Wow, my baby has already made his first full rotation around the sun! Time to plan a party!! Of course, this baby party needs to be zero waste. But HOW…I set out to find the best options for making this birthday bash as zero waste as possible.
Things you need for a birthday party are: cups, dishes, utensils, napkins, food, drinks, decorations, and entertainment. (*Some may include a favor as part of a birthday party; I have opted out of giving party favors.) As always, trash is the first priority, but cost and embodied energy are next in line. This post will focus on the…
CUPS, DISHES, UTENSILS, & NAPKINS
Think about the trashcan at the end of a party. What is the most ubiquitous thing in it? The disposable dinner- and drink-ware. So we will talk first about how to avoid that category of waste, and address other categories in follow-up posts. This is a kids’ party, so I need lightweight, unbreakable plates and cups to serve food on. Not to mention, we have invited 20-25 people and I just don’t have that many dishes in my kitchen even if I wanted to use my breakable stuff. Thus, I must acquire “partyware.” (Note: many households keep plastic cups in their cupboards, from restaurants, etc. Mine does not. We have mason jars and the recycled glassware we got for our wedding (save the handful of plastic sippy cups we have acquired). If you do have plastic cups or plates on-hand, you can skip the whole part about procuring those items, although you may need to stock more.)
One-time use or reusable?
So we’ve established that I have to procure dinner- and drink-ware. The next question is: buy compostable (though, disposable) items or something I can use year after year? My opinion is that one-time use items are never the least waste option. Even if they’re made of super-sustainable, compostable materials. I like to spend money only once, and I like to use energy to manufacture something only once. If I have to shell out at least $20 I’m going to make sure I don’t have to buy it ever again (buying compostable dinnerware for 20 people would cost much more than $20, btw). Thus, disposable partyware is not an option for me, and I will not discuss it here (perhaps in a future post).
The embodied energy that goes into the production and packaging of a one-time use item outweighs the value of its use. It is better to produce something only once with a longer useful life.
This is the first kid-friendly party I’ve hosted, and no doubt have years of this type of party ahead of me. I need to make an investment in something I can use again and again. I will not buy a new set of partyware every year. I decided I would put together a kit of reusable dishes–a “Partyware box” (TM!), if you will, that I can just unpack each time we have a kid party.
The solution: THRIFT STORE!!!
The thrift store is full of (extremely cheap) stuff that still has useful life but just needs a new home. I went around to a few thrift stores and bought all the dinnerware I could find that was in safe and acceptable condition.
Thrift stores can be hit or miss, but you can probably find a lot of what you need to stock your Partyware box if you bounce around to the thrift stores in your area. When buying any dish (not just from thrift stores), you must keep in mind the potential for exposure to harmful substances. I’ve included a discussion of safe dishes vs. unsafe dishes below.
I know there are some moms out there turning up their noses at this idea. My Partyware dishes don’t all match and/or aren’t some cutesy kid theme. And they’re kind of ugly, to boot. Trust me, I know they’re ugly. However, my purpose is not to decorate with the dishes, as has become the norm at kid birthday parties in our culture. I doubt the kids will care what their forks look like. I just need it to be safe for human consumption and able to be reused time and time again. The day may come when my kids complain about their birthday party flatware (maybe?). Until that day (at which time I will inevitably rebuke them and carry on with my zero-wasting ways), I will use these items. (For the record, the silverware I found is actually some variation of “Bakelite,” is from the ’30s-’40s, and has experienced a resurgence of popularity as a kitschy, retro thing. So there ya go, I’m not totally off-base.)
On that note, let’s go ahead and talk about the utensils. Thrift stores will have tubs of silverware in the “bric-a-brac” section. It should be stamped somewhere on the silverware whether it is made of stainless steel or something else. I did not buy the silverware that was stamped “chrome plated.” I figured stainless steel would be the safest for human consumption considering I was buying used and very old utensils. I do not know that it matters, though.
IF YOU HATE the idea of thrift store stuff, I still think it’s better to buy a set of reusable, durable dishes at a retail store than disposables as I’ve done for some items to fill the gaps (UNLESS you can find a disposable manufacturer that powers its processes with renewables and uses a completely sustainable material (like bamboo) for both the product, its packaging, and shipping (of the raw materials as well as the final product).
REUSABLE CUPS AND DISHES
Ceramics: Not for kids, and note the possibility for lead.
One of the main reasons I am looking for Partyware is that my everyday pottery is too fragile for a kid party. Nevertheless, I figured I’d share while we’re on the topic: you have to be careful about buying old dishes (at the thrift store, garage sales, etc.). Some of them contain lead, cadmium, and perhaps other harmful substances that you do not want to expose your family to, especially small children. Further, even newer dishes may contain a glaze that has traces of lead which can become exposed after a certain amount of wear and tear. Read more here and here to find out about the possibility of poisonous substances in ceramic dinnerware. (I don’t mean to alarm anyone–I probably have some of this stuff in my own kitchen. I just mention this to provide a complete picture, but I’m not rushing out to replace my ceramic dishes.) Here is a related FDA article.
