Throwing a Zero-Waste Party

One of the obvious hazards of having a bunch of wonderful people over is dealing with everything those wonders leave behind.

So few of us want to spend time with loved ones washing dishes and cleaning, we often opt for what seems easiest: disposable everything.  Yet, we just threw a party with six bands and hundreds of people and ended up with less than one full bag of garbage. How on earth did we pull that off?

First, the problem.

From Styrofoam plates to plastic cups, we are so accustomed to throwaway meal items that we barely give a second thought to utilizing stuff that we only use for minutes (sometimes seconds) before tossing it along on its dead-end course with a landfill. Here are the facts (from
  • In 2009, the United States generated 13 million tons of plastics waste from containers and packaging, and 7 million tons of nondurable plastic waste (for example plates and cups). The combined total of nondurable disposables exceeded the 11 million tons of plastic durable goods, such as appliances [EPA]. Only 7 percent was recovered for recycling.
  • Plastic cutlery is non-biodegradable, can leach toxic chemicals when handled improperly, and is widely used. estimates 40 billion plastic utensils are used every year in just the United States. The majority of these are thrown out after just one use.
  • 3,460,000 tons of tissues and paper towels wound up in landfills in 2008.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 780,000 tons of plastic and polystyrene cups and plates were discarded in 2008.
  • Americans produce enough Styrofoam cups every year to circle the earth 436 times. These cups are completely non-biodegradable, deplete the Earth’s ozone layer, waste enormous amounts of landfill, and are deadly to marine life.
  • The Container Recycling Institute claims that 2.81 million juice boxes were sold in the U.S. in 2006, most of which cannot be recycled due to the inseparability of the cardboard, plastic, and aluminum foil used in the product.
  • According to the EPA, Americans discarded about 2.7 million tons of aluminum, the largest source being used beverage and packaging containers. And in the time it takes you to read this sentence, more than 50,000 12-oz. aluminum cans were made. 
  • The Container Recycling Institute estimates that supplying plastic water bottles to American consumers in one year requires more than 47 million gallons of oil, the equivalent of one billion pounds of carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere. 
So what's the solution?
At last week's Summerfest, we welcomed hundreds of people to Better Farm to help support betterArts' mission of arts and cultural outreach against a backdrop of responsible environmentalism and practical sustainability.

So what did we do to steer away from such a disposable-obsessed culture?
  • Instead of Styrofoam plates, we went with compostable ones that will turn into dirt by next spring.
  • We opted to invest in real silverware and cutlery, along with heavy-duty plastic tubs for bussing dirty silverware.
  • We utilized real glasses for iced tea, lemonade, water, beer and wine.
  • We ditched all the single-serving bottles. That means no water bottles, no bottles of juice. We filled pitchers and loaded people up with glasses.
  • We put out carefully marked garbage pails: compost, burnable, washable, recyclable. That left cigarette butts and empty bags of ice as the party's only actual trash items.
  • We made our food from actual ingredients, not pre-packaged or store-bought stuff. That meant no cellophane, Styrofoam, or even plastics to contend with. As a bonus, most of the side-dish items came from just a few feet away in Better Farm's garden!
For a party of several hundred people over the course of 12 hours, there were about six trips to the kitchen sink to wash glasses and cutlery. We divided up the responsibilities on this, so no one was stuck doing it more than once. The few minutes it took to clean everything and bring it all back to the party makes the investment more than worthwhile—over the course of several years, betterArts is saving hundreds of dollars by not having to buy disposable items. That's more money that can be spent doing arts outreach in the North Country—and less junk clogging up the environment. We can all feel good about that.
Got some great ideas for throwing zero-waste parties? Email us at

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.