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Low Waste Swaps for Celebrations

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Low Waste Swaps for Celebrations

The Internet has really made us take a step back from the essentials, eh? Pinterest, advertising alongside the weather report, Instagram highlights and "look books" in our emails. 

Celebrations are one of the areas that get overcrowded with comparison fatigue, too much waste, and too much pressure to make things perfect that they can be well... less than meaningful and joyful, at the end of it all.

I'm happy be able to relay the news - this is one more thing you can analyze from a personal lens to determine what resonates with you and let go of the rest for a simpler, happier, and (likely) 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, but also has me thinking about celebrations overall, especially with the calamities that the holidays can feel like.

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 with banners, balloons, the requisite line of matching treat bags, coordinated crafts, and display of plastic tablecloths, plates, and swag on theme-point. 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 and Thanksgivings and holiday get-togethers; these days it's like the morphed up version of the parties of that decade on steroids. The ridiculously awesome grade 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 a handful of '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 needed 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 or Santa workshop magic. 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 plastic crud in the treat bags we will pick up for a few weeks here and there as it breaks apart.

It's a big no for me.

And - we struggled to determine what was necessary or even valuable at the end of it all, beyond the photos. These extra pressures to buy, create, and pull off can cause a lot of strife and stress, which is not quite the point, right?

During this chat, my partner told me that his favourite part of his childhood birthday parties 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. 

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 no limit on the junk food. Or the 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 online. 

So, here are 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

We bought a Happy Birthday banner in a small Toronto stationary shop over ten years ago. It is 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. 

Decor can be simple and becomes meaningful and special with long term use. We have a rainbow birthday banner we've used for every family celebration for the last ten years, and recently a friend made this beautiful bunting with scraps of leftover fabric from her plant dye project.

Balloons are fun, but they are not a great option for the environment and are always dump-bound. They can be especially problematic in outdoor celebrations, and lost balloons end up somewhere to exist long term in the environment, with many animals and birds mistaking them for food, or entrapped in plastic ribbon. 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 an incredibly simple to make option that can be crafted 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. During the winter holidays, it was the norm to DIY decor and enjoy doing that together - stringing popcorn, dehydrating oranges, and making cardboard stars covered in tinfoil. One the holiday was over, the birds could enjoy it, or it could be taken apart and reused or composted.

Vintage is another great way to roll with long term decor, and it is readily available online and in your local reseller's shops. Choosing something that already exists decreases the amount of new items needing to be produced - and a limit on the waste of throwing what already exists away.

Avoiding glitter (a ready-made micro plastic), cheap plastic decor, rolling trends of things like balloon arches or a flocked Christmas tree with whatever ornaments are in that year, 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 for a variety of events.

The birthday candles in our home from Tara Foods 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. Beeswax lasts longer and can be very locally sourced.

Beeswax is non-toxic and often simple to source locally. It is also very long lasting - can you believe these candles are on their twelfth year, having been used for many celebrations in that time?!

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 natural paints (try BEAM paints!) if you want to also be able to compost it.

Initially, this swap seems expensive. But, there are so many second hand fabrics or items you can upcycle/reuse to suit any theme or colour scheme you like! Table cloths, fabric shower curtains, sheet sets and pillow cases, fabric scraps and more can be readily found second hand, from friends and family, or in the pile of things you're not sure you need in your home/during decluttering.

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. I think when we get into trying new things, it's always a bit strange at first, but then it may become more of a norm, and I think this is one of those things!

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. Clean up is a simple fold (and maybe a wash) and you can stash it away for the next event. Choosing neutral options makes it easy for use to use them for any event!

 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. If you're into more themed decor, the thrift shop is bursting with tablecloths and themed linens (these larger pieces of fabric can also work for 'wrapping' large gifts, too!).

If you frequently require plates that you're tossing and buying, it might be worth thinking about thrifting a second set of plates at your local thrift shop. We host quite a few get togethers and have a dishwasher, so it's really just as much work to run that twice rather than managing a second garbage bag full of single use products. With the amount of forest area lost recently with the wildfires, we invested $10 in a second set of plates. We now store these where we stored our paper plates and will reuse and save cash every time we pull them out.

Choose reusable - this saves waste, item production, and costs over time when compared to purchasing items to toss long term. There are lots of compostable options as well - avoiding single use plastics and styrofoam is a great place to start.

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. As a hostess, or a past teacher and coach, I will say it's quite difficult to get someone that you don't personally know that well a great gift if it's a knick knack or bottle of personal care product. 

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 or have a paper option available.

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 or one more tree ornament. We've opted for olive oil from Kingston Olive Oil, gift certificates for little coffee shops that are independent and locally owned, and given bath bombs and bulk candy to little ones in repurposed jars. 

 Thank you gifts can get creative! Saving and using paper baggies or washed containers can be great to decorate for package free bath bombs and bulk candy. For a beach birthday, we opted for metal and wood sand shovels the kids could use during the day and take home. Avoiding singe use plastic baggies/foil and glitter boxes and very breakable plastic toys is a great place to start.

6. Rethink Activities

It 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. The amount of holiday themed plastic activity kits are endless, and a lot of them are made of plastic based modelling clays or little plastic figures that take a few minutes to create. This 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). Going outdoors is the easiest option - a scavenger hunt, a group cooperation game, a walk at a conservation area, etc. There are many ideas for compostable crafts if you look on Pinterest and look up toilet paper tube crafts or items using natural materials like leaves or seeds. For adults, we do love outdoor time, but adding an element of competition always makes it most fun!

The outdoors usually take care of the activity for you! Conservation areas, local and provincial parks, and the beach can all be great venues during the summer, and walks with pets, a bonfire or a snowball fight are fun in the winter. Enjoying nature and limiting the waste/impact of the event go hand in hand.

7. Plan a Present with a Lower Impact

I thought I would also share some of the ways that we choose presents to give a sense of some ways that we can make that portion of our events more conscious. I know the go-to minimal and earth-friendly option is to choose to give an experience, and that's great! After touching base with the parent to see what the child or family might like (I always start there!), here are my ideas for gifting:
  • Local small business - this year, I'm getting locally made play dough and play dough play kits for the little sweeties in my life. I love knowing that the money I invest in my community will be spent in my community, because this is where local business owners live and keep it flowing. Choosing local also decreases the carbon footprint of the item you're choosing, so there is no additional impact of that individual shipment to you from wherever you order from.
  • Etsy - there are tons of amazing handmade items on here if you aren't aware of any nearby options. You do need to think a little bit ahead on this one if you're hoping to choose this option.
  • Second hand - This can sometimes be a tougher option as it's not always accessible to everyone and does take some time, but if you're looking ahead of time, it can work out great. In my extended family, we always chat ahead of time and I let others know we are very happy to receive second hand gifts, because there can definitely be some worry and fear in the social gift giving expectations around this.
  • Books - a thoughtfully selected book areby far his most used presents for our children. A local childcare provider told me about 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 has some great wooden toys that can be used for imagination play - a myriad of wooden building blocks, 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.

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

If you're hosting, see what you can do less of. Less always seems like such a bad thing in our culture, but it generally leads to more openness for community, a more relaxed time, and more meaningful moments.

If you're hosting, plan to have a food option or drink option that will help you take a moment and enjoy the event. Invite a friend that makes you feel good or enlist some help rather than trying to do it all alone. 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. Going slower can be the tone we start to set for our lives, and maybe we will get some more of that old fashioned joy and ease as a result.

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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1 comment

  • Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing.

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