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If your goal is to reduce your carbon footprint (and it should be), there's a lot you can do to live a lower-waste lifestyle, including everything from composting to buying secondhand and ditching single-use plastic. But when it comes to hosting a party, you may begin to scratch your head. Balloons, streamers, disposable dinnerware: All of the excess that comes with parties seems inherently wasteful. "These materials are often either derived from plastic (a non-renewable material) or paper, which takes a ton of land, energy, and water to produce. Not to mention, mixed materials like paper cups and mylar balloons cannot be recycled in most curbside bins," says Shelbi Storme, a sustainability expert who recently hosted an entirely zero-waste wedding. Although these items are generally only used for hours before being thrown out, but much of that garbage exists on the planet long after we are gone.
That said, ditching it all seems, well, a bit Scrooge-like. The good news: You can host a party you can feel better about. All you need is a primer on eco-friendly party supplies, plus some tips for making smarter, more environmentally-friendly swaps. Here, sustainability and party experts lay it all out.
Send Plantable Invitations
Set the tone for your eco-friendly party with an invitation that's less wasteful than sending out tons of paper. Digital invitations are the most eco-friendly, but you can also consider seed paper stationery: a special type of eco-friendly paper made from post-consumer materials, then studded with seeds (wildflowers, vegetables, and more) that guests can plant or pot.
Plates, Cups, Straws, and Utensils
Though disposables are undoubtedly convenient when hosting a large crowd, paper and plastic litter from food service generates a lot of waste. "While plastic production has increased over 246 percent since 1950, the amount of plastic actually being recycled is only around nine percent. In order to be recycled, items like plastic-lined plates or plastic cups have to be clean, correctly sorted by resin type, and free of any food residues," says Lauren Olson, zero waste manager for World Centric. "When plastic is unable to be recycled, it ends up in a landfill where it can take hundreds of years to decompose."
The best option is to use dinnerware you can wash and reuse. "Bring out the old china you never use. Or, mix and match different place settings for an eclectic look. Borrow from friends, browse Goodwill, or rent a set if you need extras," says Natalie Lennick, founder of Green Ablutions. Things like plates, bowls, and cups are overflowing in thrift stores, adds Storme. "When I needed reusable partyware for my wedding, we thought of the thrift store as a rental. We purchased the plates and cups with the intention of bringing them back after our festivities so that someone else could reuse them in the future."
You can also use mason jars and reusable straws for drinkware, adds Marc Lewis, general manager and executive editor at Ecowatch. Add name tags to the jars, so that people can write their names on their jars and use them for the entire party. But if glass and other reusables aren't practical, the next best option is to use plates and bowls that are made from unbleached, plant-based materials like fiber or bagasse, not plastic or foam, says Olson. Products made of sugarcane or bamboo pulp are also good options. If you're unsure, keep an eye out for words like "certified compostable" or "biodegradable."
When it comes to cutlery, opt for products made from PLA instead of plastic. "PLA is a compostable plastic that's derived from corn and contains no petroleum," explains Olson. You'll also want to pick napkins that are unbleached and made from post-consumer (PCW) recycled paper and choose paper straws instead of plastic straws.
Balloons and Streamers
Balloons and plastic streamers are hard to recycle, and few people realize that balloons are a very serious environmental hazard, says Lewis. "Most are made of mylar or latex, neither of which are recyclable or biodegradable," he explains. (Note: natural latex is biodegradable, but few balloons are made of entirely natural latex.) Alternatively, create centerpieces and décor with cut evergreen branches, seasonal flowers, or even fruit from the garden. And if you really want the look of traditional party décor, think second-hand again. "When I threw my sister a wedding shower, I was able to find all of our décor from another bridesmaid who had recently thrown a shower," says Storme. "Instead of tossing them, she listed them on Facebook marketplace, and I was there to snatch them up, all while saving a pretty penny compared to buying new."
You can alos look for garland, lanterns, and pom-poms made from rice paper or recycled paper. Just be sure to store them for future uses, or gift them to someone who can give them a second life.
Menus and Refreshments
Serve a plant-based meal. "Animal products are a huge contributor to climate change through the production of greenhouse gasses," says Lennick. To make your meal even greener, do your best to opt for produce from local farmers. "Supporting local farmers reduces the distance your food has to travel from farm to plate, minimizing your carbon footprint," says Olson. When it comes to beverages and packaged sides, Olson suggests serving homemade large-batch drinks rather than single-serve bottles or cans and buying large bag of chips rather than small bags for each guest.
You can even use a tool like the Guestimator to plan exactly how much food you'll need for your guest size to minimize the chance you'll end up with an excess. And if you do end up with leftovers, try to make use of them or donate extras to local organizations. Any extra food that won't be consumed should be composted. "The largest impact consumers can have on landfills is with food waste, which accounts for 22 percent of trash going to landfills," says Lennick. Food waste can be converted to compost, making a nutrient rich food for your garden and plants. You can safely compost fruit and vegetable waste, tea and coffee grinds, cereal, bread, paper and yard trimmings in a small pile at home. Commercial facilities also accept fish, meat, and compostable straws, cups, and cutlery that won't break down in home units, says Lennick.
Party favors and goody bags tend not only tend to include plastics, but are also very wasteful, because many guests tend to leave them behind or toss them once they get home. To minimize the excess, gift consumables, like gourmet food or local spirits for hostess gifts or party favors, says Lennick.