Hosting birthday parties for our children is one of the ultimate ways for parents to express our adoration through a tangible and fun experience while bringing together those we hold dear. In recent years however, kids parties have become ‘big business’ with parents spending huge amounts on birthdays. As expectations continue escalate, so too has the potential for huge amounts of waste, as tidal waves of party supplies become available. It all costs an arm and a leg and in most cases it all has to be turfed out after one use (if it doesn’t break before the end of the day).
Why not keep your next kids’ birthday party simply… simple! Throwing a zero-waste birthday party is possible, and the small amount of additional effort is well worth the reduced waste and money saved.
The things your child will remember from special days like these may surprise you. It will likely be memories of who came and what experiences they had. It won’t be how carefully curated the cheese platter was or how many likes the photos got on Instagram. Here are some simple ways to cut down on the excess and instead focus on what matters, ensuring your child and their guests have a great time.
Keep numbers sustainable. My new rule (after hearing the suggestion from another parent) is to invite as many friends as your child is turning. So this year Flynn is having 8 friends at his 8th birthday party. And despite the fact he could have easily doubled the invite list, he stuck to his number and came up with his favourite 8 people pretty quickly. A small party is easier to manage and cater for, and ‘keeping it small’ means you don’t have to invite the whole class.
Rather than sending out invites (only to find half of them crushed in the bottom of your kid’s bag a few days before the big event) call or text the parents a few weeks in advance or send them an invite via Facebook. If you want to distribute physical invites because you don’t have parents’ contact details, rather than buying invites get creative and make invites out of existing supplies such as recycled cards or wrapping paper.
“Plan for the party to be plastic free”, recommends Brooke Davis in her book ‘Your Wild Celebration’. David suggests to decorate with nature, “forage flowers and foliage from your garden and local area. Arrange them in different size vases.”
Instead of a themed plastic tablecloth try a piece of butchers paper (with pens and crayons on hand for scribbling). Or dare to go bare and skip the table covering all together. Bunting is easy enough to sew if you have some scraps of fabric and a sewing machine. Alternatively if you really aren’t a crafty type (um…yeah me too, I get my mum to sew such things) outsource by supporting a small business on a platform such as Etsy. Here’s a cute example which could be used year after year, for all ages.
Focus on the experience
We decorated Flynn’s party with the same piece of handmade fabric bunting my Mum made for his 1st birthday party (and every year since). We also have a letter board we bring out at all our celebrations and used the interchangeable letters to wish Flynn a happy birthday. Flynn made his own table centrepiece out of Lego. For games we made up an obstacle course in our yard, set up an electric car racing track (which we already had) for the kids to race each other and had a cubby building competition. The kids then had some free time eating and playing outside. We allocated two hours for the party and the time passed pretty quickly with plenty of smiles.
For my nearly 3yr old I’ve already decided to keep it simple for her birthday in November. We will have it at a local park weather permitting, and I’ll use pretty bunting my mum made out of vintage doilies for her first birthday. We’ll keep it small and intimate and might do some nature craft like making a wand out of a stick, some coloured wool and dried flowers, as well as a nature trail hunt.
Pass the parcel can be a treat for ages 4-6. The challenge is to avoid the tacky plastic stuff. Instead try putting a sheet of cute stickers into each layer and consider a book as the final ‘prize’.
Skip prepackaged snacks and drinks and make a small platter of fresh fruit (watermelon and berries are always winners). Divvy up some homemade popcorn or crisps into a big bowl for sharing. Avoid soft drink and make up a jug of pure fruit juice diluted with sparkling water. Reduce your clean up and potential for waste by not over catering. Kids are usually pretty distracted and too excited to eat much at parties anyway.
Avoid single use plastic plates, cups and cutlery. If possible use your own existing reusable plates and cups, or borrow from your neighbour or friends. Sure you have to wash them up, but if you’re keeping it small it’s not a big job. Compostable plates and cups are the next eco friendly option, followed by paper (not coated so its compostable).
If you’re organised ahead of time, try sourcing a local ‘reusable party kit’ from your area through The Party Kit Network where you can access entire kits comprising of cups, plates, table linen and cutlery (and sometimes decorations too). Erin Rodas, zero waste blogger and author of ‘Waste Not’ had carefully collected enough plates, cups and cutlery to cater for her own family’s gatherings and wanted to make it available to others in her local area. She knew there would be families around Australia who had their own reusable party kits too, and after discovering the UK based Party Kit Network, she got involved and expanded the offering into Australia. Thanks to Erin, zero waste enthusiasts now have access to party kids around the country via www.PartyKitNetwork.org
Apparently ‘no gift’ parties are a thing. I’ll admit I’m not there yet, and perhaps never will be. As a family we certainly try to curb our own consumerism and keep the gifts we give each other to being as practical and sustainable as we can with a focus on gifting books, boards games and puzzles, experiences, artwork and useful things we need. But I can’t bring myself to put ‘no gifts’ on my kids’ birthday invites.
Author Stephanie Marie Seferian shares some of her own low-gift strategies to help curb unnecessary clutter in her book ‘Sustainable Minimalism’. Seferian suggests asking kids’ parents to make a donation to a charity instead of bringing a gift; or to bring something that can be used on the day to contribute to the activities (ie one person bring sprinkles for the cupcake decorating activity or to bring along specific craft supplies for a planned craft activity).
You can also ask family and friends to contribute to a larger more expensive gift. Or even ask people to put $5-$10 into your child’s bank account to encourage them to save. The child can then be involved in the savings process and as parents you can support them to set savings goals.
Another suggestion from Seferian is to invite attendees to bring an age appropriate children’s book along wrapped (in lieu of a gift), these are put aside at the beginning of the party and then handed out at the end of the party as an alternative to goodie bags.
It’s actually ok to NOT do goodie bags. Crammed with sugar laden, artificially coloured sweets or ‘break in two minutes’ plastic toys, the contents of goodie bags rarely last more than the day of the party. If you can avoid goodie bags all together you are giving other parents permission to do the same. I opted not to this year for Flynn, and guess what, the kids didn’t care! If you can’t bare the idea of being the only parent who doesn’t do goodie bags consider handing out a colouring book or a packet of seeds. Or swap out the plastic goodie bags for paper bags, swap out the sweets for a box of raisins, swap out the toys for a couple of wooden pencils or wooden rubber stamps. They will cost about the same but are biodegradable and won’t leave the kids with a high from sugar. Worried you will be considered the ‘unfun’ mum or dad? Who cares? You also won’t be leaving a trail of hyperactive kids or broken toys behind you.
As hard as it might be, try not to compare your child’s party with their friends’ parties. You will likely find stripping back the excess (from all areas of your life, not just a kid’s party) will leave you more space for enjoyment and being present. Life isn’t one big competition, even if the external world of marketing and movies tries its best to convince you otherwise. Life should be lived on your terms, in a way that lights you up and makes your heart happy. Often simple things are also the best.
Alison Gallagher is a freelance writer, resourcefulness expert, entrepreneur and mother of two young children. She has been featured in various publications including Stellar Magazine, Australian Health and Fitness Magazine, and Cleo Magazine. Alison is particularly passionate about sharing practical tips on how to live simply, sustainably and seasonally.