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Low Waste Swaps for Celebrations

Posted by Ange Defosse on
Low Waste Swaps for Celebrations

The Internet has really made us take a step back from the essentials, eh?

Celebrations are one of the areas that get overcrowded with comparison fatigue, too much waste, and too much pressure.

I'm happy to sit here and tell you that this is one more thing you can let go of for a simpler, happier, and less onerous impact overall.

This post is inspired by my son's third birthday party, but a lot of the concepts can easily be applied to any celebration when you really get into the details of buying and planning. We had a little beach get-together last weekend at our local provincial park to keep things even calmer - less activity planning, less cleaning, more family time. It was great! And, it also allowed me to snap a few pictures for this week's sustainable living story and blog post.

As my partner and I packed up for this event, we chatted about whether our own kids were missing out on anything that they would have gotten if we had of put together an extremely coordinated, venue situated, specifically themed party. Neither of us could remember any of the themes from our own birthday parties as a child, but we knew they were still a part of our celebrations back then, and were hashing out whether we really needed that element as kids. But to be clear - these were 1990's birthday parties; these days it's like the kid birthday parties of that decade on steroids. The ridiculously awesome graduation celebrations on Billy Madison are now actually kind of the norm, eh? These days, you don't just have the local Kmart to pick from 'themes' and products; there's the Internet bursting with anything you want to order at any time, Pinterest pushing everyone to elevate their lives, and friends posting photos of actually making it all come to life on a regular Tuesday afternoon. In 2021, we also need to factor in the extra anxiety layer of Covid and making things safe, whatever intense personal and family dynamics will be brought to the party, and for most parents, factoring a full time job on top of the late-night treat bag prep. On top of all this planning and execution, there's the "after party." The cleanup. After the party, the plastic tablecloth gets bunched up around all of the disposable plastic cutlery and plates, dumped in a garbage bag along with all of the wrapping paper (which is not recyclable, and the wood stove is *not* the option people laugh it off to be in August... or actually) and the plastic crud in the treat bags we will pick up for a few weeks here and there.

It's a big no for me.

And - it's not necessary or even valuable at the end of it all.

During this chat, my partner told me that his favourite part of the party was always "the pumpkin roll." An October baby, he said he didn't have any recollection of the decorations or themes, though we both know his mom worked hard on all of that. The pumpkin roll was a game his mom played with the kids, where they would pick a pumpkin, roll it down a hill, and receive a prize if their old gourd was the fastest. He said they played until everyone got a prize, of course, but it was by far the best part of the party in his opinion.

I remember eating Jello in a contest with my hands behind my back in a bathing suit, laughing and getting the wobbly brick with whip cream on the top all over my face. 

A homemade slip and slide.

Hay rides - we grew up on a farm and would all pile in the flatbed wagon for my brother's birthday in March.

Sleepovers with unlimited candies and bedtimes.

Trampoline wars.

Money cake. 

It's the people together doing things that we don't normally do. It has nothing to do with the coordinated stuff. It has nothing to do with all of the garbage.

But I think we all know this already, deep down. It's just hard to feel like we aren't letting our kids miss out on something that it now feels like everyone else has, or at least that everyone else is posting. 

So, here's some options if you want to enjoy that time (lookin' at you, mamas) with your family and decrease the storage of things in your home, your trash can, and your schedule.

1. Choose long-term, multi-use decorations

I bought this banner in a small Toronto stationary shop over ten years ago. She's made of felt and has graced every single birthday celebration we've had. It is simple to put up for little family celebrations, and durable enough to make it through another few decades. 

Balloons are super fun, but they are not a great option for the environment. If you're going to use them, opt for a foil balloon that you can reuse, or at the very least, recycle. Water balloons can be swapped for crocheted reusable water balloons, and are much easier on littler kids' bodies, without the fill up time required, too. A banner or bunting is another option - of course, the ones at Gather are gorgeous if you want to invest in something long-term, or actually incredibly simple to make with discarded fabric bits. For a craft to do with kids, you can reuse paper (hello, old colouring books and artwork) to make paper chains or bunting quite easily and use it to get ready for a party, if you feel like the decor helps with letting go of the traditional decoration bit.

