Planning a Low Waste Celebration: removing the excess to find the joy
By Ange Buck
The Internet has really made us take a step back from the essentials, eh? Pinterest, advertising alongside the weather report, Instagram highlights and "look books" in our emails. Celebrations are one of the areas that get overcrowded with comparison fatigue, too much waste, and too much pressure to make things perfect that they can be well... less than meaningful and joyful, at the end of it all.
I'm happy to be able to relay the news - this is one more thing you can analyze from a personal lens to determine what resonates with you and let go of the rest for a simpler, happier, and (likely) less onerous impact overall.
This post is inspired by my son's third birthday party, but a lot of the concepts can be applied to any celebration when you really get into the details of buying and planning. We had a little get-together last weekend at our local provincial park to keep things even calmer - less activity planning, less cleaning, more family time. It was great! It also allowed me think about celebrations overall, especially with the calamities that the holidays can feel like.
As my partner and I packed up for this event, we chatted about whether our own kids were missing out on anything that they would have gotten if we had put together an extremely coordinated, venue-situated, specifically themed party with banners, balloons, the requisite line of matching treat bags, coordinated crafts, and display of plastic tablecloths, plates, and swag on theme-point. Neither of us could remember any of the themes from our own birthday parties as a child, but we knew they were still a part of our celebrations back then, and were hashing out whether we really needed that element as kids. But to be clear - these were 1990s birthday parties and Thanksgivings and holiday get-togethers; these days it's like the morphed-up version of the parties of that decade on steroids. The ridiculously awesome grade graduation celebrations on Billy Madison are now actually kind of the norm, eh? These days, you don't just have the local Kmart to pick from a handful of 'themes' and products; there's the Internet bursting with anything you want to order at any time, Pinterest pushing everyone to elevate their lives, and friends posting photos of actually making it all come to life on a regular Tuesday afternoon. On top of all this planning and execution, there's the "after party." The cleanup. After the party, the plastic tablecloth gets bunched up around all of the disposable plastic cutlery and plates, dumped in a garbage bag along with all of the wrapping paper (which is not recyclable), and the plastic crud in the treat bags we will pick up for a few weeks here and there as it breaks apart.
It's a big no for me. And - we struggled to determine what was necessary or even valuable at the end of it all, beyond the photos. These extra pressures to buy, create, and pull off can cause a lot of strife and stress, which is not quite the point, right?
During this chat, my partner told me that his favourite part of his childhood birthday parties was always "the pumpkin roll." An October baby, he said he didn't have any recollection of the decorations or themes, though we both know his mom worked hard on all of that. The pumpkin roll was a game his mom played with the kids, where they would pick a pumpkin, roll it down a hill, and receive a prize if their old gourd was the fastest. He said they played until everyone got a prize, of course, but it was by far the best part of the party.
I remember eating Jello in a contest with my hands behind my back in a bathing suit, laughing and getting the wobbly brick with whip cream on the top all over my face. A homemade slip and slide. Hay rides - we grew up on a farm and would all pile in the flatbed wagon for my brother's birthday in March. Sleepovers with no limit on the junk food. Or the bedtimes. Trampoline wars. Money cake.
It's the people together doing things that we don't normally do. It has nothing to do with the coordinated stuff. It has nothing to do with all of the garbage. But I think we all know this already, deep down. It's just hard to feel like we aren't letting our kids miss out on something that it now feels like everyone else has, or at least that everyone else is posting online.
So, here are some options if you want to enjoy that time (lookin' at you, mamas) with your family and decrease the storage of things in your home, your trash can, and your schedule.
1. Choose long-term, multi-use decorations
We bought a Happy Birthday banner in a small Toronto stationary shop over ten years ago. It is made of felt and has graced every single birthday celebration we've had. It is simple to put up for little family celebrations, and durable enough to make it through another few decades.
Balloons are super fun, but they are not a great option for the environment. If you're going to use them, opt for a foil balloon that you can reuse, or at the very least, recycle. Water balloons can be swapped for crocheted reusable water balloons, and are much easier on littler kids' bodies, without the fill up time required, too. A banner or bunting is an incredibly simple to make option that can be crafted with discarded fabric bits. For a craft to do with kids, you can reuse paper (hello, old colouring books and artwork) to make paper chains or bunting quite easily and use it to get ready for a party, if you feel like the decor helps with letting go of the traditional decoration bit. During the winter holidays, it was the norm to DIY decor and enjoy doing that together - stringing popcorn, dehydrating oranges, and making cardboard stars covered in tinfoil. Once the holiday was over, the birds could enjoy it, or it could be taken apart and reused or composted.
Vintage is another great way to roll with long-term decor, and it is readily available online and in your local reseller's shops. Choosing something that already exists decreases the amount of new items needing to be produced - and a limit on the waste of throwing what already exists away.
Avoiding glitter (a ready-made micro plastic), cheap plastic decor, rolling trends of things like balloon arches or a flocked Christmas tree with whatever ornaments are in that year, foil and hitting up the dollar store for throw-away decorations is the goal.
