How to have a plastic-free party that doesn't cost the earth

How to have a plastic-free party that doesn't cost the earth

Following a recent run of family celebrations, two things struck me. One was how toxic the balloons tasted when I was blowing them up, and the other was how much plastic rubbish there was after each of the parties. This got me thinking about what alternatives I could use to the usual plastic paraphernalia that surrounds parties, without becoming a plastic-obsessed party pooper.

Anyone with children knows the drill following a party. They come home high on sugar, clutching a plastic party bag full of plastic-wrapped sweets and a variety of plastic tat that gets discarded as soon as the sweets have been consumed. I have been a part of this trend and have sent more than my fair share of children home with such things before spending an hour scooping up all of the party rubbish into several black bin bags and heading home grateful to have survived.

However, I can no longer deny what I already knew: things need to change. We need to reduce our use of throwaway plastic. What better place to start, then, than at what have become some of the most wasteful events of the year – our children’s parties?

I know that my children would be mortified if I suddenly announced that we weren’t having party bags or party decorations any more, and their jokes about who they wanted as their mum instead of me would become a much more serious affair. So just how do you throw a fun party with no single-use plastics and without spending weeks on the buildup both baking and crafting? Thankfully, with a bit of forward thinking it is more than possible to do, and the best bit is that once you have nailed it the first time, you will have most of the stuff you need for your next 20 parties.


Let’s start with the party decorations. There are lots of great alternatives to the traditional plastic balloons and banners, and you don’t have to be a crafting genius or rich to have them feature in your house.

Paper lanterns, pompoms and fabric bunting. You can easily make these (or buy them if you are short on time), and they can be put away after the party and reused.

Paint your own banner. This may be for the artier amongst you, but if you have an old sheet why not have a go at making your own ‘Happy Birthday’ banner with some fabric paints or poster paints?

Paper chains. These can be bought, or – better – made out of old magazines, newspapers or wrapping paper.

Flowers. If you have a local florist, you can buy some flowers and make little posies, using them to decorate the house. At the end of the party they can double up for the children to take home in their paper party bags.

Reuse plastic decorations. Yes, I know I’ve used the word ‘plastic’, but if it’s a reusable item it’s not always bad. I have some plastic foil ‘Happy Birthday’ banners we’ve been putting away for years and reusing. It would be ridiculous to now throw them out when they still have life left in them.

The party

Now for the party itself. A lot of children’s parties are held at a dedicated party venue and involve either a hired entertainer or an activity such as soft play. This is where you can put the onus on the venue and ask what efforts they go to to reduce plastic waste. It will make them think if nothing else. However, if you’re brave enough to host your own party, there are plenty of ways to avoid generating more plastic waste. Choose an outdoor location such as your local woods or a field, and throw a den-building party or football party or do something like bug exploring. If this isn’t your child’s thing or the time of year is wrong, then check out these other ways to reduce, reuse and recycle:

Pass the parcel. Use old newspapers, magazines or recycled wrapping paper. If you want to include a sweet to be found as each layer is removed, avoid the little packs and instead go to your local pick ’n’ mix and bulk buy sweets in a paper bag. You can then just put single sweets in loose between the layers.

Borrow games and toys. Visit a toy library. My local one lends out slides, soft play equipment and large garden-style games. Ask friends if you can borrow toys such as rideons, and balls to make a DIY ball pool in the paddling pool.

Make some games. Make a piñata out of papier mâché, stuffing it full of loose sweets, twirls of coloured paper from old magazines, and a little pack of seeds for each child. Just put a clean sheet under the piñata before it is opened, so that the sweets don’t get dirty when they fall out.

Prizes. Let children pick from a paper bag selection of sweets rather than handing out packets. Or avoid sugar altogether and give alternatives such as felt finger puppets or cute little peg dolls.


The party tea is probably the biggest source of waste, and even if you go for paper plates with no plastic coating the chances of recycling them once they are covered in food are slim. So why not consider borrowing some reusable plastic plates, bowls and cups from friends or family? If this isn’t possible you could buy a set of spare plates and bowls that can be washed up and put away after each use. You could also think about packing the party tea up into individual paper bags rather than using plates.

Avoid the need for cutlery by going for finger food, which is probably preferable anyway to having jelly slopped on the floor. If not having jelly is just too much to cope with, you can always borrow extra teaspoons from friends and family so that you don’t have to buy plastic utensils. There are more sustainable plastic alternatives for disposable cutlery, but it’s always better to generate less waste of whatever kind if you can.

Try and steer clear of pre-packaged fruit and veg. Instead buy it loose and cut it up fresh yourself. If you are throwing a summer party, you could even have some fun with the children and pick your own strawberries to be dished up with ice cream at the party. Avoid cartons of drinks and instead have jugs of squash, milk or water. Ice cream cones are a great option for puddings. You can buy a big tub of ice cream and then reuse the tub afterwards as a handy container. Slices of cake can be wrapped in napkins rather than cling film or plastic bags.

Party bags

This is the hardest part! The first step is easy: simply buy paper party bags or make your own out of old newspapers or magazines. Filling the bags without resorting to a selection of plastic requires a bit more thought, but there are loads of alternatives out there. How about a little packet of wild flower or sunflower seeds? You can also make up your own miniature paper bags of sweets from a pick ’n’ mix selection.

Other party bag fillers could include a peg doll, a box of raisins, a colouring book, colouring pencils, a felt finger puppet, a hacky sack, a little teddy, or a cloth bag of marbles. You could also consider giving one larger gift such as a book or a football instead of a bag of more disposable smaller items. This moves on from the throwaway culture, giving each child something he or she can enjoy for a longer period of time.

So why not give it a go and do your bit to reduce plastic waste? With a little forward planning and creativity you can still throw a great party without the waste while teaching your children the importance of living more sustainably. The future is theirs, after all. 


Lisa Goodall lives in Cornwall with her husband, Martin, son and daughter. She started exploring chemical-free alternatives in the home following Martin’s diagnosis with leukaemia. This has become intertwined with a growing obsession to reduce plastic waste. 


Published in issue 55. Accurate at the time this issue went to print. 

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