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The Garbage Maven's goal: A kids' party with no trash

February 10, 2012 |  1:30 pm

Zero-waste kids' party
I used to be the sort of mom who strung Mylar balloons with ribbon strings for my son's birthday parties. For each of his eight years, I handed out goody bags stuffed with candy and 99 Cents Only Store toys. I bought cakes topped with plastic decorations. I served junk food and Capri Suns. I was oblivious to the mounds of waste I was generating. I just wanted to throw the perfect party.

This year, I decided on something different. For my son's ninth, trash was the enemy. The goal: a party that generates zero garbage. There would be no Slinkies or wax candy mustaches. And Mylar? That was definitely out.

Throwing a zero-waste party was a challenge. I'm not going to lie. Certain items just weren't possible to eliminate, and the party needed to seem just as fun and “normal” as any of the previous birthday blowouts I've thrown. It's one thing to live environmentally conscious myself. It's another thing to ask parents I didn't know well to be part of the experiment, or to include my son, who splits his time between my house and his dad's, where recycling isn't as big a priority.

The party was a two-parter. The first half was at Go Kart World in Carson, followed by an all-you-can-eat feast at my house. Invitations were sent electronically via Evite.com. I declined the print invitations offered by Go Kart World, as well as the goody bags that were part of a party package that included race-track rides, arcade tokens, pizza lunch and cake.

Four cars transported eight kids and six adults to Carson. The carpooling probably didn't cancel out the Go Karts' emissions, but it was better than having eight vehicles make the 40-mile round trip from my house. On the trash front, I arranged with Go Kart World's party planner to bring my own reusable table settings instead of using their disposables. I brought the same plastic cups and cutlery that I've been reusing for the past couple years, and I borrowed reusable plastic plates and cloth napkins from a friend.

Everything went as planned except for the disposable paper place mats that Go Kart World had set out and the cake, which was served in a two-piece plastic container and was cut with a disposable plastic server. The other surprise: Each child received the arcade tokens in baggies.

I took all the waste we'd generated home with me, which might have embarrassed my kid if he'd seen me packing up the plate scrapings, but he didn't notice because he was too busy playing air hockey. I composted pizza crusts and cake scraps. I recycled the cake container. I washed and kept the cake cutter for next year, but I had to toss the burned candle stubs and adhesive wristbands that each kid had received for the rides because none of those items can be recycled. I couldn't find the token baggies; I suspect they had been trashed.

The biggest conundrums were food and presents. A former convenience junkie, I was used to buying everything pre-made. But this year, I made everything from scratch. I shopped at the Whole Foods bulk bins with plastic bags from home, picking up dried beans that I made into hummus and chocolate chips that I baked into cookies. Instead of serving juice in nonrecyclable pouches, I made lemonade served in reusable cups. In place of Doritos in non-recyclable bags, I fried tortillas into chips. Instead of barbecuing hamburgers or hot dogs that needed buns (more plastic bags), I purchased tamales from a local market and packed them in my own Tupperware. I cut up celery, cucumbers, carrots and broccoli, then composted the scraps along with the tamale wrappers. Rubber bands around the produce were kept for future reuse. It happened to be Super Bowl Sunday; the adults' beer bottles, boxes and caps were all recycled.

On the positive side, the party looked normal. I'm no Guy Fieri, but the food even tasted decent. On the downside, making everything took at least four times as long as buying pre-made stuff from the store.

A few of my guests brought food. On the Evite, I suggested reusable containers, which most everyone brought. Most parents responded to my no- or low-waste request for presents by giving my son homemade birthday cards as well as gift cards to Toys R Us and Target, all of which can be recycled, except for the goo that sticks the gift cards to their paper backing. Unfortunately for my son, some parents took the request for little or no waste to mean “Don't bother bringing a present,” which, at the end of what turned out to be an eight-hour extravaganza, ended with my son storming off to his room.

Otherwise, it was a success.

-- Susan Carpenter

The Garbage Maven is our occasional series on household trash and recycling. Comments: susan.carpenter@latimes.com.


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Photo at top: The party spread, created with as little packaging and other trash as possible. Credit: John Carpenter.