Choosing a few special pieces of decor can make them more meaningful. This banner was simple to make, made by a friend with scraps of cloth from a plant dye activity. Avoiding throw away plastic decor and avoiding trend based decor is a great way to decrease waste!
2. Choose Beeswax
Beeswax birthday candles are ideal, because they don't leak synthetics onto your cake, burn paraffin into your air space, and look great to be used even after they have been burned. I know it is common practice, but think of how many perfectly fine candles end up in the landfill just because they've been used once and aren't perfect enough any longer to be reused in picture-perfect parties, or specific enough in colour to be used long term for a variety of events.
The birthday candles in our home from Tara Foods are almost a decade old. We keep them in this mason jar in our kitchen and they've been used for every "Happy Birthday" in our home. Beeswax lasts longer and can be very locally sourced.
Can you believe these candles have celebrated over ten years of birthdays in our family? Beeswax is often sourced close to home, is non toxic, and lasts much longer.
3. Rethink Wrapping Paper
There's a definite social media (and hopefully real-life) trend the last couple of Christmas seasons toward choosing fabric and bag-style gift wrap, but it can be applied really for any gift. Tissue paper is not recyclable as the fibres are too fine, and usually has foil and plastic all the way through it anyway with polkadots and glitter. Gift paper is not recyclable unless you're opting for a Kraft paper, which is also totally doable and can be decorated with natural paints (try BEAM paints!) if you want to also be able to compost it.
I was able to get several chunks of fabric from a good friend and made baggies out of them to give gifts away in. I intended to give these to people that could also use the bag as part of the gift. Beware though - in my own experience, people are either happy about this or weird about it. Of the two I recently gave, one felt they had to give it back and the other had an awkward conversation with me about "letting me have it back" when I assured her it was part of the present but she seemed to have no idea what to do with it and I tried to give a few ideas without being super awkward. For me, I see people buying cloth produce baggies and paying for them to take the place of Ziplock bags, but in this case, it wasn't clear and I'm not sure how to fix that. I think when we get into trying new things, it's always a bit strange at first, but then it may become more of a norm, and I think this is one of those things!
However, our fam is pretty used to this. I now save baggies and have a little set that work great. So far, we've collected a discarded chunk of fabric with a pom pom bunting (actually an old shower curtain that I made part of into a curtain), two Euro (square) pillowcases that work awesome on larger toy options that were almost sent to the thrift shop that I didn't need, a baggie a duvet cover came in, and some little jute bags from past presents I've received. I also save a little jar of cool ribbons and cotton lace bits from my mom's sewing closet to add to the 'wrapping' and tie them shut. These baggies don't take up as much space as the gift bag/wrapping/tissue paper storage situations that we all know take up full linen closets in so many people's homes. Clean-up is a simple fold (and maybe a wash) and you can stash it away for the next event. Choosing neutral options makes it easy for use to use them for any event!
Cloth gift wrap doesn’t need to be expensive! Second hand table cloths, fabric shower curtains, cloth produce bags, upcycled pillow cases and sheets can all become wrapping paper without the waste and can be found in a variety of colour schemes!
4. Alternatives to Single-Use Plastics at Parties
Okay, so here's where I think it might be easy to apply these tips to just about any celebration. Single-use plastics are pretty rampant at parties - cups, plates, cutlery, tablecloths, foil cupcake wrappers, cheap cake toppers, plastic necklaces, glittery party hats - the list could go on.
Firstly, try to move towards choosing items that can be reused. We have a regular oatmeal-coloured linen tablecloth that we can use for any celebration and use flowers and other decor to liven it up. We use it on Christmas morning, birthday parties, and it comes with me to all of my markets. It’s great at the beach, and very simple to wash. If you're into more themed decor, the thrift shop is bursting with tablecloths and themed linens (these larger pieces of fabric can also work for 'wrapping' large gifts, too!).
If you frequently require plates that you're tossing and buying, it might be worth thinking about thrifting a second set of plates at your local thrift shop. We host quite a few get-togethers and have a dishwasher, so it's really just as much work to run that twice rather than managing a second garbage bag full of single-use products. With the amount of forest area lost recently with the wildfires, we invested $10 in a second set of plates. We now store these where we stored our paper plates and will reuse and save cash every time we pull them out.
Next, opt for items that are compostable. Bamboo plates, wooden cutlery, and paper cups all work great for short-term use. We really love the brand "If you Care" - they make compostable, unbleached, FSC-certified paper cupcake cups and more - cake and loaf single-use pans, parchment paper, etc.
Choose reusable where you can and then opt for compostable. Styrofoam and plastics can be swapped for bamboo or paper. Cloth napkins, cloth tablecloths, second hand plates, metal cutlery, and metal cups are simple to wash and plentiful at your thrift shop if you need extras.
5. Reimagine Thank You Gifts
I don't know a single parent that loves a "goodie bag." Either it is full of plastic garbage - little toys that break that we have to find and throw out, a ton of wrappers for little candy bundles to find and throw away, or on the flip side, an added expense that we just don't want to throw on to the party price. As a hostess, a past teacher, and coach, I will say it's quite difficult to get someone that you don't personally know that well a great gift if it's a knick-knack or bottle of personal care product.
