Eco Birthday Parties for Kids

plastic free kids parties

Now that we’re living with Covid instead of living in dread of it I can finally publish this article on Eco Kids Parties that I’ve had in the pipeline for about 2 years. I was at a kids event recently that generated SO MUCH WASTE it was heart-breaking, especially as it was largely avoidable. With a few simple, cost effective tweaks you can deliver ‘the best party ever’ with practically zero waste. Here’s how.

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Photo by Joyce Adams on Unsplash

Zero Waste Party Invitations

To have all the fun of an invitation with none of the waste create a digital invite in Canva and share via Whatsapp.

This next tip isn’t an eco one, but it’s a plea to parents out there. When inviting kids from a group the rule is to invite everyone in the group or less than half. Anything else is just mean.

How to Sustainably Manage Gifts

Cash is King

When my kids use to have parties we asked for a small cash gift instead of a physical gift on the birthday invite, with a footnote about a physical gift being cool too if you really want to give one.  Most complied with the request and were thrilled not to have to go out and buy a gift. As to how much you ask for, that’s up to you, we asked for €5 each, but I’d say €10 is reasonable too.

My kids loved the subsequent trip to the toy shop to spend (part of) their ‘windfall’ on something they really valued.

I know this sounds similar to getting vouchers but it’s a lot less hassle for parents, doesn’t tie you to a particular shop and avoids all those plastic voucher cards.

Rehoming Unwanted Gifts

If we got a physical gift and it was something my kids would play with then we kept it, if not I re-gifted the item or donated to a toy-drive at Christmas.

Before rehoming a toy I’d discuss it with my kids and agree to buy them something they’d actually use in lieu of it. I did this because I want them to have a positive feeling around sustainable choices.

Low-waste Decorations for Kids Parties

Choose Neutral Timeless Designs

I looooove party decorations, a bit too much if I’m honest, and it can become an unsustainable obsession, particularly if you need to replace your decorations every year.  To avoid this I opted to buy neutral decorations that aren’t themed, which I could use year after year.

Go for Paper Decorations

Paper decorations are inexpensive and compostable and most of them will last years if they’re treated gently. They’re also the least harmful if you want to something themed.

Rehome Themed Decorations

If your child is wild about a particular character and you really want a themed party then aim to rehome the themed decorations as soon as possible after the party. I guarantee you your child will be onto something new the following year so letting other families share the decorations as much as possible while they’re still trendy is the most ecological thing you can do.

Avoid Balloons as Decorations

These bad boys aren’t recyclable and the biodegradable ones still take years to break down and only in the right conditions – which most modern landfills don’t provide – so just avoid them completely.

Also helium is in finite supply and is running out and personally I’d much rather keep it for medicinal use than waste it on a bit of party frippery.

Minimise Straws and use Compostable

If you can, avoid straws completely but if not, opt for paper straws in a compostable container.

Depending on the number of guests a fun alternative might be these flavoured edible straws. I know they’re packaged individually but think of it as a swap for plastic soda bottles.

Sustainable Party Tableware

Opt for Reusables

Most of us don’t have enough tableware for a kids party and so opt for disposables instead. To avoid this borrow plastic plates and cups from family and friends.

Alternatively you can rent plastic cups, plates and cutlery for your party from Rainbow Rental in Ireland, or the UK based Party Kit Network who has a few agents in Ireland too.

If there isn’t a reusable tableware rental point in your area maybe you could set up a borrow box in your local parent and baby group or school’s parent’s association.

Compostable Disposables

If you can’t avoid disposable then purchase certified compostable cups and paper plates that can go in the brown bin.

Also when buying try to buy the largest packet of napkins available to limit packaging.

Limit Napkins

We often think compostable items like napkins aren’t worth worrying about but they still require water, energy and chemicals to make, transport and dispose of, so be mindful of your use of them.

I used to use printed napkins to decorate the party table, but switched them out with kitchen roll for the actually eating so I could reuse the napkins a second and third time.

How to Reduce Food related Waste at a Kids Party

Go Plant-based

As we know plant-based food is far more sustainable to any meat or dairy based items, so serving margarita pizza instead of pepperoni or serving vegan nuggets instead of chicken will all help to reduce the ecological footprint of the party.

Watch Quantities

Also put out less food than you think you need. You can always top it up if runs out with food you’ve kept in reserve. Remember a child’s stomach is only the size of their fist so they really don’t need that much food.

Also try and buy party food that your family would eat so if there is any reserve food left over you can just prevent it going in the bin.

I would also make treats in smaller sizes. Mini cookies, cocktail sausages, hotdog buns cut in half or thirds, all reduce the likelihood of half-eaten items being discarded by fickle kids. This is particularly true with cupcakes, which I most kids only eat the top of.

At the end of the party, if there was too much cake left I would give guest and collecting parents a slice of birthday cake in a paper lunch bag to ensure we didn’t end up with lots of uneaten cake.

Low-waste Hack when Making Party Food

When I used to make cupcakes for parties I found that baking buns with reusable silicone cases saved me so much time peeling paper cases from the bottom of buns during parties with very young kids.

