From unwanted gifts and excessive appetizers to paper napkins and plastic plates, the average party produces a significant amount of waste. Next to disposable dinnerware and wrapping paper, tossed leftovers from massive meals are perhaps the greatest contributors. Zoe Wood explains in her article “‘Don’t shop as if you are under siege’: how to avoid food waste at Christmas” for The Guardian. Wood writes that “around the world, households discard 74kg of food a person according to data from the UN.” In fact, food waste produces “about 10% of the emissions driving the climate emergency.” If we were to round up our yearly global food waste and think of it as a country, “it would have the third highest emissions after only the US and China.” As one might imagine, production of food and other waste increases during the winter holidays. A recent poll commissioned by Avocado Green Mattress and conducted by OnePoll found that American consumers produce almost thirty additional pounds of trash during the winter holidays. Chris Melore discusses the survey in his November 2021 article for StudyFinds.org and Nexstar Media Wire. Melore writes that “the biggest holiday offenders” are wrapping paper (making up 58%), gift bags (53%), tissue paper (57%) and food waste (53%). With nearly two-thirds of American consumers preferring sustainable products, we at Living Deep are not the only ones looking for ways to reduce our environmental impact this holiday season. From sending digital invitations to donating leftovers, follow below to learn our twelve tips for hosting a zero-waste dinner party during the holidays.
Twelve Tips for Hosting a Zero-Waste Holiday Party
#1 Send Digital Invitations
Start your zero waste party or other zero waste event off right by sending sustainable invitations. Picking up a pack of traditional greeting cards from your local party supply store could contribute to climate change. Kylie Fuller explains in her recent article “Is Our Greeting Card Obsession Harming the Planet?” for sustainability platform Brightly. Referencing a study conducted by researchers at Exeter University, Fuller writes that “sending one card produces about 140 grams (0.3086472 pounds) of carbon dioxide.” American consumers post “around 1.3 billion holiday cards a year.” This amounts to “the same amount of CO2 emissions as charging 22 billion smartphones or 22,000 homes' energy use for one year.”
Of course, there are ways to limit the environmental impact of mailing invitations to your holiday party. The first of two sustainable options for reducing waste is to opt for eco-friendly alternatives to the traditional cardstock invite. For example, sustainable stationery brand Flowerink creates holiday cards made from 100% recycled post-consumer material and embedded with wildflower seeds. After responding to your invitation, your party guests can plant the cards in their garden. Another option is to send paperless invitations and encourage guests to RSVP online. Writing for The Strategist, Jenna Milliner-Waddell recommends paperless services like Greenvelope, Evite and Postable.
#2 Choose Seasonal Ingredients You Can Source Sustainably
The step in our guide for how to throw a zero waste holiday party is to choose seasonal ingredients you can source sustainably from local vendors. In her article “How to throw a zero-waste dinner party” for Country Living, London chef and restaurateur George Rouse offers Emma-Louise Pritchard his tips. Rouse notes that developing a careful strategy and doing as much research as possible is key to finding the right vendors and planning a proper menu.
According to Rouse, “‘seasonal dishes work best for zero-waste parties as they are always a fan favourite as well as being easily sourced locally…the source of the ingredients is vital as this is where the trail of waste starts.’” The best places to find sustainably sourced ingredients for your holiday party are “‘farmer’s markets and local butchers as you know the produce hasn’t travelled far.’” If you plan to shop at a big box grocery store, be sure to avoid anything with lots of plastic wrap packaging.
#3 Pay Close Attention to Portions
Another tip George Rouse offers in conversation with Emma-Louise Pritchard for Country Living is to focus on portion control. Rouse writes that “‘you need to find the balance of not buying too much of each ingredient and providing portion sizes that are the right size for your guests as this will result in less waste left on guests’ plates.’” Try to get as accurate a head count as possible before grocery shopping to avoid purchasing too much food. To cut down on “excessive packaging” without creating food waste, only buy nonperishable foods -- rather than fresh fruit or meat -- in bulk.
