“Please can we have a big joint birthday party with P this year, mummy? Please can we invite my whole class?” (Gulp. These are words that can send a shiver down any parents’ spine.)
“Are you sure, darling? You don’t want a special party with just a few close friends?” (looking hopeful…)
“Nope. Definitely a big party. Pleeeease?” And all hope comes crumbling down. And she’s been so good this year…
Big parties cost a lot. And produce a lot of waste. Two things I don’t particularly like. But I do like parties, so could it be possible to organise a ‘big’ party that quite literally didn’t cost the earth? Challenge accepted! Luckily, P’s mummy was totally on board, so here’s how it went:
1. Forward planning
In my reasonably limited experience of having become a die-hard environmentalist weirdo, I have learnt that everything eco requires some forethought. Like keeping a couple of bags stuffed into your work bag, for example, and a coffee cup in each car, for impromptu stop offs at the shops. So having set a date for late October, the planning began in earnest in September. That gave us lots of time to buy stuff without having to rely on Amazon Prime after having read about their greedy boss. Naughty Amazon.
Church hall? School hall? Sod it, let’s have it in the forest, we decided. It’s quirky, it’s free, it’s totally in keeping with the ethos of this party. It’s a hell of a gamble with the weather, being an Autumn party, but we had pre-warned everyone that there may be a last-minute change of date if the weather was looking particularly rank.
Having tested many off-road running routes in the local area and also having gone exploring with the dog, we sourced a beautiful clearing in the local woodlands about a 1/3 mile from the main track. I thought it would be fun to set up a little trail for the little legs to follow from the main track to the clearing, using bits of scrap wood that I had cut, sanded and turned into little signs. This evolved into each sign having a symbol on so that the children’s challenge was to find each one, match the symbol with the corresponding letter on a printed grid, and unscramble a message.
In reality, with forty over-excited children charging through the woods, I’m pretty certain some of them totally chinned off the symbol-scrambling and ran the whole way straight for the cake. So in hindsight, we should have had parent volunteer race-like marshals tactically placed to direct the stampede! It would have avoided a whole lot of shouting “OIIIY! that way! not that way!”
Being reasonably clean still, we decided to do ‘happy birthday’ cake and nibbles first, to reduce the need for excessive hand-cleaning facilities. A few reusable bottles of water and cloths helped to clean up the ones that were unlucky enough to face plant on the way there.
We brought our little camping fire pit along to toast marshmallows on bamboo skewers – the dads were in charge, no-one got burnt and everyone seemed to be very satisfied! Annoyingly, I had ordered the mallows in bulk in a big recyclable / reusable plastic tub from a wholesaler, to avoid the non-recyclable packaging of shop-bought ones, but it came delivered (bad carbon footprint, I know, bad choice) surrounded by bubblewrap! To protect marshmallows! Ludicrous! Anyway, we really shouldn’t have bothered and should instead have just grabbed a load from the pick & mix. Would have probably cost the same once the whopping postage charge had been added on.
Having scavenged forty glass jars from friends, colleagues and family that would otherwise have been destined for recycling and cleaned off the labels, we filled each one with a tiny MDF cut out of mythical creatures – dragons, unicorns, fairies and pegasus. These were sourced on eBay, where I messaged the seller directly and asked specifically for no plastic packaging, and they replied more than happy to oblige. They arrived loose in a small cardboard box, packed out with folded up kitchen roll. Result!
We hid the jars around the clearing, so the children could go looking for them and then create a little jar-home for the creature, made up of things found in the forest – pine cones, leaves etc. This quickly descended into carnage with forty little people tanked up on cake and somewhat over-excited! In hindsight, we should have stashed some spare jars, for those who found empty ones (the younger siblings had got to them earlier and started up their own games, unbeknown to us. D’oh!) Luckily, most of the parents had stuck around, and managed to make sure no-one actually disappeared. Phew.
We had collected some long-stemmed sycamore leaves of lots of beautiful Autumnal colours for making leaf crowns (something I’d spotted on Pinterest. Have spent a lot of time on Pinterest!) If nothing else, I had no idea you could make leaf crowns without string, wire, scissors – just leaves! Some willing and creative parents had volunteered to help with this activity which was lucky as it did seem just beyond the ability of our seven-year-olds. And whilst a few crafty little people enjoyed making leaf crowns, the remainder of the gaggle were busy climbing trees and pretending to shoot each other with sticks.
We have endured enough children’s parties by now to have realised that 1) no one eats the veggies, 2) most are too distracted to eat at all, and 3) all they really want is cake.
So, to avoid waste, we decided on finger-food nibbles only, with the ‘enchanted forest’ theme:
- A big bowl full of dough balls – flour (paper – recyclable); yeast (tin – recyclable); caster sugar (paper – recyclable); olive oil (glass – recyclable)
- A big bowl of ‘unicorn popcorn’ – home-popped to minimise packaging (you can get a lot out of one pack of popping corn – not the microwave nonsense but the ones you find hiding with the nuts or in the world foods section of the supermarket) – non recyclable but could go in with the carrier bag recycling bin. God knows where that ends up mind you. Not convinced it’s anywhere good. Also the edible glitter packaging and coloured sprinkles packaging – possibly recyclable pots? Not clearly labelled. This is the ‘nearly’ bit in our ‘nearly’ zero-waste attempt
- Jelly-worm chocolate crispy cakes – jelly worms bought in bulk with the mallows – same issue regarding plastic wrap. Cereal bag – drat. Chocolate came in recyclable cardboard and recyclable foil.
