Ah, summer. Time for end-of-year school parties, teacher appreciation days, graduations, picnics, barbecues, camping trips—and overflowing garbage bins. The following ideas will help you throw a zero-waste and plastic-free event.
1. Plan ahead
I’ve written hundreds of blog posts and thousands of social media posts on the topic of zero waste but honestly, much of the program comes down to two steps:
- Plan ahead
- Buy less stuff
The party may not be a plastic-free event but you can still reduce your own waste. Before you and your family head out, pack up plates, cups, utensils and napkins for each of you. If you also take a container, you can bring home your food scraps to compost. Transport everything in a cloth shopping bag. If that gets food on it on your way home, toss the bag in the washing machine.
Also think about what food you’ll bring if the event is a potluck. Decide on a main dish or side dish or dessert and buy the ingredients for it using reusable cloth produce bags and glass jars.
If you need ice, make it in advance. When I need ice to keep food cool for events or for camping, I freeze water in a stainless steel bowl in my freezer. To remove the giant block, let the bowl sit at room temperature for a few minutes. The ice will melt just enough for you to slide it out of the bowl and into your cooler. No more expensive plastic bags of ice to buy!
2. Borrow from the neighbors or rent what you need
A few years ago, my daughter MK and I provided homemade cookies, brownies, cold water (we made ice cubes for it days in advance) and tea for about 100 people at my friend’s piano recital. We wanted to banish disposables from this plastic-free event but I didn’t have 100 cups for the water or tea. I live in an intentional community, so we borrowed lots of mugs from our community kitchen—tablecloths too. I also borrowed a pile of stuff from the church affiliated with the community: a hot water dispenser, two cold water dispensers, spoons and baskets to hold food and other items.
If you have a budget, you could rent real dishes, cutlery and glasses from a dinnerware rental service. My daughter’s school did this for a high tea fundraiser one year. I’d wager that the “fancy” table settings increased donations and brought in the extra money necessary to cover the expense of renting table linens and place settings.
3. Start and share a community cutlery collection
The Haiti club my daughter Charlotte belongs to at her high school had a fundraiser last weekend. Currently, this school club provides the majority of the financial support its sister school in Haiti receives. If you’d like to donate to SOPUDEP, please click here. Your generous donation helps keep the school running and provides a nutritious meal to students—the only meal of the day for some.
Charlotte suggested we bring my cutlery collection of metal forks, spoons and knives to the event for people to use in lieu of plastic. (I had planned on bringing them anyway but she brought it up first, to my delight!) I have been collecting these utensils for a few years. Many came from the thrift shop and others came from donations. I now have about 60 forks, 60 spoons, a handful of knives and some serving utensils.
Charlotte felt a bit self-conscious about bringing my cutlery collection. What if people thought we were weird? If people label me a weirdo because I find it unacceptable to use indestructible, persistent and unnecessary plastic for half an hour, after which it goes on to damage our fragile ecosystem in a landfill, an incinerator or the ocean for an eternity, then call me a weirdo. Please. I don’t want to be normal.
Not surprisingly, people liked the utensils. Who actually enjoys eating with a plastic fork? Everyone gave Charlotte a round of applause for bringing the utensils. Packing them up for the event required less time than stopping at the store to waste my hard-earned cash on plastic ones. Washing them the next day took me maybe 15 minutes (I soaked them first).
If you bring reusable items like utensils to your festivities, people will use them. No one will miss the plastic forks. And your subversive act will no doubt spark a conversation that may also attract new converts to the path.
4. Encourage people to bring their own gear to the plastic-free event
We easily provided cutlery at my daughter’s small school event. For bigger events, encourage people to bring their own. Most of us do not have 250 sets of utensil to lend out.
One reader this week told me that the amount of trash generated in her neighborhood for daily pancake breakfasts at a popular upcoming week-long event “is heartbreaking.” She wants to encourage people to bring their own plates, utensils and napkins and is contacting her local community association to get the word out. I suggested she also send out a press release to the local newspapers (people do still read the local community papers) and radio and TV stations.
To encourage people to bring their own, the organization putting on the pancake breakfasts could donate to charity the money that it would have spent on disposables. It could settle on an amount for each reusable item diners bring—let’s say a dime for every set of utensils and every napkin, cup and plate (yes, a cheap paper plate can easily cost ten cents and so-called compostable ones cost about three times as much). Someone keeps track of the number of reusables used and at the end of the event, announces the total amount of money raised.
Everyone feels good! And no one takes out the trash! This idea turns waste diversion into a game. Everyone loves points. If you don’t believe me, you’re not on Instagram.
5. Sell hand-held foods and reusable containers at bake sales and fundraisers
Another couple of readers recently asked me for ideas about reducing waste at church bake sales. I recommended they push the moral issue of destroying the planet and all its inhabitants. One reader is Catholic, so I suggested prominently displaying a quote from Pope Francis, such as:
Indifferent individualism leads to the cult of opulence reflected in the throwaway culture all around us. We have a surfeit of unnecessary things, but we no longer have the capacity to build authentic human relationships marked by truth and mutual respect. — Pope Francis
At a bake sale, sell things that can be easily eaten from a cloth napkin—cookies, brownies, hand pies—and provide those napkins. You don’t need to wrap these items individually in plastic wrap. Transport them to the bake sale in a giant container or even a box. If people want to take home a pile of cookies, offer reusable containers for a deposit. When they return later to church with their container (guaranteed attendance!) they get back their deposit. Or sell homemade beeswax wraps, simple cloth produce bags or bento bags to fill with goodies—and raise more money!
6. Ditch the plastic tablecloths, balloons and other throwaway decorations
While I worked on this post, a follower on Instagram happened to comment on a pic of a fitted sheet drying outside that I had posted and said these work well as fitted table cloths for a plastic-free event. I have bought several fitted sheets at the thrift shop for only a few dollars a piece. Think secondhand sheets go a little too far? As I asked my ex when he said “Ewww” after learning that I buy secondhand sheet and towels, “Have you ever stayed in a hotel?”
Instead of balloons, decorate with sprigs of plants and flowers. The natural decorations can go in the compost at the end of your plastic-free event—or home with the attendees. Upcycle jars and bottles for vases of course! (See these tips for removing labels from glass jars and bottles.)
7. Set up a bin for compost
If the venue isn’t equipped to compost, bring a container for all the food scraps—a bucket with a lid, a plastic tub with a lid, a trash can—and take it home if you compost. If you don’t compost, find someone who does. Look for a neighbor accepting compost on the app ShareWaste or check out Litterless’ list of community compost sites in the US. Drop off the compost, hose down the container.
These seven ideas will slash the waste at your get-togethers, school functions and so on. And your efforts will not go unnoticed. You’ll inspire others to follow suit. Because the thing is, people don’t actually enjoy producing bags and bags and bags and bags of garbage. Many simply don’t realize that there is a better way.
Your next party can be more than a mere shindig. You’ve got a captive audience. Lead that audience by example.