This is what you do when you need to have a summer birthday party in the middle of Plastic Free July on a budget for 20-25 people.
About a month before my boyfriend’s birthday after asking what he wanted to do for the 100th time, I had a vision of a zero waste birthday party. There would be real plates, mason jar cocktails, real flower centerpieces, cloth tablecloths, no plastic and all of the local food I could make myself. It would be beautiful, environmentally-friendly and if I did it right, less expensive than any party I had thrown before.
Could I pull this off?
Initially, I had two major concerns. One, is would I have enough time and second, would I be able to get that many reusables? When it comes to making sustainable choices for the environment, I also like to think deeply about how to make the alternative I’ve chosen a lasting and convenient one, so that it will sustainable and repeatable for us as a household. I was concerned that it would require more effort than I could put forth even with the best of intentions, but I decided I would proceed anyway, even if it blew up in my face.
I was already planning to can all of the tomatoes in sight at the end of the summer, so I’ve been amassing quite a collection of mason jars. So many, in fact, that when I returned empty handed from Goodwill one week, after not being able to find a single mason jar, Luis remarked “I think that’s because you’ve bought them all already.” Maybe I had, in which case, maybe I already had enough. I mean, one can never have enough jars, but maybe I had enough to bring this vision to life. When I gathered them together, I had a spare 25 empty quart jars.
The other issue was plates. I had already had a small party last year and bought 10 additional plates to add to our set of 8. I figured with 10 more I’d be set, so that was a small investment.
I already had one drink dispenser that I would use for water and I bought another one second hand for lemonade. This has to be one of the things you can definitely borrow.
For the plates and napkins, I had some I bought pre-zero waste years ago just sitting in a box so that’s what I used. For the next party, I will invest in reusable napkins and utensils since I won’t have to buy plates or jars. This will most likely happen in a couple rounds, just like with the plates. I figure adding $10 to the budget of my get togethers is enough to be hardly felt yet still make an impact and buy some reusables. A little adds up.
I started brewing homemade ginger beer several weeks before the party. I also made some pickles and relish with the cucumbers that came in my CSA box just because. I don’t even like relish, but the sweet and slightly spicy Sriracha version I made is exquisite. These two preserves inspired the rest of the menu.
For the party, instead of the usual overpriced pizza, chips and cheap beer route, we would go with a classic picnic theme and do grilled corn on the cob, mason jar cocktails, red and yellow watermelon, deviled eggs, potato salad, kettle corn, lemonade, chocolate cupcakes, peanuts and burgers. I also chose these because I can buy most of the ingredients in bulk where we live and they’re pretty easy to prepare. All of recipes I used are in the Airtable.
The Airtable also lays out a timeline so you can start preparing the food in batches in the couple days leading up to the party. I also think it helps to have a partner who is willing to help in the kitchen.
Will people think I’m weird?
How things have changed. I remember throwing him a party last year, when we were still new to zero waste. Even though we don’t buy chips and soda and cake for ourselves, I bought it for party. I thought it was too ambitious to try to feed that many people while still being zero waste and I was afraid of what everyone would think. It’s not like I even have those kind of friends, but still!
Now, I’m not as self-conscious because I’ve been introducing zero waste elements into our get togethers a little at a time and no one has cared enough to comment on it. Maybe they don’t care because my food and snacks game leading up to the the party has reached a whole new level of deliciousness. You should see my picnic game lately, super extra.
Also, the outcome was gorgeous so it put me at ease. I didn’t have to explain that I did it for the environment. I could just say I did it for Pinterest. Turns out when you can’t decorate with balloons and streamers and plastic tablecloths with minions on them, you have to use real stuff which in turn looks super classy with the same amount of effort. The picnic feel and jars kept the vibe casual so it was still a nice balance.
The decorations were enough that I didn’t feel a need to craft anything like themed centerpieces or favors. A few months before the party, I bought some metal containers at Goodwill for storing things in the house. I used them for the centerpieces. I used our glass milk bottles as vases and I put a bag of peanuts in each one, because they’re so cute. For tablecloths, we have some burlap looking curtains that came with the house. I also made a dozen soy candles in jam jars a month ago just because, but used them on the tables to set the mood. I also borrowed my mom’s projector to screen a movie on the side of the house.
When it was all said and done, I spent around $150 and that’s because I bought too much alcohol, so if you guys wanna come over, I’m all set. I probably could have done it for $100. This party was less expensive than last year (if I remember correctly it was more like $250 for fewer people and we didn’t have much of anything left over). Next year will be even cheaper because I have a proven template which I’ve laid out in the Airtable.
Not that keeping the party under a certain amount was a primary goal, but I knew it would end up that way because we use resources so much more creatively and efficiently now. This is also important to keep in mind when you’re justifying the cost of some things, like real plates. You’ll spend more on produce for sure, but nothing on soda, chips and disposable decorations.
At the end of the party we had maybe a basketball sized bag of trash and hardly any recycling, believe it or not. We wouldn’t have had any but Luis’ friends brought beer bottles. I composted the food waste as I was clearing the plates and washing dishes. Which for a party of 20-25 people only took about half an hour, since we don’t have a dishwasher. I thought it would take eons, but nope. Some people even washed their own dishes which made me really love my friends.
Honestly, I’m not sure that I could throw a party the old fashioned way ever again. I’ll just use this template again and improve on it every year.