Every year, around the second weekend of December, my family throws our annual holiday party — it’s just family, but with 40+ people (and growing!) it’s a BIG ordeal. When I was a kid, I remember going to my grandparent’s house for these parties. The parents would all sit around the fancy dining room table (likely the one time each year it was actually used), us kids at the kid’s tables in the kitchen. There were real plates, real cups, and real cutlery wrapped up in napkins. Everyone’s potluck dishes were brought in glass casserole pans and the tables were lined with real tablecloths — it felt homey and slow and special.
It was vastly different from the holiday parties we host today, where everything is disposable and the goal is to have everything “cleaned up” as quickly as possible at the end of the night. Potluck dishes are brought in single-use aluminum pans covered in plastic wrap, meals are eaten off of single-use plastic or paper plates with single-use plastic utensils, drinks are consumed from the dreaded red solo cups, and mouths wiped an endless supply of paper napkins. When dinner is finished and plates and utensils have been thrown away, smaller single-use plates and more plastic utensils are brought out for dessert. With 40+ people convenience is definitely the easier route to go and at the end of the night, with the help of a big box of plastic bags, the entire party can be cleaned up within the hour.
But at the expense of what? It’s easy to believe that once we’ve “cleaned up” and tossed those trash and recycling bags in the bins, they’re out of our lives forever. But the harsh reality is that our “cleaning up” is really just “trashing” somewhere else and the quick convenience we experience at the end of our party is really just a giant inconvenience to our planet, and us, in the long term.
How to host your next occasion with less waste
Today, there are so many eco-friendly swaps we can make to avoid single-use plastic and paper party ware. By making a few, you can not only save time, money, and stress when entertaining, but you can also feel good knowing that your conscious party planning is contributing to the health and well-being of our planet and the future generations that inhabit it.
As we navigate the holidays, here are some tips on organizing the best zero waste holiday party of the season:
Opt for digital invites
Skip the time and expense that comes with sending paper invites — most of which get opened, posted on the fridge for a few days, and then tossed — and choose a paperless e-vite. My favorite place to go for invitations is Paperless Post. They have a great selection of free invites and an even bigger selection of paid invites if you feel like dropping a few dollars.
Go for natural decorations
Until they start making balloons from natural, compostable materials, just don’t buy them! Instead, opt to decorate with plants or flowers from your garden or make some DIY garlands or banners. You can even string up some holiday lights inside for extra ambiance.
Get creative with cups, napkins, cutlery, and plates
If you’re hosting a big group, you may not have enough sets of dishes, utensils and cup to go around. A few ways I’ve managed to get around this are: using mason jars for cups, checking out the secondhand store for old sets of cutlery, and asking a friend to bring their sets of dishes over (this one is a great one if you’re looking to avoid any extra expense and if you’re friend is coming anyway, they won’t miss their set for the night!). As for napkins, invest in a set of cloth napkins or hankies, or get creative with an old sheet.
Stock an eco-friendly bar
From my experience, the bar is often the most frequently visited spot during any holiday party. Make an impression on your friends and family by stocking a plastic-free, minimally packaged selection. For beer, opt for a keg or a few growlers from a local brewery or grocer. For wine, look for screw-off options or naturally corked bottles. For mixers, opt for juices in aluminum cans or glass or mix up a few flavored sodas with a Sodastream. Spirits typically come in glass bottles, just be mindful of how many options (and therefore, bottles) you stock…you can usually get by with just a few.
Provide disposal options
Making sure that guests have options when it comes to disposal is crucial. I always make sure that I have a few different disposal options available throughout the house, each properly marked for recycling, trash, and even composting. This saves me time after the party’s over and can also be educational for your guests, too!
And if you’re just attending parties this holiday season…
Here are some tips to party like a zero waste pro:
When you’re simply attending a party, you don’t really have much control over how it’s organized. Be prepared with your zero waste on the go kit to avoid having to use single-use plastic cups, utensils, and napkins.
Go for the growler
If you’re bringing beer with you, opt for a growler instead of cans or bottles. Even though the cans and bottles can be recycled, a growler is less resource intensive and can be reused over and over. If you’re bringing a bottle of wine, look for options with screw-off caps or natural corks.
Get creative in the kitchen
It can be so easy to run into the store, grab a bag of chips and a jar of salsa, and call it a day when it comes to bringing an app to a party. But who wants to be at a party with JUST chips and salsa. Get creative in the kitchen and bring an dish that showcases package-free foods — maybe a homemade veggie platter with hummus and babaganoush or a plate of homemade crinkle cookies?
If presents are part of the tradition or you’re part of a white elephant/secret santa opt for gifting experiences and consumables over things and avoid traditional wrapping.
Don’t be hard on yourself
We’re human, don’t beat yourself if you end up making a little bit of trash. We don’t yet live in a society that supports a completely trash-free lifestyle so we can only do our best. Celebrate the swaps you did make!