With the 2021-22 back-to-school season upon us, so to are all those kids’ birthday party invites. While this year’s fleet of parties will likely be smaller and more low-key than pre-pandemic (check out our ideas for throwing a safe, at-home celebration), one thing remains the same—the waste created by birthday parties for both kids and adults can most definitely be curbed. To give us some advice on how to make our next gathering more Earth-friendly, we’ve tapped San Francisco-based mother Friday Apaliski, founder of The Sustainability Concierge. From balloon alternatives to the best compost-centric food spreads, check out her tips for hosting a more eco-friendly birthday party right here! (And please, pass ’em along to your friends!)
By: Katie Hintz Zambrano
If weather permits, Apaliski says you can’t go wrong with a park party. The beauty of nature helps you go light on the decorations, and simple park activities—from kicking a ball around to popping bubbles to hitting the playground—carry a light carbon footprint. If your kid has a b-day in the colder months, think about renting an indoor community rec center space (which often includes tables and other party gear) or host at home, so that you can have maximum control over all the elements.
The Food Spread
Go for finger foods like muffins, bagels, veggie and fruit kabobs, toasts, bars, and the like. Instead of a cake (which requires plates and utensils), try cupcakes instead. Simply put a compost bin next to the table for any muffin liners and bamboo skewers that are left over from the food. For drinks, skip the juice boxes and try a drink dispenser or two with compostable cups nearby. (More notes on the cups below.) Also, don’t over do it on the food! One of the best things you can do for the Earth is eliminate food waste.
Plates, Utensils, & Napkins
If you go the finger food route, you won’t necessarily need plates or utensils at your birthday party, but if there’s a specific plated dish you are dying to serve (cake included), Apaliski suggests either using your own dishes, utensils, and cloth napkins, or purchasing those that are truly compostable. This means no glitter, shine, or fancy textures or designs on them (any plastic coatings on paper products mean they cannot be recycled or composted). Look for compostable paper or bamboo options (we love these fun rainbow paper cups) and not so-called “compostable plastic.” Apaliski has used these compostable forks, plates, and napkins in the past. “The trick is to find something that says ‘compostable’ because that word has a legal definition much like the word ‘organic,’” she explains. “So forget all the other words (biodegradable, plant-based, Tater Ware, etc.) and stick with just compostable.”
Nix the balloons immediately, says Apaliski. Not only are they likely to end up in the ocean, but the helium used to blow up balloons is a finite resource that has experienced shortages recently. Instead of balloons, opt for a bubble machine that you can pull out year after year. After trialing many options, Apaliski says this bubble machine is the best and most long-lasting! As for other decor, think about finding (on Craigslist or a Buy Nothing forum) or purchasing a cloth banner and other cloth, paper, or wooden decorations that you can keep reusing (Etsy has a treasure trove of options). Avoid buying items that feature the “number” of each birthday, so that they are evergreen. Once you have a small box of reusable birthday decor (and maybe the spare #7 candle), you can offer it up to other parents who have birthdays coming up, encouraging them to reuse and buy less. Also: consider flowers as decoration, small potted plants (that you might give as take-home gifts), and DIY leaf confetti if you’re crafty!
For smaller kids, the bubble machine and park equipment might be enough! Meanwhile, investing in a singer, storyteller, magician, superhero, band, or bubble person is a great way to support local performers in your community. Renting things—like a bounce house or inflatable costumes—is also a good choice, as are classic board games, egg hunts, playing sports, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, etc.
Second-hand toys—especially for young kids—are a great birthday gift idea. Same goes for gifting an experience, durable wooden toys that you’ll pass down, a gift card to a local shop, or even wrapping up library books! (Copy this wise mama of three’s idea here!)
Instead of a plastic bag filled with tiny plastic toys that inevitably end up in a landfill, Apaliski suggests gifting your attendees a book (from the aforementioned book exchange), flower or veggie seeds, paper bags of homemade popcorn, a gift certificate to a local eatery, scoop shop, or store, or a tiny mason jar filled with DIY play-doh. Check out Apaliski’s favorite (and easy) play-doh recipe—which can even double as an activity to do at the party!
When wrapping gifts for your kid’s (or another kid’s) birthday, think about packaging that can be recycled or reused. Cloth bags and wrapping is a solid choice—check out Etsy’s furoshiki section or make your own from napkins and other textiles found at thrift stores or estate sales. Or find a 100% recyclable wrap, like newspaper or simple Kraft paper, that you can jazz up with colored pencil designs. Similar to plates and cups, you want to avoid gift wrapping with glitter, shine, etc. Of course, if you are gifted flashy paper or bows, hang on to them to wrap a future gift. As we know, there’s always another birthday around the corner.