How can we keep our party green?
July 4, 2011 5:42 PM   Subscribe

What's the best "green" way to serve party food and beverages?

In the past, when we've had large outdoor parties, we've provided pop in cans, beer in cans and bottles, and water in plastic bottles. Even though these can all go into our recycling bin, we're aware that the plastic bottles, in particular, are not a good choice, and we don't buy them anymore.

If we provide a big jug of cold water, what are our alternatives to plastic cups? Certainly not styrofoam. Do they still make those wax-coated paper cups, and wouldn't that be just as bad (not recyclable, would have to go into the garbage)? We thought about buying reusable stainless-steel bottles for our guests that they could take home and keep. I'd do this in a minute if we could get them for $2.00 or less a bottle. Does anyone have any sources they've used for something like this (we'd need about 50, or four dozen).

We also need to think about plates to serve the food on and utensils for eating the food. We don't mind washing dishes and flatware, but we don't have "service for 50," don't want to use china outside, and really don't want to buy enough reusable plastic plates and bowls to keep around for our once-a-year party. I know that we could rent china and flatware, but the party will be outside and I don't want to worry about breakage or lostage-in-the-foliage.

We're just getting up to speed on greening our lives, so I'm sure others have tackled these problems before and can give us the benefit of their wisdom.
posted by Joleta to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You could ask everyone to bring their own re-usable, suitable-for-outdoor-use dishware, and just include an explanatory note in the invitation. I've been to informal parties like this and we just rinsed off the dishes at the end and brought them home. No biggie.

You could make it fun and have an "ugliest plate" contest, or whatever. Maybe have a door-prize drawing for everyone who brings their dishes? That said, I understand that not every party lends itself to people bringing their own dishes and that some people might think it gauche.
posted by corey flood at 5:57 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

The current vogue at my campus is compostable plates/cups and cutlery. They feel like a rough plastic, but they can go in the university's big industrial composter. If you have a source that can take this stuff, it could be an option. However, I hear they have been having problems with the knives and forks clogging it up; they don't break down quickly enough.

This question is interesting enough to have been posed by the university to a research group of mine, a loosely affiliated group of PhD students all using environmental life cycle assessment in various domains. None of us had an answer off the top of our heads which makes me think it is not a trivial question. I have been meaning to look into this, but haven't yet. My gut says paper and styrofoam beat steel and ceramic even if the former go in the trash, but plastic might be best if it could be used many times; still I would have to crunch the numbers to be sure. (on preview - reuse of existing items rather than buying new would be a clear winner here of course.)

My gut also says this is not the hill to die on, and that if you want to make your party greener, have your guests carpool or bike instead of drive, and try to limit the extra heating/cooling load on your house by keeping the doors closed, as both of these will far outweigh materials impacts due to dishes and cutlery. Travel will likely be the biggest impact source.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:02 PM on July 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

I bought enameled mugs and plates at Goodwill to use on the deck and for car camping. I don't mind washing some extra dishes. Yes, they still make paper cups and plates, and they aren't really a huge impact. You can get cheap flatware at Goodwill, too. I use cloth napkins at home, but will buy paper for a party.
posted by theora55 at 6:07 PM on July 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Store near me sells wooden "Picnic plates" and serving dishes. Use those for the plates and something washable for the spoons, forks etc?
posted by The Whelk at 6:10 PM on July 4, 2011

Do you have a circle of friends who might think that a communal service for 50, complete with appropriate plates, flatware, and serving dishes might be a decent investment? Find a few friends who also hold parties, and you can all chip in on the initial expense? Whoever has the most storage room (an attic or basement) could store it, and you could check it in and out when the need arises?
posted by xingcat at 6:11 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

The greenest thing you could do would be to serve drinks in reusable cups that you already have.
posted by wayland at 6:13 PM on July 4, 2011