Avoiding glitter (a ready-made micro plastic), cheap plastic decor, foil and hitting up the dollar store for throw-away decorations is the goal.

2. Choose Beeswax

Beeswax birthday candles are ideal, because they don't leak synthetics onto your cake, burn paraffin into your air space, and look great to be used even after they have been burned. I know it is common practice, but think of how many perfectly fine candles end up in the landfill just because they've been used once and aren't perfect enough any longer to be reused in picture-perfect parties, or specific enough in colour to be used long term.

The birthday candles below are almost a decade old. We keep them in this mason jar in our kitchen and they've been used for every "Happy Birthday" in our home.

3. Rethink Wrapping Paper

There's a definite social media (and hopefully real-life) trend the last couple of Christmas seasons toward choosing fabric and bag-style gift wrap, but it can be applied really for any gift. Tissue paper is not recyclable as the fibres are too fine, and usually has foil and plastic all the way through it anyway with polkadots and glitter. Gift paper is not recyclable unless you're opting for a Kraft paper, which is also totally doable and can be decorated with paints like Earth Paint (available in our shop) if you want to also be able to compost it.

I was able to get several chunks of fabric from a good friend and made baggies out of them to give gifts away in. I intended to give these to people that could also use the bag as part of the gift. Beware though - in my own experience, people are either happy about this or weird about it. Of the two I recently gave, one felt they had to give it back and the other had an awkward conversation with me about "letting me have it back" when I assured her it was part of the present but she seemed to have no idea what to do with it and I tried to give a few ideas without being super awkward. For me, I see people buying cloth produce baggies and paying for them to take the place of Ziplock bags, but in this case, it wasn't clear and I'm not sure how to fix that. It's just not what people are used to yet.

However, our fam is pretty used to this. I now save baggies and have a little set that work great. So far we've collected a discarded chunk of fabric with a pom pom bunting (actually an old shower curtain that I made part of into a curtain), two Euro (square) pillow cases that work awesome on larger toy options that were almost sent to the thrift shop that I didn't need, a baggie a duvet cover came in, and some little jute bags from past presents I've received. I also save a little jar of cool ribbons and cotton lace bits from my mom's sewing closet to add to the 'wrapping' and tie them shut. These baggies don't take up as much space as the gift bag/wrapping/tissue paper storage situations that we all know take up full linen closets in so many people's homes.

 4. Alternatives to Single Use Plastics at Parties

Okay, so here's where I think it might be easy to apply these tips to just about any celebration. Single use plastics are pretty rampant at parties - cups, plates, cutlery, table cloths, foil cupcake wrappers, cheap cake toppers, plastic necklaces, glittery party hats - the list could go on.

Firstly, try to move towards choosing items that can be reused. We have a regular oatmeal coloured linen tablecloth that we can use for any celebration and use flowers and other decor to liven it up. We use it on Christmas morning, birthday parties, and it comes with me to all of my markets. It was great at the beach and very simple to wash.

Next, opt for items that are compostable. Bamboo plates, wooden cutlery, and paper cups all work great for short term use. We really love the brand "If you Care" - they make compostable, unbleached, FSC certified paper cupcake cups and more - cake and loaf single use pans, parchment paper, etc. 

5. Rethink thank you gifts

I don't know a single parent that loves a "goodie bag." Either it is full of plastic garbage - little toys that break that we have to find and throw out, a ton of wrappers for little candy bundles to find and throw away, or on the flip side, an added expense that we just don't want to throw on to the party price, honestly.

I do love the growing trend toward a gift card for an ice cream cone or a Happy Meal, but cringe a little when I think of the plastic cards that get dumped for a $5 purchase. I think Dairy Queen still has some paper vouchers for ice cream, but this might be an area where choosing a small business would be awesome, because they aren't likely to have a plastic gift card situation set up.

Trying to keep generic gifts to consumables is always a great option, because there isn't as much waste, and people generally like that better anyway. As a kid, I just wanted the candy. As an adult, honey and coffee and chocolate are far more interesting to me than hand soap. 

