Host a sustainable affair with these environmentally-friendly tips

Reduce, reuse, recycle, and rejoice.

Celebrating is one of the greatest things about being human—gathering with loved ones to share stories, food, and laughs have been something we’ve been doing for more than 100,000 years. But in recent times, our joyous affairs have been entwined with bags of wasted food, flowers, and disposable decorations, making our parties a bit of an environmental nightmare.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. By using a few simple tricks from sustainable event planners around the world, every backyard barbecue, wedding party, and family reunion can actively contribute to a more sustainable future. Here’s how to make every event, big or small, a celebration of the Earth as well.

Think about the menu—and what happens when the party goes home.

Food is one of the most critical and debated elements of sustainability, mainly in part because people tend to get stuck in a cycle of wasting it. While throwing away that box of unused kale or too-old-for-comfort leftovers is unfortunate enough as an individual, parties take that food waste and dial it up a whole bunch of notches. 

The main way to make sure that all your beautiful party food, whether catered or homemade, is to reduce how much you provide per guest. Ellen Hockley-Harrison, the chief events officer at New Jersey-based Greater Good Events, says that for some more formal parties, caterers will cook up multiple meals for each guest in case everybody wants to try every snack, side dish, and dessert.

Whether you’re catering or setting up your own buffet,  consider providing a more realistic amount of food–enough for everyone to have a few hors d’oeuvres and a delicious main course. As much as we all love food, at the end of the day, people can only eat so much stuff without feeling too sick to enjoy the party.

On top of monitoring how much food is provided, choosing a sustainable menu is also key. Hockley-Harrison suggests reducing meat consumption, looking into seasonal produce-based menus, and using local vendors versus flying in food from all over. Taking these steps is also a way to empower your surroundingcommunity, she adds.

No matter how thoughtfully you curate your guest list and food options, there will probably still be leftovers. The first thing you should consider doing with surplus food is donating it to the community by partnering with local shelters or food banks. If that doesn’t work out, then composting is the next best option, Hockley-Harrison says. “Compost isn’t ideal because it’s still waste, but it’s a better form of waste than the garbage,” she says. Doing a little research on how to get your waste to a composting facility after the festivities have faded will ensure that, at the very least, your cupcakes aren’t releasing greenhouse gases from the landfill

Flowers can be pretty for more than one reason.

It’s hard to imagine weddings, graduations, and religious ceremonies without flowers. But the harsh reality is that like food, blossoms release methane when they decompose after being tossed. And unlike food, flowers mostly just serve aesthetic purposes.

You definitely don’t have to say farewell to the idea of colorful, sweet-smelling vases decorating your birthday or baby shower—but you can be smart about them. First off, Hockley-Harrison says to make sure every plant serves multiple purposes. The big flower arch at a wedding ceremony can be repurposed into bouquets for tables, accessories for a photo booth, or as take-home party favors. 

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Even after they’ve had their moment in the spotlight she suggests donating them to hospitals and elderly care facilities so that their beauty lasts longer than your event alone. Some companies like BloomsURent even allow brides to reuse bouquets for more than one joyful occasion. If some flowers can’t take on a second life, composting them is the way to go.

Forget disposable plates and utensils.

Disposable plates and cups make for easy clean-up in the short run, but they make a nasty mess for the planet in the long term. So while you may end up having to spend more time washing dishes, it’s certainly the more environmentally friendly way to party and it’s far cheaper. 

Think of it this way, says Sofia Ratcovich, founder of Los Angeles sustainability consulting group Zero Waste Co., when you buy disposable stuff, you’re literally throwing away your money. Instead of investing in styrofoam cups, look for good deals on unique second-hand dishware at thrift stores or Etsy.A sneaky bonus is that sometimes they can make great gifts, so while a paper plate may literally only have one lifetime at your party, a reusable one can act as a fun memory that lives on in your friend’s cabinet. You can also ask friends and family to bring their own cups and dishes (that way no one mixes up their drinks, and everyone is in charge of scrubbing their own receptacles after).

If you must use disposable table goods, it’s important to know what can actually be recycled, says Meegan Jones, an Australia-based sustainable events expert with the Institute for Sustainable Events. Depending on where you live, certain products and packaging may not be recyclable, so check your municipal website or apps like Recycle Coach before you sign off on that bulk order for cups.

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“Right now where we are today, being sustainable does take a little bit of elbow grease,” Jones says. Thinking through the afterlife of your purchases will make it so that your sustainable party is more than just talk.

See your party as a teaching opportunity for sustainability 

When a person walks into a party, they’re likely to feel excited, happy, sociable, and open-minded. As the host, you’ve probably put in a lot of effort into creating a welcoming environment. . And once you’ve made sure all of your waste reduction elements are “bang on,” Jones says, you can use all of your hard work to educate your captivated guests.

For example, when guests are munching on sustainably produced snacks, you can pop in and express how important it is to buy locally. Or if your venue and twinkle lights are powered by renewable energy, drop a few facts about how solar, wind, and batteries are all becoming cheaper and more accessible for home use.

“Events are such an opportunity to activate a person,” Ratcovich says. So whether it’s a massive gathering at a music festival or even just a small gathering at home, people in their element are more likely to give sustainability a second thought than, say, after a hard day in the office.

Beyond just planning an event sustainably, don’t be afraid to leave your guests with an impression of what sustainable life could really look like. After all, that sentiment is likely to stick with them longer than a plastic party favor. 

Sara Kiley Watson

Sara Kiley WatsonSara Kiley Watson is an assistant editor at PopSci. Her work has also been featured in NPR and Business Insider. Contact the author here.