I got a vintage set of (I think) melamine picnic stuff off of Etsy a while back. Came with cups and plates -- not this exactly, but this is the idea -- and this stuff is all over Etsy, probably eBay, and possibly your local charity shops/Goodwill/etc. It's fun and funky and reusable but not precious or terribly breakable. We drank wine out of our "teacups," but we're low-class pseudohippies, so maybe not your scene. ;)
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:15 PM on July 4, 2011

Our neighbors bought reusable plastic cups, plates, and saucers five years or so ago. Every neighborhood party seems to use these, so they must have paid for themselves by now. They are quite attractive, too. Four years ago, I said, "damn, we should have bough some like that... Too late now." and I've repeated it yearly. Go ahead and buy them, then share with neighbors.
posted by instamatic at 6:25 PM on July 4, 2011

For convenience, you could rent your reusable table ware and cups. I have friends who do this when they have big parties. They do not have to be washed before they're returned!
posted by not that girl at 6:26 PM on July 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

I love using interesting glasses and plates from the thrift store. The variety of styles means that guests don't have to worry about confusing someone else's glass or plate for their own, and you can find some really beautiful and unique pieces if you don't insist on having everything match. Also, when something breaks, it's no big deal. Also, I love being able to use a huge tall thick glass for a large serving of ice water when that's what I want, or a daintier glass with flowers if I'm just having some mineral water, etc. etc.
posted by amtho at 6:44 PM on July 4, 2011

Seconding not that girl's suggestion about renting. We did it for our wedding and it was surprisingly affordable. Something like $.40 a piece for coffee cups -- it might be a bit more for something you'd want to put water or beer in but still a good deal.
posted by rossination at 7:28 PM on July 4, 2011

My family bought a set of Chinet "crystal" plastic plates ( for a friend's fortieth birthday party over a decade ago, and we still have and use them regularly for parties. Particularly for outdoor parties, you don't want broken glass to clean up, so the plastic is great, and even if they're sold as disposable (I'm not sure) they ARE reusable. Two packs of forty still only takes up a few inches of space because they stack like paper plates, and they can be washed off and put away for next year. I think we wash ours in the dishwasher. And as they break over the years, you can throw them away, and still have a good collection of no-worry plates to break out for parties and events.
posted by Lady Li at 7:33 PM on July 4, 2011

We reuse heavy-duty "disposable" plastic plates/cups--such as these--we also wash and reuse things like Solo cups (I've got Solo cups that have survived more than a year in our regular glassware rotation). They store fairly compactly and can be washed dozens and dozens of times.
posted by SomeTrickPony at 7:57 PM on July 4, 2011

How about Mason jars for the water? Cheaper than water bottles and you could always sell them afterward if you don't want to store them.
posted by rebeccabeagle at 8:40 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

A friend recently explored this for a child's birthday party. I suggested asking Whole Foods if they would compost the compostable plates and cutlery if he bought them there - and they said yes. However, at the party - in very green downtown Vancouver - people seemed not to understand his bins for compost, garbage and recyclables. So he ended up losing several plates to this misunderstanding.

If he had had more space - and maybe you or friends do - and lived near a thrift store, it would make sense to buy thrift store plates and cutlery and then either store them or donate them back to the store.
posted by acoutu at 9:24 PM on July 4, 2011

Most of the parties I go to now a days are "bring your own dishes" party.

I like it.
posted by crawltopslow at 10:36 PM on July 4, 2011

We have a set of glasses that only get brought out when we're having a party (or friends are having a party)- random glasses we've picked up through Craigslist, freecycle, and goodwill. We painted a square of chalkboard paint on each glass and provide chalk by the cups. You can write your name on the glass, keep track of it during the party, but it's easily washed at the end and can be reused over and over. They've been a huge hit.
posted by kro at 11:05 PM on July 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

Although you don't mention it: realistically, if you are serving 50 people - a significant number of those people will be driving to the party, enough probably to totally obliterate the "green benefits" of not using disposable plates. If your worried about being green I think it would be worthwhile to focus your energy on getting people to car share or use alternative transport.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 11:31 PM on July 4, 2011

These aren't available (yet), but Jelloware!
posted by kitty teeth at 11:49 PM on July 4, 2011

The best green way to serve party food is vegetarian.

