A birthday bash is a time for indulgence, and we parents are often so intent on creating that 1 fabulous day that we forget the rules we teach our kids the other 364 days of the year. We don’t count the number of sweets on the plate, give in to tantrums, say yes to a late night request, and so on. And why not, it is a special day!
Every July, I too let my twins run the show and give in to loads of demands. And then I try to find shortcuts to meet the promises I make and take the easiest ways out :S. This year, I decided to do things in a more responsible way – after all, fun and earth-friendly are not opposites!
Luckily, as I found out, throwing a low-waste birthday party does not mean making your children cry. It just needs a little advance planning – and if you’re not a stranger to trying to reduce your carbon footprint – no extra effort even!
I did not end up with a zero-waste party, but being mindful of my decisions definitely reduced the waste we generated at the party. (I hope to do better next year, watch this space!) Here are some pointers:
Invitations need not be tree-tombstones
Invites are the easiest bit to manage: just go paperless. Given today’s technologies and the evolving social decorum, e-invites are a perfect way to manage guest lists. I simply created an invitation poster on Canva (also our go-to place to create Secondsguru posters) and shared it over messages and whatsapp with all the guests. Whatsapp is especially awesome to manage affairs as you can send group reminders and updates (but please take care to not spam!), and those who wish to opt-out can do so with a click.
More formal options include websites like PaperlessPost and Pingg that not only give you free design templates, but also allow you to manage RSVPs, and get custom web-pages for the party. If you must go formal, try seedpaper to send out the invitations: guests can later plant this paper and the embedded seeds germinate into plants!
What you really shouldn’t use: Laminated cards; these are not recyclable.
Outdoors are outstanding
Beach, poolside, parks – kids love all outdoors. What’s more, photographs love the outdoors. And what’s awesome, you use no air-conditioning 🙂
Weather permitting, choose open space as a venue. Sadly, this July has been unpredictably thunder-stormy so I scheduled my party indoors. But the last couple of years, we celebrated over grass and found our kids played (and later slept) like a charm. Do you need more convincing?
Serve with style, and substance
If you are throwing a small party at home, you probably have enough cutlery to manage but still end up using disposables …. simply coz everyone uses them and it’s become a norm 🙁 . No matter how cool paper plates look nowadays, they are still… paper plates. People use more of them because they are built flimsy and get soggy too fast. Proper plates get treated with more respect, and reused over several helpings.
My party was too big to manage without disposables – so I went for sugarcane / food-based serveware and cutlery that can decompose naturally in landfills – and emits less toxic fumes when incinerated (Singapore incinerates all its garbage). NTUC and Cold Storage stock reasonably-priced brands such as BioGreen that fit the bill; these plates are also thicker and sturdier than any plastic / paper plates that I have used in my darker past!
When it came to tissues – I again went for Biogreen as it is not derived from trees. Other options I considered were tissues derived from recycled paper and bamboo. At the very least, I’d suggest FSC-certified brands.
Also, it pays to not hand tissues to everyone in advance along with the plates. I kept a box aside so only when guests actually needed it, they picked one out. Here’s what happened: I bought 2 napkin packs for a party of over 40 people. What was actually used? Half a packet!
What you really shouldn’t use: Styrofoam – It can’t be recycled and is a complete landfill menace. And of course, plastic straws – these can be recycled, but almost no one ever rinses and deposits them in the recycle bin. If you must use straws, please get bamboo ones or paper ones from party shops as these are biodegradable.
Decorate, then redecorate
When throwing the first big bash for my children – 3 years ago – I went overboard with enthusiasm, researched the heck out of Pinterest, and wore out my shoes through Spotlight’s aisles. I ended up with hits and misses: The tissue paper garlands I regret – both for the $ and their low shelf life! And the winners, undoubtedly, were the buntings and flags I bought to create special theme decor. That effort has paid itself off as I ended up with hardy materials (canvas) that I have been able to use, and reuse, and even lend out.
It makes sense to invest in fabric decor – despite the higher cost – because it saves you the effort to buy afresh every time. Just a wash, and they look great! Similarly, better to use proper table cloths instead of the thin plastic covers that rip at the slightest breeze or the gentlest tumble.
What you really shouldn’t use: Helium balloons with no weights; these will lose height in a couple of hours and end up first in the sea, and then either an animal’s stomach or our beaches.
