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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

How to throw a kid’s birthday party with less waste

 (Stephen Templeton/The Spokesman-Review)
By Rachael Jackson Washington Post

When you consider the mountain of wrapping paper, plastic forks and goody bag detritus that remain after a child’s birthday, throwing a greener party may seem as feasible as offering unicorn rides. But sustainability experts say it’s entirely possible to throw a fun, more eco-friendly party – and while some switches take some effort, others can save time, money and stress.

“I don’t want parents to feel bad,” said Jenna Jambeck, a plastic pollution researcher at the University of Georgia, noting that we need systemic changes to make it feasible for more people to ditch disposable supplies at events and beyond. But, she said, “parties are gatherings of our peers and kids. Being able to normalize reuse systems and not produce a lot of waste is a great way to collectively make a difference.”

Any effort to lighten our impact – wasting less food, using less plastic – benefits the generation whose birthday parties we’re hosting, and can also lighten a parent’s to-do list. Mya Sjogren, a sustainability analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency, suggests simply “doing less.” For her daughter’s parties, she skips decorations, party favors and gifts, and focuses on activities. So far no complaints from her 6-year-old, who is lobbying for a half-birthday party.

Here’s a guide to celebrating your child’s next trip around the sun in ways that tread a little lighter on the Earth.

Reduce food waste

“No matter if it’s a birthday party, a banquet or a meeting event of a thousand people, our brains are always wired to over order food,” said Pete Pearson, senior director for food loss and waste at the World Wildlife Fund, which works with school cafeterias and the hospitality industry. About a third of food goes to waste in the United States, squandering resources and significantly contributing to climate change, according to food-waste-focused nonprofit ReFED.

After entertaining (and studying pizza consumption) at more than 3,000 parties, New York magician Evan Paquette says most kids need just one regular slice of pizza, though for kids over 5, you’ll want a couple extra slices for every six kids. His pizza calculator can also account for adults, he says, while limiting leftovers.

And try square or “double cut” (half) slices, which are better sized for kids (and adults desiring smaller portions).

Skip a main course if the timing works. For snacks, try package-free, grab-and-go foods, such as homemade dessert bars, watermelon wedges, bell pepper spears, and cheese and crackers.

“I serve cupcakes instead of slices of cake, because that reduces the need for plastic cutlery and plates and cupcakes are easier to distribute,” Sjogren said.

Try reusable plates, utensils and cups

More than one-third of the plastic produced annually is designed to be used just once, according to the Australia-based Minderoo Foundation. Meanwhile, recycling rates for plastic are low; straws and plastic utensils, Sjogren explained, can’t be recycled at all because they’re too small for processing.

Reusable supplies can dramatically stem the plastic tide. Still, if you’re hosting a crowd, switching to reusables is understandably daunting.

For parties at her home, Jambeck uses dishes and silverware from thrift stores. Sjogren invested in a set of lightweight, inexpensive plastic plates. If arranging for dishes and silverware feels like a lot, Christie Klimas, an environmental science professor at DePaul University, suggests starting by asking parents to bring their kids’ water bottles so you don’t need to supply cups.

Compostable plates are popular, but not a “silver bullet.” Prioritize reusables, but if you offer compostables, keep them out of the trash and make sure your composting system can handle them. Not all can, Pearson pointed out.

Separate compost, recycling and trash

Sjogren puts labeled recycling, compost and dirty dish receptacles next to the trash. At the end of the party, she counts plates and scans the garbage for wayward dishes.

She brings her setup with her. But if that’s not feasible for you, it’s worth asking restaurants and other venues about reusable plates, donation for unserved foods and composting, even if you doubt they offer those services.

“The power of a question is really big,” Pearson said, noting businesses will feel pressure to adapt. “Just get everybody talking.”

Rethink decorations

Skip decorations, choose a festive-looking venue, or deploy secondhand or DIY decor. Party supply boxes routinely circulate in online neighborhood groups. Paper garlands are fun for crafty kids. Colorful things such as kids’ art, paper triangles or ribbons can be clothespinned to string.

Avoid balloons, which can become litter that turtles, birds and other animals fatally mistake for food. Helium is also a precious resource.

Limit activities that generate more stuff

Venues such as museums or pools have baked-in entertainment. For home or park celebrations, incorporate activities without disposable supplies. Musical chairs? A treasure hunt? Decorating the very cookies or cupcakes you’re serving? You might also borrow activity kits, such as ball pits, via neighborhood networks.

If crafts are on the agenda, consider upcycling. PBS Kids has a directory of upcycled crafts, including cereal box dragon wings and bird feeders made from bottles and cartons.

“You can still be celebratory and have things that the kids haven’t seen before, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be new,” Jambeck said.

Try a new gift policy

In many communities, invitations increasingly specify “no gifts.” In addition to the environmental benefits, Sjogren points out, “We’re reducing the stress and hassle of partygoers, and also reducing our stress of cleaning up toys.”

Still, some guests are uncomfortable arriving empty-handed. For them, offer alternatives, like contributions to a cause or experience. Or, try outsourcing critical party tasks, such as making cupcakes. For kids who love opening presents, sustainability influencer Sonika Bhasin suggests asking each child to bring two used toys or books wrapped in newspaper or another upcycled material. Every child leaves with a gift, and the birthday kid opens a pile of presents – no new resources expended.

Ditch goody bags

In case you need permission, here it is: It’s totally OK to skip goody bags.

But if you value sending guests home with something, forgo plastic bags filled with plastic toys.

“Think useful, educational, durable and lower waste,” Sjogren suggests. Perhaps treats, art supplies or books? Personally, I appreciated when my son received chalk. It was handy and didn’t become forever clutter.

Klimas, who took her younger daughter and some friends to see a musical for her last party and didn’t offer party favors, looks at it this way, “If you poll kids a year later about their birthday party, what they remember may not be the glitter and the bags and things like that. What they’ll likely remember is the time with their friends.”