Waste-Lite Childrens’ Birthday Parties

I don’t know when the last time you were at a child’s birthday party was, but next time you attend such an event, take a moment and check out something most people don’t. If you happen to stay to the end, take a look at the amount of trash being generated by each child. I know that this doesn’t apply everywhere, but here in Los Angeles, where the birthday party scene can include catered meals, rented gym spaces, and traveling entertainers, the waste factor can be obscene.

Generally speaking you’re looking at plastic table clothes, plastic utensils, juice boxes, goodie bags (when did this become the norm anyway?), party favors, pizza boxes, chips bags, and a whole host of other things which all end up being wrapped up (usually in that plastic tablecloth mind you) and tossed into the trash. I’ve watched as neighbors have filled bin upon bin upon bin with trash after a child’s birthday and been simply astonished. Is this the way we should be celebrating our sons and daughters growing up? By exponentially adding to our landfills and leaving them a gift that will be around seven generations from now?

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be this way. With a little planning and some savvy ideas, you can keep your waste down to a bare minimum. And as an added bonus, you’ll end up saving money too. Here are a few ideas we’ve come across which have helped us end up with a small bag of garbage and a bit of recycling, versus a few garbage bins worth.

Invites — Skip the hard copy invites. In this day and age, online orgs like Evite make digital invites really easy and saves on all that paper.

Plates — When our daughters’ first birthday parties came around, I realized that this was something that was going to happen every year so I found a catering supply store near us and bought a pack of 50 heavy duty plastic plates. I don’t recall the cost, but it wasn’t that much as these things are considered “disposable” (don’t even get me started on that) but 8 years later they have more than paid for themselves. We pull them out a few times a year, use them, wash them, and put them back in the cupboard. I’m proud to say that after all this time, we still have 48.

Utensils — If you have enough of your everyday utensils, why not just use those? No cost and you just wash them up afterwards. Does the alternative of buying a set of plastic “disposable” utensils every year and then chucking them year after year make more sense?

Cups — This tends to be a little tougher especially if you have a lot of kids coming. We have found that the best thing to do at our stage (both our kids are still young) is to use those little paper bathroom cups for the kids. We do end up using quite a few as the kids tend to take one and toss it, but we set a trash that says “worms” on it, right next to the drink table. When the party is done we shred them up and toss them into our worm composter. As for the adults, we just put out our glasses and they realize they need to keep track of which they use.

Table Clothes — These may be necessary, especially if you are dealing with young kids, but those “disposable” plastic covers you toss every year not only harm the environment, but add up over time. During the course of the year, head to the local thrift store and pick up a decent quality tablecloth and use it over and over.

Goodie Bags — I don’t know when this started or if this is only a U.S. thing, but pretty much every party these days involves a take home bag with little gifts and treats for each of the kids. It’s really quite ridiculous and only heightens the general sense of entitlement that most of these kids experience these days. We’ve tried to get away from this completely, but when kids come expecting these things (you can’t blame that for that, they’re just doing what they are told) you don’t want your kid to feel left out. So we start by going with paper bags and asking parents to recycle them when done. Then we skip the whole heavily packaged plastic wrapped element and instead have a big scavenger hunt. This has the dual effect of being fun and eating up some time as well as sending them home with something they have earned on some level. It varies from year to year, but we have hidden sea-shells that we have collected, multicolored rocks that I came across a few years back, and a whole host of other things. Since our kids are still young this is usually a big hit. Then of course we hit them with some candy on the way out just so they are fully sugar tweaked by the time they get home.

Another idea is to wrap a project into the party. One year we had kids paint flower pots and then planted them. They each took home a flower they could watch grow and it was a huge hit!

Cake — Go old school and make it at home. You’ll save on money and packaging. We’ve recently started going the cupcake route and having the kids decorate them themselves at the party, which is a blast.

These are just a few ideas, but you’ll see that if you take some time at the next birthday party you attend and look at what is being thrown away, you’ll be able to come up with alternatives for just about everything that will most likely only take you some extra time.

The bottom line is that if you take a moment and think about it, you’ll realize not only does this wastefulness not make sense, but that there are simple solutions to rectifying the problem as well.

Anyone have any other ideas they’d care to share?

Dave Chameides is a filmmaker and environmental educator. His website and newsletter are designed to inspire thought and dialogue on environmental solutions and revolve around the idea that no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. “Give people the facts, and they’ll choose to do the right thing.”