#4 Avoid Buying Bottled Drinks
When buying wine, beer, soft drinks and other beverages for your zero waste holiday party, avoid purchasing small bottles. Instead, purchase larger quantities whenever possible. While variety is the spice of life, you can cut down on waste by reducing the number of drink options provided to your guests. Rather than purchasing several wine varietals, brands of beer and flavors of cola, consider crafting a signature cocktail – and mocktail – for your guests. Rent a keg in place of buying a case of canned beer. Buy a jug of plain mineral water and have a tray of lemons, limes, cranberries and other seasonal fruit sliced and ready to infuse.
To make your party even more eco-friendly, work with sustainable distributors. In her article “How to throw an environmentally-friendly party?” for EuroNews.com, Claire Lancaster elaborates. Lancaster writes that “breweries and wineries around the world have started going sustainable, meaning dinner party drinks don’t have to leave the environment feeling hungover.” Holiday party hosts should “look for producers that practice organic farming of hops and grapes, recycle wastewater for crop irrigation, or have committed to using recycled bottles.” Even hard alcohol like “vodka, tequila and rum can also be produced organically, reducing the harmful pesticides that could damage the environment.”
#5 Plan for Leftovers
Try as you might to buy the perfect amount of food for the exact number of guests who RSVP, one or more guests invited to your holiday party might cancel at the last minute. No matter how well we count our RSVPs, plan our portions and plot our grocery lists, most of us will end up with leftovers. To avoid creating food waste, decide how you will deal with leftovers before the party even begins. Prepare enough tupperware or takeout containers to send guests home with a plate of food for the next day. Research shelters and other organizations that accept prepared food donations.
Look up recipes for repurposing holiday meals so you can make sandwiches, omelets and other tasty treats the following week. Consider how you could freeze larger amount of leftovers. Holiday favorites like mashed potatoes are easy to freeze and reheat. They can even last up to two months in your freezer! Katlyn Moncada explains how to safely freeze and thaw holiday leftovers – with advice from the USDA – in a recent article for Better Homes & Gardens. Just use a freeze-safe container – preferably tempered glass rather than plastic bags -- after your zero waste party.
#6 Clearly Label All Trash Bins
Next on our list of ways to reduce waste during your holiday party is to provide and properly label trash bins for different types of garbage. Label each bin “recycling,” “compost,” “food waste,” etc. to ensure all trash ends up in the right place. Not only will this cut down on the time it takes to clean after your party, but you can rest assured everything has been properly disposed of.
#7 Opt for Neutral Reusable Linens
Throwing an eco-friendly holiday party does not mean you have to skimp on decor. Whenever possible, opt for neutral reusable linens and natural decorations. Choose sustainably made cloth napkins, tablecloths and other items you can use again and again. Even cloth napkins instead of paper alternatives can make a huge difference in the amount of waste your guests produce. Opting for neutral colorways like beige ensures your linens are always appropriate for the occasion and are easily dressed up with thematic elements.
We recommend organic cotton napkins and tablecloths from The Conscious Comfort. Elegant and eco-friendly, napkins and tablecloths designed by The Conscious Comfort are both sustainable and stunning. Available in natural, undyed cotton in colors like off-white, brown and green, these napkins and tablecloths are 100% made in the USA.
#8 Rent Dinnerware If Your Supply is Short
Though most of us are planning smaller parties this holiday season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some are making up for lost time. If you do not have enough dinnerware on hand to accommodate your guest list, consider renting from a sustainable party supply company instead of buying paper plates and plastic cutlery. Use real dishes like real plates and real cups -- even if it means you have to clean dishes afterwards -- to reduce paper and plastic waste when serving food. In her article “How to Host a Party with Zero Waste” for MarthaStewart.com, Roxanna Coldiron offers her advice. Quoting Table + Spoon founder Liz Curtis, Coldiron writes that “‘not everyone has enough dishware and linens to serve an entire party, which is where rentals become a fantastic option.’”
With packaging that is both “antimicrobial and sanitizable,” Curtis’ nationwide party rental company is able “‘to be zero-waste because both [their] packaging and products are reusable.’” Before hiring a party rental company, be sure to research their practices to ensure they truly are sustainable and eco-friendly. If you either cannot afford or do not wish to rent supplies for your party, "'you can even borrow these items from friends, family, neighbors, or folks in your local swap group.’”