- Rainbow fruit skewers – thank you Pinterest! Loose fruit – red = watermelon; orange = cantaloupe melon; yellow = pineapple; green = kiwi. Then unable to source loose – blue = blueberry; indigo = black grape; violet = red grape. Punnets were recyclable PET1 plastic, but the films on top – and the bamboo skewer packaging – were destined for the good old carrier bag recycle abyss again. (Incredibly, all 60 fruit skewers were devoured, as opposed to almost 0% of cut fruit at most parties, presumably because it was rainbow colours, and on a stick. Oh the power of marketing…)
- Cut up bits of home-made cake – butter wrapping the only baddie here.
- The cake – home made of course, but this time I tried to make my own marzipan and fondant icing – to avoid the packaging for one, (although liquid glucose comes in a non recyclable tube – aargh! and ground almonds come in a plastic bag – double aargh) BUT it avoided the naughty palm oil that seems to go into all the ready-to-roll marzipan and fondant you get in the shops. I’m no baker, so that fact that I could make it must mean it isn’t really very difficult.
The children seemed happy. No one looked like they were starving.
Everyone was asked beforehand to bring their own drink in a reusable bottle. No one complained (that we knew of!). No one died of thirst.
5. Party bags
Each child went home with a paper bag of leftover sweets, a piece of each birthday girls’ cake, their jar (if they hadn’t left it somewhere), their leaf crown (if they made one, and if it hadn’t already broken), and were asked to each take a sign from the trail to go home and decorate. This backfired a bit, as most people possibly followed a different track home because I found loads of signs on clearing up and I definitely didn’t make any extras! Luckily, through the power of facebook and WhatsApp, I found the culprits who had missed the signs, and promised to pass them on to their poor, neglected, empty-handed children at a later date.
This was another big gamble – we had sent a message out to everyone to make them aware that we were attempting a ‘nearly’ zero-waste party, and to please feel free not to bother with a present (I could feel daggers from my daughters’ eyes in the back of my head, even though she was asleep in bed) but if they did want to bring something, would they rise to the challenge to find presents not wrapped in single-use plastic. Or even consider something pre-loved.
Well these wonderful guests rose to the challenge, and one lucky little girl received the most wonderful and thoughtful gifts any child with an eco-mentalist mother could ask for! Fiction book, non-fiction books, create-your-own story books, colouring create-your-own cards book, crochet kit, recycled paper bead kit, recycled paper scrapbooking kit, necklaces, a fairytale puzzle book, bath bomb, stationery, a wooden fairy and unicorn sign, flower press art kit, and a reusable slushy cup. Top marks to the guests!
7. The reality
Luckily, I like making things. I like doing things. That’s what I enjoy. So sawing bits of wood, sanding, using power drills to create something pretty is a hobby to me – I appreciate it definitely isn’t for others! What I found endearing was the fact that my daughter, now at an age where she is capable of actually being helpful, throughly enjoyed making them with me. It was like a fun craft activity for mummy and daughter, making stuff for her party. But useful, as opposed to creating child art that needs to mysteriously disappear once they seem to have forgotten it exists. Likewise the fruit skewering – having cut the fruit up in to coloured piles – she thrived on turning each one into a rainbow. So that wasn’t so bad at all.
The children had a brilliant time. It was wild, for sure. But they loved it.
The cost saving of putting in the elbow-grease to be eco-friendly was incredible. The whole party, including all food, all cake ingredients, all activities and party bags was about £80.
Cost was definitely a winner, time spent prepping definitely was not. However, it was strangely enjoyable and satisfying, and left me wanting to do it all again. But slicker.
So in summary, for a party of forty small guests we produced the following waste:
Almost certainly non-recyclable:
- Liquid glucose tube (though plenty left so won’t be binned yet)
- Approx 3 butter wrappers
- Cereal bag x 1
Dubiously recyclable in the supermarket carrier bag recycling bins:
- Popcorn packaging x 1
- Bamboo skewer packaging x 1
- 3 x punnet films from grapes and blueberries
- Cake sprinkles and edible glitter packaging
- Baking powder pot
- PET1 plastic punnets
- Paper from flour, caster sugar, paper sweet bags, brown paper party bags
- Cardboard and foil from chocolate
- Glass jars
- Bamboo skewers (although mostly went into the fire pit)
- Leftover food (although there was none left over, once we parents got our hands on it. Hungry work, all this.)
- Paper cupcake cases
- Bio-glitter (possibly compostable, thinking about it, but we’ll be strict and put it in this list)
So there it is. We tried really, really hard to be zero-waste. Some packaging was unavoidable. But to be fair, all of our dubiously-recyclable stretchy plastic and actually non-recyclable waste (minus the liquid glucose tube) fit into this one glass jar.
For forty children, that’s not a bad effort. I’m going to call that a ‘nearly’ zero waste success. And definitely worthy of a glass of wine or four.
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