The production and distribution and consumption of meat (other than driving your car) is probably the biggest negative impact on the environment that you create.

I would estimate that exchanging one meat dish for one vegan dish at a single party would outweigh your "green table ware" usage for life.

But maybe the appearance of being green is more important to you, in which case compostable is the way to go.
posted by crawltopslow at 12:25 AM on July 5, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all for a wealth of ideas, and for bringing up some impacts we hadn't considered. The party isn't until mid-August, so we have time to make decisions. Based on some of the comments, I'll add additional information in case that helps anyone be more specific.

In some ways, yes, it is about the appearance of being green as crawltopslow says. We know there are many things we can do behind the scenes to be more green and will work on those ideas as well. But being visibly green in small ways that others can emulate helps bring everyone else forward.

We live in the far western suburbs of Chicago, and public transportation is not an option for our guests. I've been looking at compostable plates and utensils. We don't currently have a home composter but have been thinking about getting one, although I don't know if 50+ sets of compostable plates and utensils would overwhelm a home composter, even if not all put in at once. I'm going to look into community composting and will also call Whole Foods. Thanks for that idea, acoutu.

Several of the disposable-reusable plastic options, like the Chinet crystal plates that Lady Li suggested and the Masterpiece plates recommended by SomeTrickPony, seemed attractive until I noted that they are mostly PETE 6, which is not recyclable in our community when their usable life is over. I did find some reusable PETE 5 plates, but they are very expensive.

I'll rescind my original statement about not wanting to buy enough reusable plates and cups to keep for occasional parties. We don't really need more stuff, but storage space is not a problem. However, as I mentioned in my original post, this is an outdoor party, so I'd like to avoid using breakable plates and glasses, even really cheap ones from the thrift store.

One of my original ideas was similar to corey flood's suggestion of asking people to bring their own reusable plates and utensils. I suggested this to my husband for the party, but he wasn't keen on the idea. I'm going to let that sit for a while and bring it up again, although we'll still have to provide something for people who forget or don't bother to bring plates, etc.

So keep the ideas coming, and thanks to everyone.
posted by Joleta at 5:43 AM on July 5, 2011

I bought preserve brand plates, cups, and utensils last year for a party and now use them all the time for parties and for everyday toddler use. I put them in top dishwasher rack regularly and they look good a new. Yes there is an initial investment but I just sucked it up and by my use I'd say it's been worth it.
posted by rabidsegue at 7:11 AM on July 5, 2011

Not sure why you expect there to be a lot of breakage? Does stuff normally break when you are seeing these people? Are there going to be many boisterous children? Are your friends a particularly rowdy bunch? We always use normal crockery, albeit not fine china, and it is never an issue. If you are concerned about risk of injury the main problem would be breaking glass so compromise with compostable glasses and normal plates and cuttlery.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:22 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

*normal crockery for outdoor parties
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:27 AM on July 5, 2011

Why not combine a couple of the great ideas above? You could buy reusable plates and cutlery, and then ask guests to bring their own glasses. As I guest I would be happy to bring something of my own, but I wouldn't necessarily want to bring my own plate+glass+cutlery. You noted above that the cost of the reusable stuff was pretty expensive, so you could save some money by not buying glasses (or whatever part of the service you'd least want to buy).
posted by just_ducky at 10:01 AM on July 5, 2011

Maybe check thrift stores for Corelleware if you are worried about breakage. In my experience it's tough as nails and even if it does break, it's made of tempered glass. I frequently see it at the thrift stores in my area.
posted by rebeccabeagle at 11:35 AM on July 5, 2011

There are some biodegradable plastic cups as possibilities and also utensils made from the same types of materials if you aren't interested in buying tons of re-usable cups just for this one occasion.
posted by thorny at 10:39 AM on July 15, 2011

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