In my initial internet search, I tried to find new, unbreakable dishes that were NOT plastic. I came across dishes made of melamine, which at first glance appeared to be a good option. However, research showed melamine may leach toxic chemicals when heated to 160 degrees F or more (in the microwave, but also when very hot food is on the plate). Here is one of the posts about that. Melamine is basically plastic combined with formaldehyde. Here is what the FDA has to say about melamine. FDA says it’s safe as long as the plate is not heated to 160 degrees or higher. Here is a post listing benefits of melamine dinnerware, which says it is #7 plastic resin code and therefore recyclable. I do not know the reasoning behind altering the plastic with formaldehyde. The questions are (1) whether melamine leaches more harmful chemicals or toxics under extreme temperatures than plastic, and (2) is it any more or less sustainable than ordinary plastic (though , that begs the question: what is “ordinary” plastic?). I will try to find more answers to these questions later, but for now let’s just decide we aren’t buying melamine products for our Partyware kit. I won’t find it at the thrift store, and it’s significantly more expensive than regular plastic partyware items.
If you are lucky enough to find steel or other safe metal dishes at the thrift store to complete your Partyware box in a large enough quantity, you rock. Go for it. Even if you find only a couple I would recommend buying and using them for everyday kid meals. I would choose metal over plastic for less leaching and durability! However, if you find pewter or tin, you will probably want to pass it up.
Glass: Not yet.
I had to seriously ask myself: Why not just use mason jars? It’s not like they’re cost prohibitive, and we already have plenty. Glass is the best option any time we’re talking zero waste OR health. However, I opted against mason jars for safety. Breakage is not only a problem for the expense, it also exposes sugar-loaded, boucing-off-the-walls kids to broken glass. We will inevitably switch to mason jars when child attendees are older and better able to avoid breakage.
**If money was no object** I might consider buying a bunch of Lifefactory beverage glasses and call it a day! I suspect they’d hold up to being dropped on the floor. (There is still the question of whether the silicone used for the sleeve is sustainable, but it is at least all made in the US.) I bought one of Lifefactory’s water bottles years ago and am still fully satisfied and using it regularly.
Plastic: Eh, okay, I guess.
As much as it pains me to say this, plastics seem to be the best option for cheap, (infrequent) reusable dishes. They are ubiquitous at the thrift store or at your local dollar store if you aren’t able to score any at the thrift store. The risk of leaching is not a huge concern for me, given the relatively infrequent use these dishes will get. The reality is even when you buy BPA-free plastic, you may be exposed to a higher amount of harmful chemicals than found in plastic containing BPA. This is true also for food and drink packaged in plastic containers. Thus, I am not sure one’s health is endangered any more by a (relatively new and unworn) plastic dish bought from the thrift store than it is by a new, BPA-free plastic dish. I do not feel the use of a plastic dish (BPA or no) one time per year endangers my child’s health or exposes my child to any higher amount of harmful chemicals than ordinary. Further, when the dishes have reached the end of their life, they can be recycled in the City of Tulsa. Thus, I have decided to stock my Partyware box with plastic cups. This is just my opinion, and the option that I am making work for my own circumstances. If you have another informed opinion or a better alternative, please share it!
**The Partyware Box**
Here is the completed Partyware box for kid-friendly parties, outfitted with everything a mom needs to feed 20-25 guests at the birthday bash! My family will use this box for our kid parties for a long time. I’ll add also: none of the dishes will go into the dishwasher. To wash, I plan to spray the dishes off in the tub, soak them in the tub in warm, soapy water, and rinse them in hot water in a separate vessel. This cuts out the electricity involved in dishwashing, and cuts down on exposing the plastics to high temperatures to avoid leaching.
Ultimately, I wound up with items from the Salvation Army, the Dollar Tree, and Wal-Mart. I didn’t begin my thrift searches early enough, or I would have scored everything thrifting. I got what I could at the thrift stores, and bought the rest retail. If you start your search early enough (6 months in advance?), I am sure you will be able to find everything you need.
8 plastic stem cups (49 cents each), 12 plastic cups ($3), 16 stainless steel forks (25 cents each) Total: $10.92 (excluding tax)
24 microfiber napkins ($1/3 pack), 24 white plastic plates ($1/2 pack), Total: $21.70
4 plastic cups (88 cents/4 pack), 24 stainless steel spoons (88 cents/4 pack), 8 stainless steel forks (88 cents/4 pack), 24 plastic bowls (88 cents/4 pack), 6-quart tub for storage ($9.77), Total: $22.97
Grand total: $60