Photograph by Jennifer Wan / Getty Images
Photograph by Jennifer Wan / Getty Images

How to throw an (almost) zero-waste birthday party

Stop the madness! It's possible to make your child's next soiree trash- and junk-free (within reason, of course).


From tiny plastic toys that fill your junk drawers to juice boxes that get tossed, the “stuff” of birthday parties can create a lot of waste. And while reaching zero waste might stay a someday-goal, reducing throwaways while amping up your kid’s party is totally doable.

“Making an effort is half the battle,” says Christa C. Dunlap, program director at California State University of Northridge’s Child and Family Studies Center. She runs the Lab School preschool on campus, where she reuses and repurposes materials as much as possible—from turning the university’s scrap into drawing paper to composting leftover snacks. “You’re teaching how to take care of the planet and think sustainably from a very young age,” she says. Here’s how to make your party great for both kids and the Earth.

Consider (digital) invitation only

OK, this one might seem obvious. But today’s digital invitations do look just like the real thing, but without the pileup in someone’s recycling bin. Give the birthday kid a sense of control and creativity by letting her help design the invitation. She can choose the theme, of course, but don't forget fonts, colors, envelope liners, and even the digital stamp.

Have an Earth-friendly food fest

Try these creative ways to trim down on the disposable stuff.

Mix it up. Instead of picking up food in plastic packaging, consider buying in bulk and creating a trail mix buffet. Put dried fruit, chocolate chips, granola, and home-popped popcorn in juice pitchers so kids can pour their own treats—without grubby fingers touching the goods. Guests can pour their mixes into washable bowls or to-go paper boxes.

Grab and go. Cut down on paper plates and plasticware by choosing grabbable goodies like mini sandwiches, cut veggies, or pizza. If your party is at home, kids can make their own pita-bread pizzas that you warm up (and then cool off before sensitive hands grab and go). Disposable palm leaf plates or washable dinnerware are Earth-friendly options for small parties; for bigger groups, think about simply eating off a napkin—maybe even a cloth one.

Pour house. Juice boxes might be convenient, but they aren’t recyclable. So consider pitchers of lemonade and water. To minimize those millions of cups, have markers ready to write names on each kid’s drink.

Take the cake. Even cake can work without piles of paper plates and plastic utensils. “I always like cake pops—but without the sticks,” Dunlap says. “Or you can pre-cut brownie squares.” A donut tower is a photogenic, plate-free options too.

Avoid one-and-done decorations

When it comes to decorating for the shindig, you can save the Earth and your wallet by getting creative. Save some time, too, by having the kids participate.

Chain reaction. Even very young children can make paper chains using scrap paper, old wrapping paper, or magazines. Save the chains, then add to them each year.

Art show. Got stacks of your kid’s artwork? Clip the birthday child's creations to kite string and hang it along the walls, no tape necessary. (Just make sure you don’t have a shy kid who’d be embarrassed by the display.)

Rainbow rubbings. Kids can make these using large, fresh, found leaves. Lay newspaper or scrap paper over the top, then make crayon rubbings in bright colors. Have kids cut out the rubbings and string them up with your help.

Get a real return on gifts

Let’s be honest: Most birthday gifts from other kids are things your child could do without, and usually end up crammed in a closet—and then trashed. And though you've probably heard of children who give up presents in favor of charitable donations, the hard truth is that a lot of kids just won’t buy in. The trick is to offer a zero-waste alternative that satisfies both the givers and the giftee. Try these tips:

• “No gifts, please!” on the invitation will likely be ignored. Instead, offer an option for guests to donate to a much-wanted single gift, or to an experience like an amusement park trip or a concert ticket.

• Make your wishes clear on the invitation. Add something like “If you must give a gift, this year, Ari is saving his pennies for … ” For little kids, express their passion with something like, “ You might already know how much Kemi loves animals … ” Older children can add a personal message about their gift goal.

• Specify a small amount, like “up to five dollars.” It adds up fast and will save both time and money for most gift givers.

• Older birthday kids might agree to completely giving up gifts in exchange for a fancier cake or a special venue as the gift.

Do fellow parents a (party) favor

Raise your hand if you could live without your kid bringing home yet another forgettable party favor. Ever. Try these DIY alternatives as both activities and no-waste keepsakes.

Picture this. Start by taking photos of the birthday girl or boy with guests as they arrive. Most chain drugstores have apps that upload your prints, so while the party is revving up, you or a helper can print and pick up the photos—usually within half an hour—for a few cents a shot. Then at a crafting table, give each guest a photo mat to decorate. (Find them at crafts stores.) When the mats are done, each child’s photo can be “framed” with a little tape on the back.

Go green. Give each child a mini terra-cotta pot, soil, and seeds. Decorate the pot, then plant.

Paint the rainbow. “Try buying 12-packs of white cotton handkerchiefs that kids can tie-dye,” Dunlap says. “They become reusable napkins for lunchboxes.” Pre-mixed dye kits come with bottle applicators, so they’re low-mess with bright results. Wash the creations in very hot water to “fix” the dye.