Sustainable Party Planning

Sustainable party

By James Ware, PhD, for Earth Matters

Over the next two months there will be millions of holiday and New Year’s parties held all over the world. Sustainable party planning is smart and easy.

Most of those parties will include food and liquid refreshments, which obviously require plates, utensils and cups or glasses. Regrettably, many of those party supplies will be plastic and only a small percentage will be recyclable or compostable.

In short, the holiday season will be marked, as it is every year, by a significant uptick in garbage. Our throwaway society goes on a binge every year during the holidays. All that holiday trash is an unfortunate byproduct of our desire to celebrate another year completed and a new one being born.

Plastics of all kinds pollute our oceans and rivers at an alarming rate. Each year between four (4) million and 12 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean. Sadly, that amount is expected to more than double in the next 10 years.

Most of us have heard of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” It’s an “island” of debris floating out in the Pacific Ocean somewhere between California and Hawaii. A vortex of currents gathers much of the garbage flowing out of our rivers and sewer drains. Estimates are the Pacific Garbage Patch contains more than 1.8 trillion individual pieces of trash, weighing over 80,000 tons. Check out National Geographic’s article about the Great Pacific Garbage Patches here.

In short, we have a serious problem. It is so massive, and so much a part of our way of life, that it feels essentially impossible to deal with. And while it may seem overwhelming, what if each of us were to take a new approach to party planning over the holidays?

Seven ways to have fun while minimizing waste

First, begin your party planning with the sustainable mindset of “reduce, reuse, recycle” – and serve mostly plant-based food.

Second, send your party invitations on recycled paper, or use electronic means, like email.

Reusables and Compostables

Third, use reusable or recyclable party supplies. Cloth napkins and table covers use less energy and resources than paper ones. Borrow “real” glasses from a friend or rent them from a party store if you need more, rather than resorting to plastic. Encourage your guests to go beyond BYOB (bring your own booze) to BYOT (bring your own things) – a glass, plate, utensils – and take them home dirty. Washing reusable items does require some water and energy, but far less than what it takes to produce plastic cups and utensils in the first place.

sustainable party
Use real china, glasses and utensils in lieu of plastics

Most products sold in stores and online as “compostable” are not acceptable in our region and therefore not suitable for our green bins. Bamboo and wooden plates and utensils are compostable here, as are paper plates that are not shiny. Note that, despite popular practice, shiny plates (coated with plastic) are not even recyclable and must go in landfill.

Going the Extra Mile – with Gifts & Decorations

Fourth, if your party involves gifts or gift exchanges, use colorful bags, fabric or even the funny pages from the Sunday news as wrapping paper. Paper that is metallic or fuzzy or has other embellishments must go in landfill, as must rubber bands, tape and ribbons.

When you are thinking about gifts, be sure to include “green” products and consider purchasing your gifts from Goodwill and other sources of “slightly used” items. The most thoughtful and responsible gifts are donations to environmental causes and/or living things, like new tree seedlings or other plants that absorb carbon dioxide rather than produce it.

Fifth, when picking out decorations, replace balloons and glitter with flowers, hard candy, nuts, or seeds. Vegetables and fruit also make great table decor. Admire a friend’s centerpiece? Ask if you can reuse it – that’s blatant flattery.

Serving Suggestions

Sixth, think carefully about the food you serve. As noted above, plant-based foods are healthier and less damaging to the environment. Finger-food is also a good solution, since your guests won’t even need utensils (they will still need plates, of course).

There are tons of great plant-based recipes online and elsewhere. Most local stores increasingly sell ready-to-eat vegetarian and vegan choices and ingredients. Consider visiting a local farmers market for guaranteed fresh food. A party is a great opportunity to experiment.

And don’t forget to send your guests home with leftovers. Keep some empty compostable containers on hand to get that extra food on its way to becoming another meal.

Modeling Thoughtful Behavior

Finally, why not treat your party as a way to raise environmental awareness among your guests? Include a comment about “zero waste” in your invitation and encourage guests to bring or share their own good ideas for having a sustainably good time. Involve everyone in cleaning up and recycling/composting the party food and supplies. It’s a good way to teach them how to live sustainably.

When the party’s over you can take a deep breath, think about how much good you’ve done and feel terrific about how you’ve helped the planet get through one more holiday season in reasonably good shape.

(Special thanks to Rossmoor’s Trash Talk committee for stimulating my interest in this topic and for providing me with so many great suggestions.)

Courtesy of the Rossmoor News, Nov. 27, 2019. Email James Ware, PhD, at

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