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How to Stay Zero Waste at a Non-Zero Waste Party


Last Updated on January 23, 2024

I think you’ve noticed by now, I love the holidays.

I love to dress cozy in layers of sweaters and cable knit. I love to drink hot coca, eat 8,000 cookies, and go to lots of parties! I love getting dressed up and getting to wear sparkly dresses, green lace, and any excuse to wear red tartan.

How to Stay Zero Waste at a Non-Zero Waste Party from #zerowaste #ecofriendly #gogreen #sustainable #parties #zerowasteparties

I was originally going to write, “The Ultimate Guide to Zero Waste Parties,” But, I figured I should break it into two sections, throwing parties and attending parties.

I have several blog posts about throwing parties. See my very first blog post, birthday parties, Halloween party, and my wedding reception. I’ll still write “The Ultimate Guide to Zero Waste Parties,” because Ultimate Guides are totally my thing.

I think more people attend parties than throw them this time of year… or in general.

I’ve been to several parties this year. I went to a gala, a baby shower, a couple of cookouts, my wedding, bachelorette party… that’s a lot of parties for this homebody.

And, I get asked all  the time, “How Do I stay Zero Waste at Non-Zero Waste Parties.” We’re going to walk through a couple of common non-zero waste party road blocks.

1. plates:

I feel like this is the BIGGEST party foul. Apparently, no one wants to wash dishes. Washing dishes is really honestly, not that big of a deal. ESPECIALLY if you have a dishwasher.

We have always washed by hand, and it’s still not that big of a deal. I digress.

  • If you’re at a friend’s house: You have three options, ask the host for a real plate, hover at the snack table, or bring your own.

I am not above opening someone’s cabinets, and pulling out a real plate for a party, but I always wash the plate I took out of the cabinet. If you go this route, you have to be polite, wash it, and put it back.

Most parties I go to have a lot of finger food. I’ll typically just walk by the table grab one thing and walk away. This requires no plate.

It also doesn’t force me to juggle a cup and a plate. How can you get food to your mouth, while you hold a plate with one hand and a cup with another??? It’s impossible. I avoid the whole scenario with the hover method.

  • If you’re at a work party or somewhere without a normal kitchen with plates: You have two options, hover by the snack table or bring your own.

I have a set of two small stainless steel plates* I keep on me for parties. They’re small and I can easily tuck them away in my bag. I tend to wrap them in a cloth napkin and insert a bamboo fork* just in case.

If I’m eating something particularly messy, I rinse the plate off in the sink before I go home. Yes, even a bathroom sink.

2. beverages:

99.9% of all parties I go to have beverages either in cans or glass bottles, and every party I’ve been to has a recycling bin for both of those items. While recycling is a last resort, at least glass and aluminum have 100% recycle rates with no loss of quality.

If you’re afraid the host isn’t going to actually recycle the items, bring them home with you.

I always have my water bottle* on me. That’s a pretty common things for people to carry with them.

If they have some sort of punch or other beverage I’d like to drink, I typically drink the water in my water bottle and fill it with punch. I always bring half full waterbottles to parties, just in case I have to chug my water.

But, that’s completely fine with me because I don’t have to worry about getting dehydrated. Got to get those 64oz in somehow!

3. all the food comes in a package!?

Yes, I get asked about this when visiting relatives and staying in their home too. Their food comes from a package, I get it. I choose not to get hung up on food that comes in a package that other people buy. 

I feel like there is an insufferable meter and refusing to eat food at a party because it comes in a package is a little extreme. Especially because food in a restaurant comes from a package, even food from bulk bins comes from a package.

Life is not perfect, things do not go your way 100% of the time. Enjoy the food and socialize. Prevent waste where you can. 

4. attire:

Depending on the party, there might be a dress code. Or you just might want something festive like red tartan.

You have a couple of options, you can buy second hand, borrow something from a friend, or use a rental service like Rent the Runway.

You can read more about reducing waste at Special Events like prom, cocktail parties, and galas in this blog post

5. hostess gifts:

While I am anti-party favor, I am pro-hostess gifts. 

Hostess gifts should be kept simple and consumable. You can’t go wrong with a bottle of wine, some chocolates in a mason jar, or a bouquet of fresh flowers. 

You can also get 75 more consumable gift ideas from this blog post

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  1. Great tips! I attended a work party today… The drink I stuck to came from a glass bottle which will be recycled, and was drank in a real glass. On the other hand… The food! But as you say, refusing to eat is just going too far. I’m making all the changes I can, and I will continue to do so, but I won’t become psychotic over it all! ;-p

  2. I’ve started stocking up on second hand plates so I can phase out disposable ones at big parties. Added bonus: mismatched China looks WAY more festive than plastic.

  3. We had our potluck at work last week and I brought my own plate, fork, napkin, water bottle, and take out bento. I did get asked about them, but I described what I am doing to reduce waste in the most self-effacing way possible. I know it’s something they’ve never heard of, so the last thing I want to do is get preachy. Most people have just never stopped to think about it. Though most of the younger set of coworkers will tell me that it’s awesome I’m doing it, that it makes so much sense, etc.

  4. What do you do if you’re at a party where health codes prohibit them from putting the drink in your container? I’ve tried to bring containers to parties in NYC, and they refuse because they are literally not allowed to do it. Or they take the beer cup I hand them asking for it to be refilled, and they toss it, take a new cup, and fill that. Drives me crazy! Maybe the health code is different where you are, but it’s a real problem at outdoor parties and festivals.

    1. As far as I know, I think the health code in the US states that as long as refilling the cup(or container) isn’t contaminating other items that are going to be reused, it’s fine. It’s why Starbucks and other coffee shops are allowed to let you use your own cups. Although you’ll have to check to see if that still applies in your state. It might also be different because it’s alcohol. If the place is busy, they might also not have time to acccomodate a special request.

      You really only have a couple forms of action:
      1. Learn the health code.
      2. Make sure these containers are properly recycled
      3. Email the company/bar/etc. and let them know about your thoughts on single use disposables.

      It’s frustrating to see your good effort be for naught, but try not to let it get to you. You did your best to try to prevent it, but life isn’t perfect and it doesn’t always go the way we hope it will. After all, we’re operating in a non-zero waste world. Hope this helps!

  5. I work at a wedding venue and I get so tired of picking up all of the plastic cups and utensils as we clean up. I am not part of the planning process so I don’t really have an input in what people bring for their guests to use. But I did start bringing my own fork to eat all the yummy catered food with so I didn’t have to use a plastic one every weekend.