Lessons Learned from a Low-Waste Party

by Shara Drew   |   September 12, 2018

Happy Birthday

In May, my family moved from Massachusetts to our wonderful new home city of South Portland, Maine. Before my husband and two little boys hit the road and headed north for good, I asked some friends to save the date for an end-of-summer shindig to celebrate our new digs and our littlest guy’s fourth birthday. 

Inspired by New Dream’s Community in Action "Reduce Waste" challenge, I decided to take on the group challenge and make our party a low-waste event. It turned out to be a wonderful party (if wild, thanks to the electric energy that happens when four- to six-year-olds unite on new turf). And it was pretty environmentally friendly, too! 

Here are some lessons learned from hosting a low-waste party:

Borrow chairs from neighbors

People need places to sit at a party. Maybe this is obvious. But we’d never had the privilege of being able to host 50 amazing friends and family members in our home before we moved. We even have a backyard! But only a few outdoor chairs. We don’t need many for our family of four and for the friends who come to visit—usually a couple at a time. 

When I realized this problem, instead of running to the store I put out a request on Nextdoor, a “neighborhood social network” popular in our area:

Chair Request

That day, I had six offers for chairs! It turned out to be more than I needed, but I did borrow two batches (one from a friend who lives just a few houses away and saw my post). A third batch was given to me to keep by a neighbor who had planned to put them up in a yard sale. I emailed and texted with the neighbors to arrange a pick-up time, washed the chairs before and after the party, and dropped them back off when I was done. I met a couple of new (generous and kind) neighbors. And voilà! There were plenty of seats for our guests who wanted to rest their legs.

Borrow or “swap” bowls and more 

Like the chairs, I found I was short on a few big salad bowls. I made a call to a friend and visited the Swap Shop (the city-supported, volunteer-run “take it or leave it” facility at our transfer station), and my bowl needs were met without a dime spent.

Get the food and drink right 

I had successes and failures on the food front. My biggest successes were in planning a vegetarian menu that would be simple but yummy and that I could piece together in small chunks of time over the course of a few days. I made quesadillas (a hit with the kids) and a few big veggie salads, and decided to have our favorite local and environmentally conscious Mexican restaurant, Taco Trio, provide rice and beans. 

Instead of individually packaged drinks, I put out large containers of water and juice with reusable cups that we already had, which I collected and washed a few times during the party. This worked out pretty well and the food was good, but there was TOO much. 

One major failure was forgetting to even put out two bowls of salad once I got busy connecting with friends during the party. The upside is that this surplus provided lunch and dinner for our family and a few close friends for several days. The next time we have a big gathering, I’ll consult someone more experienced to determine the best food portions. I'll also assign a friend to offer second helpings to guests, and maybe set up a sudsy cup washing station outside for the kids!

Compost waste 

While challenging for a party on the bigger side, we wanted to limit disposables and recyclables as much as possible. We haven't set up backyard composting (yet!), but we’re fortunate that our new city has many composting options, including Garbage to Garden, a nonprofit that partners with the city and provides curbside food waste pickup. Food waste also is accepted at the transfer station for composting. 

After ensuring that the plates, cutlery, etc. that we intended to use were indeed compostable at Garbage to Garden’s facility, I offered these for our guests. They were more expensive than other single-use options, but since the Mexican restaurant provided 50 sets of what we needed (all compostable), we were able to make it work with our budget. 

I placed the compost and recycling bins near the main area where our guests gathered, with clear signs showing what went in each. I kept the trash can away from the main “action,” and since just about everything consumed at the party could be either composted or recycled, all the waste ended up in the right spot. The signs and bins also provided a great opportunity to talk to curious kiddos about composting and recycling. 

"I kept the trash can away from the main 'action,' and since just about everything consumed at the party could be either composted or recycled, all the waste ended up in the right spot. "

To make an even lower-waste event possible in the future, one idea is to collect cups, plates, and other party supplies from the Swap Shop to make a “zero-waste party pack.” Then the whole neighborhood could use them for birthday parties and other gatherings.

Skip the decorations 

Seriously, skip them! Except for our one "Happy Birthday" banner that we’ve used for six years now for our boys’ birthdays, and one vase of flowers, there were no other decorations. And guess what? We had a rocking time without them. Our request for “no gifts, pretty please” resulted in just a few treasured presents at the end of the party. 

When all was said and done, we were left with: a few medium-sized bags of materials to compost, a bin or so to recycle, and a small bag of garbage. And, of course, TONS of memories from a day in the sun with family and friends, old and new, celebrating the start of life in our new home and my son’s next trip around the sun.

Shara Drew is Director of the Kids & Commercialism Program at New Dream.