Ali O.
Ali O.7 years ago


Susan Savion
Susan Savion8 years ago

I always wrap any package that has a lid, top and bottom separately. Lift off the top and use the box over and over again. Much better than throwing all that paper and bows into the trach. And it is a real timesaver also.

Lisa F.
Lisa F.8 years ago

My husband and I collect the comics from the Sunday paper year round to use as wrapping paper for birthdays, Christmases....any occasion with a wrapped gift really. For party favors (instead of goody bags) I usually do a food favor of some kind..like a sugar cookie iced with the party theme or colors and wrapped in butcher paper with a "please recycle" sticker on it :)

Susan D.
Susan D.8 years ago

I found metal camping plates at a garage sale, and we use those for birthday parties. Also, I went to World Market and bought brightly colored, inexpensive, cloth napkins. We use those every day, including parties, because they can be washed, and if they do get stained, the bright colors mostly hide it, or if you have to convert them to dust rags, you've already gotten your monies worth. Haven't gotten away from plastic flatware, but buy the sturdy kind and wash and reuse it as well.

Lindsay M.
Lindsay M8 years ago

Using recyclable paper tablecloths and letting the kids draw all over them is another green alternative to the plastic one-use tablecloths. Recyclable activity = good.

Using twinkle-lights in shady areas, or after dark, are a great balloon alternative. Paper lanterns are another excellent, reusable option. Pretty!

It might also go over extremely well to build a gigantic fort out of cardboard boxes with the kids, and then let them decorate the boxes. Many businesses will let you dig through their recycle bin for used boxes, although it's often necessary to ask management first as these tend to be locked.

Bonus points if the fort is shaped like a dinosaur, whale, telephone, or other fanciful shape!

For a bright, sunny day a few days before the party (perhaps to teach your children the joy of preparation?) it might be fun to buy some old sheets from a garage sale or thrift store and then tie-dye them with your kids using nontoxic dyes. The more colorful, the better. Then, for the party itself you could get some posts and rope, maybe bungee cords and duct tape, and use the bright sheets to create temporary canopies all around your yard.

For the especially crafty parent-child party preparation team, it might be fun to use cardboard, paint and various scraps to create wings, teeth, tails and the like to transform everyday background objects into strange, funny creatures a la Mr. Potato Head. Chairs might benefit from antennae, cars eyes, trees arms, etc.

What d

Genevieve H.
Genevieve H8 years ago

A big hit was the icecream pizza. I made a round flat brownie base, covered it with chocolate icecream or vanilla icecream, then topped it with smarties (now called M & Ms) decor, and some candles. Some of my daughter's friends (now 21) still remember this birthday cake with a twinkle in their eyes!

Kaytee S.
Kaytee S8 years ago

If you must use disposable dishes/flatware-- try to find the biodegradable one made out of cornstarch. The San Diego Zoo is using them, although I haven't seen them in any stores.

Donni Schick
Donni Schick8 years ago

I loved having kids parties when my son was younger.
My son still talks about the birthday cakes - I put flat-bottomed ice cream cones in muffin pans, filled them 2/3rd full with cake batter, and baked as cupcakes. The kids would then top it with icing, ice cream, and assorted candy or fruit (gummy worms!)
We usually did build-your-own pizzas on french bread or pitas. Any leftovers ended up on pasta the next day, yum!
I fell in love with sunny patio/picnic ware many years ago. Not the cheap rubbery stuff, I mean the good quality melanine. Mine came from a dinnerware specialty store, a bit expensive even at clearout prices. They became our everyday dishes for the last 10 years, and still going! And visitors love the cheery colours, that even now are still bright and clear. You definitely get what you pay for.
I guess I'm really frugal, but it always upset me to see large amounts of garbage from a party.

Patricia E.
Patricia E8 years ago

I made the birthday cakes, even ice cream ones, until my daughter requested the store bought type, when she got older.
The make your own pizza party & a make your own fajita party worked well. We used brown paper bags for favors & my daughter decorated them with her stamps. A party by our lake's beach worked particularly well. You can keep the cost and the waste down. I'm lucky because I'm a teacher and my daughter's birthday is during summer vacation, which gave us more time for the do-it-yourself variety. Incidently, homemade playdough is a great home made party favor.

Jennifer E.
Jennifer E8 years ago

In lieu of gifts some invitations say to bring a non-perishable food item for a local food bank.
I agree there is too much waste at most of the kids' parties. I'll admit I went a little nutty for my daughter's first birthday...Balloons, 1st Birthday plates/cups/napkins. I saved the streamers and use them every year, we wash and re-use the colorful plastic flatware, and have used the plates and such when we cook out.