If you can’t get access to package free sprinkles an inexpensive low-waste decorating option for cupcakes is to use dyed sugar.

If you’re keen on a number-shaped birthday cake here’s a clever video on how to make number cakes without tins or I believe you can rent them from The Kitchen Whisk in D2

Low-waste method for protecting food

If you’re laying out food self-service style it’s a good idea to protect it from little critters. A few years ago I invested in some reusable food cover umbrellas and they work brilliantly.

If you don’t have such a thing there’s no need to reach for the cling film, just cover food with items you have to hand like plates or upturned bowls or clean tea-towels.

Ideas for Sustainable Party Bags

These are the bain of a eco-conscious parent’s life. They’re generally plastic and full of plastic. To minimise the impact of them, without my kids feeling different, I use to collect small toys, etc from party bags my kids received, Christmas crackers, or magazine gifts and reused these small toys in party bags. 

If you don’t have a collection of suitable toys and you want to give something here are some ideas of low-impact items to include in party bags.

  • sweets
  • hot chocolate discs
  • paper bookmark
  • seeds or seed paper
  • erasers
  • pencils
  • chalk
  • colouring pencils

Managing Waste at a Party

To make your job easier aim to use only reusable or compostable items for food, that way you just have to scrape and wash, or lob into one bin.

If you do use recyclable items then I’d suggest you clear the table yourself into separate bins. Otherwise you’ll end up with the messy job of doing it retrospectively when your guest have gone home.

Low-waste Party Drinks

Use Cordials

Cordials mixed with water is a low-waste alternative to soda. There are a few natural cordial brands on the market now and readily available in most Supervalu stores, such as Longford based Richmond Cordials and Waterford based Naturally Cordial or the UK brand Belvoir offer a few organic options. It’s worth taste testing cordials before hand. I bought some that were really really bitter and wouldn’t go down well with kids. 

Flavoured Edible Straws

Another options is to go with the flavoured edible straws I mentioned earlier, although these seems to work best with milk.

Low-waste Soda / Soft Drinks

We’re totally converts to carbonated water dispensers (aka Sodastreams) for fizzy water in our house and by adding flavourings you can deliver copious amounts of soft drinks with only a fraction of waste.

Low-impact Party Games

This area can be a minefield and I’m not going to set myself up as any expert in this, but here is a few activities that worked well at our kids’ parties.

  • race the paper fish – where you fan a paper fish across the room
  • move the Malteser – where you use a straw to move Maltesers from one bowl to another.
  • a huge game of hide and seek with the adults are the seekers – kids love when adults get involved.
  • scavenger hunts
  • what’s missing – where you remove one items from a tray of lots and guests have to guess which ones missing
  • pass the parcel, with a small gift in each layer
  • magic tricks – find tutorials on YouTube
  • decorate cupcakes / cookies
  • decorate masks / hat / crowns
  • make paper planes and have a flying contest
  • animal charades, with one guest acting like an animal with others guessing which one they are
  • pin the tail on the donkey, where you pin something on a picture, a tail on a donkey or a nose on a Mario, which we did for one of my son’s party. We use bluetack instead of a pins or sticky tabs so game is reusable.
  • have toys that you can rent out for parties.

You’ll notice that none of the games result in guests being ‘out’. We found that it can upset some children and that are ‘out’ tend to wander off and get bored until the game ends. 

If you’re having a party for older kids here’s a great list of activities for tween-aged kids by a great blogger in America.

Picking Sustainable Party Venues

A lot of the suggestions listed above only work if you’re having the party at home. If you’re having your party in a play centre or party venue it can be trickier to reduce waste, but not impossible. Here are some ideas on how to achieve that.

  • ask about using your own reusable tableware. If they go with this be sure to clear it off the tables yourself to avoid it going missing or getting dumped. You’ll most likely need a plate for savoury food and one for the cake. If you don’t have enough plates for both then a napkin might suffice for the cake.
  • Ask that no straws or plastic forks to be given out. To be honest it’s often not needed as most kids use their fingers to eat anyway.
  • Bring your own bins for compostable / food waste and recyclables as the party centres tend to put everything together.
  • Ask for no balloon decorations.

Have you any suggestions you’d like me to add into the article. If so, I’d love to hear them.

More Kid Related Articles

For other kid related articles click the link.

Till next time


Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

2 thoughts on “Eco Birthday Parties for Kids

  1. Love this Elaine thanks!

    I’ve just had a 7 year old’s birthday party (fabulous low waste party in Belmont Demesne in Wicklow) and managed to do 30 party bags from re-used bags, containing chalk, pencil, notebook and a bag of jellies from the brilliant Good Neighbour shop who even gave me little compostable bags. Fiver in the birthday cards was perfect.

    And then we hosted a 150 person neighbourhood bbq. We just told everyone to bring their own plates, cutlery and drinks and I was thrilled with how little waste there was. Napkins were the only single use item and they went in the brown bin with food scraps.

    It was all really easy once I got started.


    1. Oooh, this lifts my spirits! Just goes to show how, with a little lateral thinking, we can make low-waste living the default. Well done you. You’re my hero of the week! Elaine


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