Serve water, not plastic
It has been a long time since I purchased bottled water, and I didn’t want to ruin my record on my kids’ birthday. Happily, as I now realise, it is easier to avoid buying water than lugging it from supermarket to home! Simply check your venue – and you’ll probably find that there is a drinking water tap out there. Our building’s function room had a spotless sink and running tap, so I just carried empty jugs to the venue and refilled them as needed. Yes, that simple! (No- not a single parent raised their eyebrows at my use of tap water. If you worry, you can invest in a water purifier jug that’s great for party and home use – I purchased this more recently.)
In the same vein, I did not purchase any single-use tetrapacks. I did buy larger packs, and these were rinsed and sent for recycle once consumed.
Tip: Paper cups that are not contaminated by food/juice can be recycled – so try to provide a clean dustbin marked “water glasses only” near your watering corner.
What you really shouldn’t use: Styrofoam – It can’t be recycled and is a complete landfill menace. Also. completely avoid small, single use plastic bottles – If you must purchase water, minimise plastic by buying large containers and later recycle them.
The food collective
Nothing beats home-made food, but it is not always the practical option. I needed to cater to 40+ guests so went with a mix-and-match approach. The nibbles and starters were prepared at home – peeled oranges, washed grapes, butter-and-sprinkle sandwiches, mini samosas. These were not only easy to assemble, but are all finger food that children can handle with ease. As a bonus – finger foods don’t need cutlery, and even helped me reduce the use of disposable plates. (I served them in wooden bowls that I had lying around the house). Other easy finger food options: popcorns, cheese on toothpicks, and so on… less mess to clear in the end!
For mains, I ordered pizzas. But next time I plan to use a local home-caterer. There are so many mumpreneurs out there running yummy operations from their kitchen and it’s high time I showed my support with my wallet 🙂 I’m also guessing they wouldn’t mind if I show up with my own takeaway boxes to collect kathi rolls / biryani. (If any of you ladies are reading this, please drop a comment below so I know to reach you out!)
Needless to say, we did not throw away any food. All leftovers went to my fridge or tail-end guests.
Tip: If you compost – do put a collection bin out there!
Gift to last
I am still unsure whether return gifts are a norm, or something I have been suckered into, and what the correct price range of return favours should be… but I have no doubt that kids leaving my party will be looking at me with expectation! If you are in the same boat, there’s good news : return favors are such as standard purchase that even usually expensive eco-brands will have options for you at a reasonable price. I went to The Better Toy Store – usually a premium-priced shop – and found several wooden, gorgeous items that fit my budget, looked good, and appeared long-lasting.
Ultimately, I must confess, I purchased cape-and-mask costume sets from Cotton On. While these may not tick the environment-friendly box, I was glad that I purchased something of quality that would last long and seemed to be something my children’s friends would use regularly. (Plus it matched the pretend-play theme of my kids’ birthday party). That, to me, was the key – the gift should be durable and not a disposable, single use item reaching the landfill at jet speed.
What you really shouldn’t gift: easily breakable plastic goodies. They barely last and they end up in the trash very quickly.
2 is company, 3 is a carpool!
Encourage carpooling by introducing guests who stay close to each other (and nudge them in the right direction :)). At the very least – when you provide directions – mention the nearest bus stop and MRT.
Recyle and let recycle
I have lost count of the number of times Lara (my Secondsguru co-founder) and I have attended environmentally-themed events which served water in bottles plastic, tea in styrofoam cups and had no bins to separate recyclables from garbage. The last to me is the biggest sin – not even allowing an option to your guests to recycle – and there was no way I was going to commit it in my party.
It is easy to provide an extra clean bin at the party. What I did was to add a poster clearly marking it out and even listing what could be thrown in it. [“Recycling stuff only! Clean plastic bottles and clean paper here pls :-)”]
When all was said and done and partied out, my helper and I cleaned the mess with old towels (yep – avoided going through a whole kitchen tissue roll!). Then we complimented each other on a job well done – had to do this ourselves, as the kids were too busy tearing open the presents to thank us yet.
I know, I know, I should have been the one opening the presents to save the paper for reuse, as my mom did for me scores of years ago… have put it on my list for next year. At least we managed to get the wrappers to the recycle bin, and saved some sparkly bits for arts-and-crafts projects.
There is always so much more that we can do to make our life greener – in fact, the list for improvement is so long that it is intimidating. The trick is to start somewhere, anywhere on that list… and take it one step at a time. I didn’t reach my zero-waste goal for this party at all, but hopefully next year I will have a better story to tell. Fingers crossed!