Because of our refillery, I was able to do little bubble baths with my insane amount of "good jars" and "good lids" laying around. I was going to go with a bulk food store candy situation in the jars, but our friend group is pretty young and I couldn't think of a good candy that was good for everyone, jujubes being something my three year old would not eat one at a time. Seeds might be a fun gift for spring time, or bubble mix (easy to make!).

6. Rethink Activities

Might be a crafty kid that wants a crafty party. Or maybe you're working on a theme party and consider choosing a cheap plastic game from Party City. Might be a good time to choose something without the plastic, especially if you know you aren't going to use it again.

We were going to paint some little wooden cars with some Earth Paint, but we opted for the beach. There, we didn't need to bring anything except the beach toys we already own (When We Were Young, Go Green Baby, and Little Minimalist all had some awesome options for long term beach toys this summer). 

If you're looking for some low-key, low-impact activities, I've been working on a solid Pinterest page for Harlowe Green and have a pretty woodsy and low waste Children's board with some ideas.

7. Remember the memories don't come from the stuff

Alright, so maybe you don't have any anxiety (please send me a DM if you are reading this, are in your thirties, and don't have anxiety - unless you're unaware of it, haha!). But I think it's always there for most of us, to some degree. And maybe you're not into CBD, and that's cool too. Either way, try to find some way to plan in something that will help you get and stay in the moment with your family in a way that makes you feel comfortable and happy. 

Plan to have a food option or drink option that will help you take a moment and enjoy that part. Invite a friend that makes you feel good, even if they don't have a kid and will just be there to help you out. Plan the party to not overwhelm yourself or your time. And let it go if your cupcakes sink in the middle (oh, hi!), people cancel at the last minute, or someone makes an offside comment about your parenting or your lifestyle. Because you're not going to remember any of that unless you make it a big deal.

8. Plan a Present with a Lower Impact

So, this part didn't make it into my Friday Sustainable Story on social media, but I thought I would also share some of the ways that we choose presents around here. I know the go-to minimal and earth-friendly option is to choose to give an experience, but that can be mighty tough right now when we don't know what people feel comfortable with or if that gift is going to get used. After touching base with the parent to see what the child or family might like, here's my ideas.
  • Local small business - this year, I'm getting locally made play dough and play dough play kits for the little sweeties in my life. Another amazing local business in our area is Fishtale Shop - we have gotten bug houses and wooden toys here for gifts.
  • Etsy - there are tons of amazing handmade items on here if you aren't aware of any nearby options. You can filter your searches based on location to also find closer makers as well. The forklift and log trucks below are examples of Etsy finds that we bought for this third birthday (the forklift) and potty training success (the log truck). You do need to think a little bit ahead on this one if you're hoping to choose this option.
  • Second hand - the wooden Earth Tiles (a wood option for magnetic shape tiles) are second hand. This is a tougher option as it's not always accessible to everyone, but if you're looking ahead of time, it can work out great.
  • Books - the books below are characters my three year old loves and these are by far his most used presents. A local childcare provider told me about bookoutlet.ca for some awesome options in imperfect books; although, you can't always find a specific title. 
  • Imagination Toys - we pretty much stick to open ended toys here. And I mean the very basic, not the "food truck" and "ice cream stand" and "restaurant set up" and "kitchen" style of limited open ended, with several of the same thing, just very specific setting based. Go Green Baby and Little Minimalist have some great wooden toys that can be used for imagination play - doctor's sets, wooden bead toys, pots and pans, dolls and blocks.
  • What the child is into - if you know the child will love it, honestly, it's a win. There's nothing worse than buying an expensive heirloom toy that they don't use. Our son has been obsessed with vacuums for several months now, and although it's not a wooden toy, he has his own little motorized vacuum now and will use it to death. And it's okay to not be perfect! We just tried to buy it from a smaller, independent owned shop in Kingston.

So there you go! Let me know what you think of this blog post and these tips in a comment, or share this with a friend that might enjoy these ideas. Thanks again for following along on our journey, friend!

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