We’re all familiar with this setting: a birthday party with matching plastic plates, plastic cutlery, a plastic tablecloth, piles of shredded wrapping paper, and a stack of toys that aren’t needed or particularly wanted, either. I know I definitely had at least one of these parties as a kid and went to dozens of others. All of these elements make cleaning up easy, no doubt, but could there be a better way to celebrate?
Looking back now, many parents agree that the best part about birthday parties were the people gathered together, in honour of one (or a few) people in particular. If we focus our party-planning efforts on creating memories rather than more waste, our guests, and the earth, will thank us.
In this post, we’ll explore ways to minimize the amount of waste created at your child’s (or your own) party. If you have ideas of your own, please let us know in the comments below!
To begin, here are some of the reasons to avoid disposable plastic:
Environmental - Americans throw away 33.6 million tons of plastic each year, only recycling 6.5% of this waste (from Earth Institute at Columbia University). On average, there are 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of ocean surface.
Health - According to Scientific American, 93% of Americans carry BPA in their bodies. BPA (bisphenol A) is a chemical found in plastic that has been linked to heart failure, diabetes, and other health concerns.
Monetary - The financial damage of plastics to marine ecosystems is approximately $13 billion USD per year, according to the United Nations Environment Assembly.
"Plastic Beach" in Hong Kong (photo from HK Salt)
Alternatives to paper invitations -
With over 1000 free templates, Paperless Post makes it easy to send e-invites that are just as beautiful as they are efficient and simple to use. Guests can RSVP immediately online, reducing the amount of work you have to do to find out how many people will be at your party. Follow this link for kids’ birthday party invites!
Alternatives to balloons -
Instead of using balloons, try stringing up handmade paper lanterns, jars, or create your own hanging mobile. In their commercial latex state, balloons are not biodegradable. According to this 1990 article from The New York Times, “it is estimated by the Entanglement Network that over 100,000 marine mammals die each year from plastic entanglement or ingestion.”
Make a neutral (and adorable) mobile - ideas can be found on homedit.
Alternatives to one-time use ornaments -
Any decorations specific to an age or event will most likely never be used again. Most store bought items are made of plastic or foil and cannot be broken down or recycled. Try to keep your decorations neutral - a banner made from recycled newspaper, fabric scraps, or simple fairy lights always go a long way, both in looks and the number of parties you can use them at!
Get your craft on and get inspired by beautiful banners! This one is from Tumblr.
Food & Drink:
Alternatives to plastic plates, tablecloths, cutlery and cups -
Cleaning up after a party is tiring (and the last thing we want to do after a days of organizing and setting up), but there are alternatives to the one-time plastic sets. Take a stand and work with your friends and community to avoid disposable utensils. Encourage your kids and their friends to think about longevity in products. In party invitations, request that guests bring their own plate, cutlery, and cup. If that’s too much of a logistical nightmare, borrow whatever you need from other parents. You can even build up a bank of party items that all parents can use when hosting their family celebrations.
Start your kids on the reusable cup train from young! DIY sippy cup tutorial from A Blossoming Life.
Alternatives to pre-wrapped snacks -
Buying pre-cut veggie or fruit trays results in unnecessary plastic used for transport. We know that kids and adults alike love chips, but even then, you can recycle the soft plastic by dropping off plastic bags and wrap that can’t be used again at your local depot. Enlist the help of a friend to prepare the vegetables and fruit for the party. You’ll get a choice of what fruits and vegetables to serve, as well! If you don’t have time to make your cake or desserts, try a local bakery for their specialties and bring your own container to transport home.
Alternatives to paraffin candles -
Rather than getting the usual numbered birthday candles, look for beeswax candles that can be reused or make your own! This tutorial from Erin Bakes outlines everything you need to make your own one-of-a-kind, natural beeswax candles. (These are candles in our title photo - aren't they pretty?)
Alternatives to wrapping paper -
Even with the best intentions to reuse wrapping paper, we know that in the excitement of opening gifts, paper is often so torn that a second use isn’t feasible. If you’re looking to wrap something small, try making one of these recycled newspaper bags (the tutorial is in German, but there are self-explanatory photos!).
Recycled paper bags are perfectly reusable and look pretty good, too!
Another alternative to paper is the Furoshiki method, the Japanese tradition of folding cloth to wrap gifts, carry groceries, and much more. The fabric you use can be reused by the recipient of your gift in the future.
Choose any fabric you like for your furoshiki wrap - the options are endless! Photo from The House that Lars Built.
Alternatives to the traditional gift route:
Half/half cash gifts (50% to recipient, 50% donated) -
In Canada, some parents have been organizing “Toonie parties” (a toonie is a $2 coin). At these parties, each guest puts a toonie in a jar, and the money goes towards buying a single toy for the birthday child. Another option is to have guests bring two toonies, one for the gift jar and another for a donation jar. The proceeds from the donation jar go towards a cause of the birthday kid’s choice!
Experience-based gifts -
In this post from Wellness Mama, she outlines the importance of giving kids the gift of experiences rather than more toys. In addition to reducing clutter around the house, children will be happier in the long run if they have a chance to learn new skills or store memories of times with friends and family. Some of her ideas include passes to the local rock climbing gym or indoor trampoline park, concert tickets, and pottery or art classes.
Donation gifts -
Rather than asking your guests to bring a gift for the birthday child, invite them to bring a gently used or previously-loved (but still in good condition) that can all be brought to a local charity or saved to give away to families in need during the holiday season.
Alternatives to goody bags:
Just don’t do it! Reduce the amount of plastic and clutter in your house (and other family’s homes) by eliminating goody bags altogether.
We hope these ideas stick with you as you plan your next party! Start with one change at a time and it'll be more manageable. Good luck!