I do love the growing trend toward a gift card for an ice cream cone or a Happy Meal, but cringe a little when I think of the plastic cards that get dumped for a $5 purchase. I think Dairy Queen still has some paper vouchers for ice cream, but this might be an area where choosing a small business would be awesome, because they aren't likely to have a plastic gift card situation set up or have a paper option available.
Trying to keep generic gifts to consumables is always a great option, because there isn't as much waste, and people generally like that better anyway. As a kid, I just wanted the candy. As an adult, honey and coffee and chocolate are far more interesting to me than hand soap or one more tree ornament. We've opted for olive oil from Kingston Olive Oil, gift certificates for little coffee shops that are independent and locally owned, and given bath bombs and bulk candy to little ones in repurposed jars.
Thank you gifts can be fun to get creative with! Bulk candy and package free bath bombs are nice treats that can be put in paper bags or uncycled containers. Here, we gifted metal and wood sand shovels for a beach birthday and skipped the single use plastic theme bags and easily breakable plastic toys.
6. Rethink Activities
It might be a crafty kid that wants a crafty party. Or maybe you're working on a theme party and consider choosing a cheap plastic game from Party City. The amount of holiday-themed plastic activity kits are endless, and a lot of them are made of plastic-based modelling clays or little plastic figures that take a few minutes to create. This might be a good time to choose something without the plastic, especially if you know you aren't going to use it again.
Going outdoors is the easiest option - a scavenger hunt, a group cooperation game, a walk at a conservation area, etc. There are many ideas for compostable crafts if you look on Pinterest and look up toilet paper tube crafts or items using natural materials like leaves or seeds. For adults, we do love outdoor time, but adding an element of competition always makes it most fun!
Outdoor time together can create activities without much effort (or waste). Provincial and local parks, conservation areas and beaches are great venues that keep things simple. Enjoying the natural beauty and keeping our waste down (and bringing it home/limiting it) go hand in hand!
7. Plan a Present with a Lower Impact
I thought I would also share some of the ways that we choose presents to give a sense of some ways that we can make that portion of our events more conscious. I know the go-to minimal and earth-friendly option is to choose to give an experience, and that's great! After touching base with the parent to see what the child or family might like (I always start there!), here are my ideas for gifting:
Local small business - this year, I'm getting locally made play dough and play dough play kits for the little sweeties in my life. I love knowing that the money I invest in my community will be spent in my community, because this is where local business owners live and keep it flowing. Choosing local also decreases the carbon footprint of the item you're choosing, so there is no additional impact of that individual shipment to you from wherever you order from.
Etsy - Shere are tons of amazing handmade items on here if you aren't aware of any nearby options. You do need to think a little bit ahead on this one if you're hoping to choose this option.
Second Hand - This can sometimes be a tougher option as it's not always accessible to everyone and does take some time, but if you're looking ahead of time, it can work out great. In my extended family, we always chat ahead of time and I let others know we are very happy to receive second-hand gifts, because there can definitely be some worry and fear in the social gift giving expectations around this.
Books - thoughtfully-selected books are by far, the most common presents for our children. A local childcare provider told me about bookoutlet.ca for some awesome options in imperfect books; although, you can't always find a specific title.
Imagination Toys - we pretty much stick to open-ended toys here. And I mean the very basic, not the "food truck" and "ice cream stand" and "restaurant set up" and "kitchen" style of limited open-ended, with several of the same thing, just very specific setting based. Go Green Baby has some great wooden toys that can be used for imagination play - a myriad of wooden building blocks, doctor's sets, wooden bead toys, pots and pans, dolls and blocks.
What the child is into - if you know the child will love it, honestly, it's a win. There's nothing worse than buying an expensive heirloom toy that they don't use. Our son has been obsessed with vacuums for several months now, and although it's not a wooden toy, he has his own little motorized vacuum now and will use it to death. And it's okay to not be perfect! We just tried to buy it from a smaller, independent-owned shop in Kingston.
8. Remember the memories don't come from the stuff
If you're hosting, see what you can do less of. Less always seems like such a bad thing in our culture, but it generally leads to a more relaxed time, and more meaningful moments.
If you're hosting, plan to have a food option or drink option that will help you take a moment and enjoy the event. Invite a friend that makes you feel good or enlist some help rather than trying to do it all alone. Plan the party to not overwhelm yourself or your time. And let it go if your cupcakes sink in the middle (oh, hi!), people cancel at the last minute, or someone makes an offside comment about your parenting or your lifestyle. Because you're not going to remember any of that unless you make it a big deal. Going slower can be the tone we start to set for our lives, and maybe we will get some more of that old-fashioned joy as a result.
Indepedent + locally owned refillery
Where: 90 Brock Street, Kingston, Ontario
A farm girl and graduate from the University of Guelph, Ange is a nature lover and environmental activist. A local entrepreneur, she’s interested in re-learning old ways that are more in tune and connected with the Earth. As a mom to two wild little boys, she shares their behind-the-scenes family journey to low-waste living in a rural area outside of Kingston on her social media and blog, Zero Waste Adventures.