A birthday cake with letter candles that spell out Happy Birthday

Tips for Ethical, Low-Waste, Eco-Friendly Birthday Parties

by Marsha Rakestraw

Balloons and decorations.

Disposable tableware.

Gift wrap and little plastic toys.

Birthday parties are often accompanied by a slew of waste and wear on people, animals, and the earth.

But parties can be fun and full of humane choices that do more good and less harm.

Here are tips to consider for making your next birthday bashes more ethical, humane, and eco-friendly.

Expectations and Considerations:

As one professional organizer said, “It’s about keeping up with the Joneses. Birthday parties have become just another industry, like the wedding industry.”

And it’s easy to get carried away by the pressure to conform (and perform) and the ease of instant gratification.

So before beginning the party planning, it’s important to consider values, needs, and wants.

If it’s your goal for the party to reflect most good/least harm choices for people, animals, and the earth, map out the must-haves: Fair trade? Fair wage? Eschewing gender stereotypes? Eco-friendly? Low or zero waste? Animal friendly?

Then use that lens when making all of your decisions. Here are some specific suggestions.


Digital is the obvious choice.

There are online invitation sites (many of which offer free options), or even emails (you could, for example create one invite, scan it, and send it as an image file). If you want something in-hand, upcycle “waste” paper, like (decorated) grocery bags or old calendars.


In addition to the planet-polluting and animal-killing consequences of balloons, helium, which is vital to scientific and medical research, is becoming a rare property. And the other traditional decorations, like streamers and plastic banners and tablecloths, leave waste and toxins in their wake.

What are better options? We can pull items from the natural world (that she won’t miss), such as leaves, branches, pine cones, and/or wildflowers.

We can upcycle “trash” into treasured table decorations or streamers. We can use LED party lights. Online searches will turn up a plethora of ideas.


Aside from our food choices, one of our biggest contributors to our carbon footprint is transportation. Consider carpooling, public transit, or a walking/biking brigade, whenever feasible.


As Katherine Martinko notes in a Treehugger post: “Most parents don’t want to spend big dollars on high-quality items for a kid they barely know, so it’s mostly junk that gets wrapped in paper and handed over. These cheap, Chinese-made plastic toys often break within hours of opening. Eventually they get pitched in the garbage, since recycling won’t take them, or stored pointlessly because it feels so wrong to throw away a brand-new present. The whole gift-opening ritual is a flurry of non-recyclable packaging. Mountains of torn tissue paper, shredded wrapping paper, and crushed bags, not to mention the cardboard and plastic packaging that all the toys come in, pile up high.”

What are some choices that do more good and less harm?

“No gifts” parties often don’t fly (people want to—or feel pressured to—bring something anyway. So, invite attendees to pool their money to buy a single, high quality gift. Ask attendees to make a donation to a good cause. Point guests to alternative gift registries such as So Kind, or share with them a list of experiences the birthday honoree would like.

Goody Bags:

Model your message of simplicity and don’t have them.

You may start a new trend. Or, if you feel the need, make it something easy and low-impact, like a packet of seeds, zero-waste DIY project from the party, or something else meaningful and memorable that won’t end up in the trash five minutes after the party ends.


When thinking about food, in addition to simplicity, consider: healthy, organic, local, and plant-based. Those choices tend to have lower harmful impacts. Consider goodies from the farmer’s market and a homemade treat.

Drinks can be water or healthy drinks in reusable pitchers.

For dishes and tableware, ditch the disposables and go reusable.

If you like to entertain, keep a set of reusable party dishes that would work for any occasion (thrift stores and garage sales can help set you up). Consider sharing a “party set” with neighbors, so that everyone can pitch in, take turns storing, and not have to each invest in a whole set for themselves.

Keep the foods to simple finger foods that only require a cloth napkin and a reusable mug. (Who doesn’t love cupcakes?!) Alternatively, ask party goers to bring their own tableware and utensils. It is the era of pitching in and sharing!

Remember to have clearly-marked bins for compost, trash, recycling, laundry, and dishes. (Or have kids take advantage of an outdoor washing station and save yourself some time and hassle.)

Of course, many of these tips can apply to any soiree.

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