If you want to throw a party that’s easy on the planet, there’s a lot to consider. Your goals should include keeping your waste down and ensuring the goods you use are sustainably made, meaning their production avoids the depletion of natural resources. Luckily, there’s a lot to choose from.
“Twelve years ago, we didn’t have bamboo plate options,” says Sarabeth Quattlebaum, owner of Sarabeth Events in Texas, noting that eco-friendly clothing and decor started a trend. “Now that [zero waste] is becoming more important to people, it’s one of those you wear it, then live in it, then party in it kind of thing.”
Etsy has seen more interest in eco-conscious supplies. Dayna Isom Johnson, the online marketplace’s trend expert, notes that searches for “wooden utensils” increased 92% over the previous year, “melamine plates” went up 76% and “plantable or seeded invitations” rose 21%.
Party City, the sector’s largest retailer, devotes a section of its website to eco-friendly tableware. As does Meri Meri, a trendsetting brand known for its whimsical colors and handmade aesthetic. “Our design ethos is to buy it well and buy it once,” says chief executive Kelly Lees.
Mini Yoon, owner of Loveworks LA, an event-planning company that specializes in eco-friendly weddings, gives this advice: “Be mindful of the products you’re using, and use what you have, borrow what you don’t and buy used what you must.”
We spoke to experts to get their tips on parsing through all the options.
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Reusable is best
Say goodbye to single-use plastic. Your Earth-friendliest choices for serving food and drinks are reusable ones you buy or acquire. For a homey look, Isom Johnson advises seeking out vintage plates, cups and display items, such as cake stands, in various colors and materials. Reusable melamine plates are popular on Etsy, she says.
Remember that you don’t have to spend a lot of, or any, money. Borrow from friends, Yoon says, and don’t be afraid to ask guests to bring their own festive plate or cup. You can also post requests on neighborhood groups and forums. For buying, Yoon likes eBay, Mercari and OfferUp. Natasha Thom, owner and lead planner of Vancouver-based Clearwater Events & Weddings, suggests looking to Ruckify, a website that facilitates local rentals.
A word of caution: Pay attention to the wear and tear of plastics, and avoid heating them, says Monica Garg Singhal, owner of EcoPartyTime, an online party supply store.
Sustainable is the next best
If you’ve decided you don’t want to do any dishes and can afford to pay more, avoid disposable foam and plastic tableware, which usually can’t be recycled. Go for paper products, which can be made from post-consumer recycled materials, because you might be able to recycle or compost them after use.
Costlier but sturdier alternatives to paper include rustic-looking sugar cane (the least expensive of these options), bamboo or palm leaf. Thom favors plates made with bagasse, a byproduct of sugar cane, and palm leaf plates from Dtocs. These products are rigid and work with both hot and cold foods.
When it comes to cups, your best bet may be to go reusable. Lees says paper cups can be difficult to recycle, because most contain a plastic or wax liner to prevent them from becoming soggy.
A common complaint about these products is the lack of colors and patterns, which Meri Meri addresses with its line of colored bamboo plates and cake stands. They are dishwasher safe and can be used with hot food. Non-paper products shouldn’t carry a lot of color or dyes, Garg Singhal says, and she recommends colored sugar cane plates as a bridge away from paper and plastic.
Having “eco” on a label doesn’t guarantee that the product is good for the environment. When evaluating disposable products that claim to be sustainable, Julia Spangler, a sustainability consultant and owner of Ecosystem Events, advises paying close attention to product labels, because many biodegradable items won’t break down in a backyard compost bin and need to be processed at a special facility. Look for products that are certified compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute. And keep an eye out for information on how much of a product is made from recycled or compostable materials; the closer to 100%, the better, says Leslie VanKeuren Campbell, founder of Sustain LA, a zero-waste event services store.
Make a disposal plan
The experts suggest making a plan to dispose of your dishes and utensils, whether that’s by collecting everything to be recycled or composted, posting signs to help guests decide what belongs in recycling, trash and compost bins, or arranging a pickup or drop-off with a composting company. And research your local recycling and composting guidelines to avoid contaminating waste.
Say bye to balloons
Considering their use of helium and latex, as well as the havoc they’re capable of causing when released, balloons generally aren’t endorsed by the experts we interviewed. Balloons made from biodegradable latex are available, but VanKeuren Campbell says it’s unclear how quickly they break down. Instead of balloons, Thom likes to use tissue paper balls and pompoms, which can be arranged into arches. Garg Singhal used tissue paper balls to create a cascade on her ceiling for one of her son’s birthday parties. If balloons are a must, offer them for reuse in an online neighborhood group.
Again, reusable is best: Instead of tossing decorations each year, pick up fabric or paper ones that can be used again, or make them yourself. “Things like reusable garlands can be used in place of balloons,” Isom Johnson says, or for “keeping some type of celebratory decor in your home.” There are numerous options online.
Before her daughter’s first birthday, VanKeuren Campbell made a fabric banner, which has become part of a fun tradition. Each year, she adds a new felt candle onto the banner, which has a birthday cake decoration glued onto it.
Keeping basic items minimalistic and swapping seasonal flowers or colored linens and decor can create an arsenal of supplies that can be deployed repeatedly, Thom says.
Plastic confetti or glitter can be replaced with biodegradable paper confetti; Quattlebaum likes Flutter Fetti, and Garg Singhal carries options from the Flair Exchange.
Flowers as favors
At the end of a party, flowers can be composted, but a more festive approach is to send them home with guests. Quattlebaum includes a cart at events where extra cut flowers are packaged and given to guests as favors. The party experts also like decorating with dried flowers and potted plants or succulents, which can be planted or given away.
Other favors: People generally don’t need extra stuff, but well-made, practical items that guests can reuse or consume are a thoughtful touch. Options include small jars of locally made honey, sauce, jam or chocolate, as well as face masks or pretty soaps. Yoon still uses a tumbler she got three years ago at a friend’s bridal shower. Ditch small plastic toys for kids and pick something with more longevity, such as thin paperbacks from a local bookstore. Lees likes Meri Meri’s hair accessories, and one of Isom Johnson’s favorite items on Etsy is a customizable set of letter-shaped crayons.
With so much to think about when planning an eco-friendly event, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The key to success is to do your best, and don’t panic if every item at your party isn’t the greenest version. Do what you can, Yoon says, and make Earth-conscious choices that make sense for you. Ellen Hockley Harrison, founder and chief executive of Greater Good Events, takes a similar approach: “We’re not zero waste, but we’re minimal waste,” she says. “We want to protect the environment without driving people nuts.”