away.
Challenge guests to wrap gifts creatively with newspaper, scrap paper, used wrapping paper, or other materials, listing a few in the invitation to give them ideas. Alternatively, set up a gift-wrapping station at the edge of the party where guests can use provided scrap paper or cloth, like scarves, decorative dishtowels, or Furoshiki Wraps, which have been used in Japan for centuries to wrap gifts.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Along with her most recent position at Hunger Free America, she has interned with the Sierra Club in Washington, DC., Saratoga Living Magazine, and Philadelphia’s NPR Member Station, WHYY.
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