Zero Waste Parties
Eliminating, substituting and/or reducing our waste from the parties we throw for fun and human interaction.
I’ll be honest, I’m not much of a host, and being increasingly anti-social the older I get, I hardly ever put on a party, not even small intimate ones. So I am probably not one to write about this. However, I did throw a surprise party with a couple of friends recently, and it got me thinking about ways to do this in a better way.
So while I may have zero tips on how to throw a smashing, Crazy-Rich-Asian-level kind of parties, I can help in keeping your party relatively low waste and environmentally-friendly!
Not this type of party with intentional flooding and fancy light sticks
Parties can either be small and intimate, or massive and crazy. Either way, the same pointers apply, just at a different scale (and different hits to your wallet!). To simplify things, I have broken down party-throwing into 4 main categories: Food, Decor, Entertainment, and Gifts.
The food maketh the party, at least in my very Malaysian opinion. (To be honest, the only reason I ever go anywhere is for the food.) Being the most important category, it also generates the most amount of waste during a party, ranging from organic food waste to very on-organic plastic waste. So here’s a few things to keep in mind:
Prepare or cater for the appropriate amount of food and plan ahead regarding extras
My mom would always say more food is better (and less embarrassing) than not-enough-food, and that’s fair. However, try not to be excessive with the food. Whether you’re cooking everything or outsourcing it to a caterer, be mindful of the extent of the menu and prepare plans on what to do with extras: do you have people you can give some of the food to (neighbours, family members, soup kitchens) after the party? Can you opt for food that will keep well, at least for a couple of days?
Serve real food Go low on the junk food and processed food, and you will automatically escape the tyranny of wasteful packaging. All those chip bags are 75% air anyway. Instead, opt for 'real' food that typically come without packaging and are healthier: fruits, veggies, and anything home cooked.
Learn to make this platter here
The easy thing would be to use disposable paper or plastic plates, cups and cutleries so you don’t have to deal with the hassle of washing up. Unfortunately, easy doesn’t mean good.
Amazing, but not really
If it’s a small party, consider making use of your existing plates and cutleries, and putting in the little extra effort to wash up. If it’s a large party, consider borrowing or renting plates and cutleries, and assigning or even hiring someone for a few hours to handle the task of cleaning them. If you are using a caterer, ensure your caterer is not using disposables, and if they are, specifically request for non-disposable plates and cutleries (besides, it’s way more classy that way!)
If you’re already planning on having containers on stand-by for people to take away leftover food from the party, opt for biodegradable containers that they can them throw into a compost bin.
Set up recycling and food scrap bins and inform the guests
Speaking of compost bin, make sure you prepare bins to separate and capture the waste accordingly. Have a bin for food scraps, and another for any recyclables, both with clear labels (and instructions, if necessary!). Take the time to inform your guests of the arrangement so that they are aware and act accordingly.
Waste separation station. source
Keep it minimal
I, for one, enjoy planning and making decor for a party, because it allows me to flex my creative muscles. That being said, decor can get excessive and are typically a one-time thing, leading to a lot of unnecessary waste.
To that end, keep the decor to the essentials. See if you can achieve the same effect with 5 things instead of 10 things. Can ambience be achieved in other zero-waste ways, such as projecting scenery onto a wall with a projector, or using lamps and other existing things to set the mood?
Minimal but effective decor that are reusable and compostable: tablecloth, vase, flowers.
Reusable, evergreen decor
On top of keeping things minimal, when buying or making decor items and props, always opt for reusable versions that can be applied to future parties: a neutral backdrop or buntings that can go with any colour combination, or standard balloons that can be emptied of air and kept for future use (assuming they don’t pop or get snatched by kids during the party).
Alternatively, opt for decor made from materials that can easily be repurposed. Decor made from paper can be recycled, while those made of fabric can be repurposed for other arts and crafts projects.
Why not consider organic decor? Flowers and leaves are excellent decor items and can easily be composted after use. I have seen people punch holes out of leaves to make organic confetti that can be thrown out into the yard and biodegrade safely, as opposed to plastic confetti that will either end up in the landfill or the oceans and stay forever.
Leaf confetti that can be easily and safely disposed off in your yard!
