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How To Throw A Zero Waste BBQ

Let’s be real. It’s almost impossible to throw a totally zero waste BBQ or party. But hosting one that’s (nearly) zero waste is actually pretty easy. I attempted my first zero waste BBQ five years ago. Since then, all my parties and hosted gatherings have followed suit.

Here are my top 10 tips for hosting a fun, stress-free, (nearly) zero waste shindig. 

#1. Put it on the invitation.

Set yourself up for success by letting people know that your goal is a zero waste party. Explain what that is and give some clear guidelines. E.g. “Recyclables OK,” or “Please consider bringing your potluck dish in a washable container with a lid rather than covering it with plasticwrap.”

#2. Ask your friends to BYO.

When I first started throwing (nearly) zero waste parties, I didn’t have enough of anything other than plates. So I asked people to bring their own utensils and cups. It kind of worked, but a lot got left behind (we have a cool article on different ways to label containers, which would have made it a lot easier to reunite containers with their owners.) . The upside was that everyone washed their own dishes!

#3. Let It Go.

Until your friends have come to a few of your waste-free shindigs, they’re going to show up with stuff that turns into trash. Hopefully it’s recyclable trash, but sometimes it’s not. When a guest shows up with the party platter of veggies from the store packaged in a giant plastic monstrosity, just smile, thank them and refer to tip #6. If they keep coming to your parties, they’ll figure it out.

#4. Signage is key.

Give your guests clear guidance on what to do with the various dishes, cups, utensils, recyclables and food waste. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how many paper plate diehards just roll with it.

#5. Hide the trashcan.

If they can’t find it, they’ll look for an alternative and use the bus bins and compost! With this sly eco trick,the amount of captured and compostable food waste increases dramatically. Worse case scenario, if they can’t figure out where to throw stuff away, they’ll ask, and you or someone else will redirect them.

#6. Make an announcement and ask for help.

Get everyone’s attention, then quickly explain what you’re doing and why. Ask your guests for their help in reaching your goal of a zero waste party. If you’re using something that needs special attention, for example you needed to dip into your stash of plastic forks but you’re planning to wash them, this is the time to remind people to put them in the bus bins.

#7. Build your stash of reusable party-ware over time.

If you throw a lot of parties and you have the storage space, it’s worth investing in enough dishes, glasses and utensils for your parties. With each party I throw, I add a new item to my stash, and I buy used items whenever I can. For my first waste-free BBQ, I bought a box of 100 compostable bamboo plates. They’re technically a single-use item, but I’ve been hand-washing and re-using them for five years. For the Christmas cocktail party, I bought used mugs from Goodwill for the hot cider and rocks glasses for the Manhattans. For a fall potluck where I served chili, I added bowls that I bought at TJ Maxx because about two hours before the party started I got a dozen RSVP’s from people who were originally “maybes”.  Next on my list is real silverware. (See the next tip!)

#8. If you already have it, it’s OK to use (and re-use) it.

Before I ditched plastic, single-use anything, Teflon, BPA, phthalates etc. etc. I used plastic utensils, paper plates, and the dreaded red Solo cups. That was more than 10 years ago, but I’ve still got a bunch of that stuff in the basement. Because it’s rare that I have enough metal utensils for all my guests (utensils are next on the upgrade list), I use the plasticware along with the real stuff and wash it. I put a little note on the utensils dispensers, I have a bus bin that’s clearly labeled “Plasticware”, and I make a point of asking people not to throw it when I make my party announcement (see tip #6).

#9. Plan the food based on what you’ve got.

If you don’t have composting in the city where you live so that you can compost bones, buy boneless meat. Choose your menu based on the re-usable dishware that you have or are intending to buy. For example, only serve a hot drink if you have enough mugs.

#10. Don’t do the dishes (yourself).

You’ll have a lot of dishes, but it’s a small price to pay for a truly sustainable party. As the host or hostess, you’ll want to remain free to mingle, not end up chained to the sink doing dishes. I’ve used a couple of different tactics over the years, and all of them worked out OK. One was to ask people to wash their own stuff. The downside is it creates a huge traffic jam at the kitchen sink when you want people to be visiting with each other and relaxing. My preferred solution for a big party is to recruit or hire dishwashers. I’ve found that my close friends, who are also really into living more sustainably, are usually more than happy to take a 20-minutes shift washing dishes. For the really big events or the fancier ones, I hire teens from the neighborhood.

Easy Waste Free Party-ware Swaps:

Paper Plates: compostable bamboo plates, regular ceramic plates, or our Stainless Camping Trays (you can order them as singles, or in packs of 4 or 6)

Cups and glasses: regular glassware, stainless steel pint glasses, Mason jars

Utensils: metal utensils, BYO utensils, washing and re-using plasticware you already have

Napkins: cloth napkins, DIY napkins made from up-cycled old sheets 

Blog by Melissa Bearns, a zero waste maven and marketing expert based in Portland.

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