Party Season: Have Your Cake and Eat It Plastic-Free Too

take real cutlery to events to cut down on plastic waste

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:

  1. Plan ahead
  2. 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!

giant block of ice frozen in a stainless steel bowl
Plastic-free ice in my freezer

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.

take real cutlery to events to cut down on plastic waste
58 utensils used at the fundraiser and cleaned up

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.

Turn your next school function, teacher appreciation day, graduation, picnic or barbecue into a plastic-free event with these simple steps.
“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” — Paulo Coelho

10 Replies to “Party Season: Have Your Cake and Eat It Plastic-Free Too”

  1. Good post I am passionate about waste some great ideas and I love the community spirit that comes through your post 🙂

  2. Thank you, again!

    I hope you don’t mind my sharing a couple posts on the topic since reducing waste feels like swimming upstream at first when it involves others and I hope solutions I’ve found help others.

    When people visit my home for the first time, I send them this link to prepare them: http://joshuaspodek.com/avoiding-people-bringing-garbage. This similar post is for holidays: http://joshuaspodek.com/my-email-about-cards-and-gifts.

    Last year I spoke on sustainability and cooked for 50 people, producing no trash https://www.flickr.com/photos/fahertybrand/sets/72157701791339704 (the hosts got alcohol sponsorship and bought bread and butter without telling me, which I don’t count).

    Reducing waste is possible and even fun. I find it saves money and time, creates community, and deepens relationships.

    Most of all, the food is more delicious!

  3. Some fantastic ideas here, thanks for sharing them. Love the ice tip

  4. suzanne schulte says: Reply

    I haven’t been to a party or pot luck recently, but I have been going to my local yarn store on a regular basis for the last few years. I’ve even been asked to teach knitting classes and I get paid with yarn! 🙂 The owner would always ask if I wanted a (plastic) bag to take my yarn home, and I always said no, thank you, I don’t need another plastic bag in my life. This year, when she needed to restock her bag inventory, she researched and found nice paper bags. So you never know when your good example might get someone thinking about finding a better way.

  5. Thanks for the tips. I’ll be holding a party for my son’s 5th birthday soon and hope to do it as waste-free as possible. (Anyone with experience in waste-free kids’ parties, suggestions very welcome!)

  6. You gave me a great idea. There’s a church bake, plant, and craft sale coming up. I’m going to try sewing up a bunch of simple produce bags to sell.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Woohoo! That’s great, Jean. I hope you raise lots of money at the sale!
      ~ Anne Marie

  7. This is awesome. I have been checking out second-hand stores to build a “party box” for my home so that I have enough for the ever growing family for functions. It’s a work in progress (and will need to be added to as the family grows!) and there’s some great ideas here. I plan to have it all packed in a large tub so that others can easily borrow it if they wish to.

  8. I love this post so much! The fact that living in community is a norm for you really shows and I aspire to live more closely in community with people in my life. It’s hard because conflict resolution seems to be a skill of the past- the moment a neighbor displays an opinion of behavior we dislike, we disconnect, but I really aim to change that. I live in a townhouse and there’s no reason my neighbors and the people who I share a pool and lawn service with shouldn’t also share cutlery sets for get-togethers at the pool or folding chairs and such. Also I pay for municipal compost and rarely fill/ take out my bin. I want to find a way to offer my bin to my neighbors to help them have access to composting…

  9. Charline Swoveland says: Reply

    I haven’t purched paper products like plates and napkins for over 20 years. Instead I collected those 50’s party sets with punch cups and use those for showers etc.
    When I owned a shop called Junk Evolution we celebrated first Fridays with a big party like event, and to eliminate the waste of a paper cup we either used punch cups or coffee jars (one of our friends drank the starbucks coffee that comes in a jar and would save the jars for us). When our customers were finished we put them in 5 gallon pails and hauled them home to wash in the dishwasher. For shop napkins I simply cut fabric squares with pinking sheers. In the rest room, we provided individual (wash cloths) towells.

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