Conversation, playing music, putting on a video/movie, or hiring a band to perform (or performing yourself!) don’t really generate waste - at least not in my experience, but correct me if I'm wrong. The only source of waste I can think of from entertaining guests are games, in which case:
Opt for games that don’t involve throwaway materials
Examples that come to mind include the numerous card games (Uno, Cards Against Humanity, Monopoly Deal, Apples-to-Apples…etc) and board/box games (Jenga, Twister, Taboo, Snakes & Ladders, Chess, Bananagrams…etc). You could also conduct games that require absolutely nothing but certain body parts that you already carry around with you (Charades).
No waste games with endless fun! source
If the games involve throwaway materials, opt for reusable or recyclable materials. Some games require the use of paper (either for keeping score or for other various purposes), which is totally fine as you can simply recycle the paper after. Some games however require one-time use of materials that have no where else to go but the trash can after. Avoid these; alternatively, substitute with better reusable or recyclable materials.
If receiving gifts, consider a registry
I find it astonishing that we don’t use registries more often here in Malaysia - I am told that our people find it extremely rude to specify the gifts you want. While I can see why some people will see it this way, I find registries to be the best and most efficient way of ensuring that you’re actually gifting someone with the right thing that they actually want or need. And if an item in the list is super expensive, it allows me to band together with a few mutual friends so we can collectively get the coveted item rather than individually give multiple cheaper items the recipient doesn’t even want!
If you have no such cultural qualms, I absolutely recommend using a registry and being clear about what you do need or want in your life. Do not be a diva about it, and do not make it mandatory - simply state that if someone is considering spending their hard-earned money to buy you a gift, they can refer to your list and be certain that their gift will be genuinely appreciated and get a place in your life. Also, you’re saving them the headache of figuring out what to give!
Consider a no-gifts policy
If you are a minimalist (or a minimalist-wannabe like me), consider making an explicit ‘no gifts’ policy. Simply state in your invitation that guests do not need to bring gifts, only their wonderful selves to your party. This will save you the headache of having to handle things you don’t want or need or even asked for.
Your presence is the gift!
If giving gifts, ask the party-giver what he or she wants or needs
Unless you’re aiming for the element of surprise, make the effort to ask the host if there is anything he or she wants or needs that you could potentially get for them as a gift. A quick polite message of ‘Hey thanks for the invite. I would really like to show appreciation by getting you a gift. Is there anything in particular you could use right now in your life?’ is sufficient.
If giving gifts, opt for zero-waste type of gifts.
I wrote a whole article on this, check out my list of suggested gifts.
Or check out these suggestions for every budget!
Large parties tend to have goodie bags or door gifts for attendees, which is very thoughtful but also something I find extremely wasteful. I grew up in a house full of cabinets filled with ceramic trinkets from weddings that nobody really knows what to do with. If you intend to give door gifts, consider the following:
Give practical items that add value to the recipients’ lives
Things that fall into this category include: cookies, cakes, candy, nuts, coffee, (any type of food, really), soap, seeds, plants, or any reusable goods that can get them started on a zero-waste lifestyle!
Practical and literally sweet choice of party favours!
Donate on their behalf
I have a fantasy of attending a wedding where I sit down and instead of seeing a ceramic trinket or box of random small goodies, I am presented with a note that says:
‘The money that would’ve gone into a door gift has instead been donated to XXX charity on your behalf. Thank you for coming and sharing our joy’.
Somebody please make this happen for me.
I would do it for my own wedding, except I don't plan on having any.
Hasn’t happened to me yet, but I await that day (and am not so subtly lecturing my unmarried cousins to do so). Imagine, if you were to spend $5 per person on a doorgift, and 500 people attend your wedding, that would amount to $2500 that can definitely be put to good use by any charity of your choice! So rather than going down the typical door gift route, why not donate on behalf of your attendees instead?
Parties and get-togethers are meant to be fun and enjoyable, but there's no reason why we can't make it enjoyable for the environment too! Let's have fun, and do no harm.
RATE YOURSELF: ZERO WASTE PARTIES
Achievement Award: Let’s partayyyyyyy like it's your birthdayyyyy - but with no food waste or plastic waste whatsoever!
Points For Effort: Keep things minimal, and steer far away from disposables. But don’t sweat over the bits of waste here and there.
Um, Maybe Not: Don’t want to be a party-pooper? That’s okay, continue as you do, and find some other waste to eliminate! Check out other recommendations here.