#9 Consider Hosting a Potluck
To reduce the amount of prep work and cooking you as the host must undertake, consider turning your dinner party into a potluck. Create a virtual signup sheet whereby guests can choose what they would like bring without suffering any repeats. In her article “Share a kit or bring your own plate: tips for throwing a zero-waste party” for The Guardian, Anita Vandyke recommends making “zero-waste” the theme of your holiday potluck dinner party. Vandyke writes that “zero-waste food” is one of her favorite party themes. This means asking that guests bring "dishes using what might be considered ‘waste.'" These dishes can include “items that are close to their best-before or use-by dates, or even just finding a way to use pantry items that have been sitting unused for too long.”
#10 Have Fun with Finger Foods
End the night with an empty dishwasher by serving finger food during the appetizer and dessert courses of your dinner party. In her article “How to Host an Eco-Friendly Party” for EcoWatch.com, Linnea Harris writes that serving party platter foods not only “minimizes dishware” but can also create camaraderie. Buy nuts from bulk bins at the store, grab olives and purchase smoked meats and cheeses to craft a delicious charcuterie board. If you and/or your guests are vegan or vegetarian, opt for other party platter foods you know everyone will love.
#11 Decorate with Living Plants or Found Objects
When adorning your holiday table, mantle or entryway, consider zero waste decorations made from living plants or found objects instead of fresh flowers or plastic baubles. Mini pumpkins are perfect for Thanksgiving while miniature potted fir or balsam trees are ideal for Christmas parties. These can be offered to guests at the end of your holiday parties as sustainable gifts. Better yet, honor Mother Earth in an eco-friendly way by decorating your home with natural items found in your backyard. Pine cones, sprays and other found objects make the most beautiful decorations by adding authenticity to your tablescape without sacrificing style.
#12 Encourage Thrifting at Your White Elephant Gift Exchange
As mentioned in the introduction of this post, we purchase tons of coated wrapping paper and buy plastic junk during the holidays – most of which ends up in landfills once the season is over. Limit consumption – and take some pressure off the global shipping crisis – by asking your guests to bring thrifted gifts for the white elephant exchange. Not everything must be new at your Christmas or New Year’s party. Plus, your guests will likely enjoy the trip to their local thrift shop.
Lastly, ensure your holiday gift exchange is as plastic free as possible by encouraging guests to use Furoshiki wraps instead of store-bought paper and gift bags. In her article “Furoshiki Wraps Are the Eco-Friendly Packaging You'll See Everywhere This Holiday Season” for Better Homes & Gardens, Emily VanSchmus explains the sustainable wrapping trend. According to VanSchmus, “gift wrap is not great for the environment because it actually can’t be recycled (because of the dyes and shiny elements used on the paper).” Rather than heading off to a recycling center, “4 million pounds of wrapping paper goes into the landfill each year—not great.” Although paper and plastic gift bags are reportedly “a step up from wrapping paper because they can be reused," these products cannot be recycled either. As such, VanSchmus recommends “Furoshiki wraps—otherwise known as fabric gift wrap–” which have been used in Japan for many centuries. Furoshiki wraps are typically vibrant, “patterned pieces of fabric that are meant to be tied around a gift and reused over and over again.” This trend is not only sustainable but also eco-friendly as scrap fabric can be repurposed from clothing, tablecloths and other linens. Of course, you can also purchase wraps made by artisans on sites like Etsy.
Final Thoughts on Throwing a Sustainable Holiday Dinner Party
Heading into the holidays, many of us are more aware than ever about the state of our rapidly changing climate. In the throes of an evolving global health pandemic, our fears have intensified and our distress has deepened. During the holidays, our eco-anxiety hits a fever pitch as we hear news of supply chain, labor and shipping shortages. Managing eco anxiety amid the massive social pressure placed on us to spend, travel and give during the holidays can feel impossible. Throughout this Into the Deep series, we have aimed to provide our readers with ways to enjoy the holiday season more sustainably. Stay tuned for our upcoming post "10 Tips for Battling Eco-Anxiety During the Holidays" as we prepare to ring in the New Year.