Cleaning up after a kids' party can feel like standing in the aftermath of a natural disaster. The disposable plastic cups, plates, cutlery, tablecloths, balloons, and streamers might have seemed great an hour into the bash, but they don't look so hot when they're smashed into trash bags headed for the dump. While this may seem like the price we pay when we host parties, it doesn't have to be, says Jenn Savedge, author of The Green Parent (Kedzie, 2008). Embracing a zero-waste or even a less-waste party philosophy is easier than you think.

Use email invites

To cut down on paper waste (and save dollars on postage too), send announcements via email. Sites such as evite.com make this choice attractive and simple. Be sure to relay information about bus or bike routes to partygoers, and help organize carpools for kids. If you're inviting friends and family from afar, build a webpage with information on where to stay and what to bring.

Reuse or buy compostable tableware

Do you have reusable plates, cups, silverware, tablecloths, and napkins at home? If not, the first option may be to rent these items. The next best option is “ordering compostable products made from cellulose plant material like potato starch, corn-starch, or bagasse [a byproduct of sugarcane production],” says Marti Matsch, communications director for Eco-Cycle, a recycling center in Boulder, Colorado, that offers a compostable zero-waste party kit. Look for recycled, compostable items from brands like Seventh Generation or order items online (see “Compostable Tableware Resources,” right). As far as decorations are concerned, use food, paper streamers, and flowers — all of which are fully compostable. As prevalent as they are, avoid balloons, which aren't biodegradable and can harm wildlife.

Know the compost and recycling rules

Hosting a party is a great opportunity to get familiar with your local recycling options — or to refresh your recycling and compost know-how. If your town doesn't offer curbside recycling, visit earth911.org to find the closest recycling center. On party day, set up compost and recycling stations in lieu of trash bins (for general compost guidelines, see “Is It Compostable?” at left). Clearly mark your compost and recycling, and create signs that explain why there are no trash bins.

Green up your gifts

Encourage eco-friendly presents like clothes or playthings made from organic materials, gift certificates, and tickets to local events. “One way to steer guests in the right direction without coming across as tacky or preachy is to specify one or two stores where the guest of honor has a wish list,” says Savedge. Hosts can specify on their invitations green online stores like Eco-Wise (ecowise.com) or Green Feet (greenfeet.com) that have gift registries.

MAKE REUSABLE PARTY FAVORS

Harness kids' creative energy — and make party favors at the same time — by setting up a craft for kids to complete at the party. Plant flowers in pots hand-painted by guests, or use old fabric, ribbon, buttons, and beads to make art, reusable lunch napkins, puppets, or toys. Or, if a craft seems like too much, set up a puzzle, toy, or book exchange at your party and let kids swap old for new.

Is it compostable?

PLATES, CUPS, AND UTENSILS made from biodegradable materials such as corn or potato starch.

PLASTIC-COATED paper and cardboard are not compostable or recyclable.

FLOWERS.

MOST FOOD. However, animal products, including cheese, bones, oils, and meats, should be handled by composting companies. Commercial composting systems work at a higher temperature and process these items better than backyard piles. Plus, these items can attract unwanted wildlife.

Compostable tableware resources

ecoproducts.com
ecowise.com
worldcentric.org

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