Zero waste holiday entertaining

By Kate Whitbeck

If you are someone who aspires to achieve zero waste and a low carbon footprint, the holiday season may seem like a minefield of consumption and waste. However, there are steps you can take to ensure that your holiday entertaining has a lighter impact on the planet.


Consider these options:

  1. Invitations: Go paperless. Electronic invitations are cheap, fast and easy.
  2. Planning a party away from home? Select a venue that is accessible by public transport so your guests can travel safely and sustainably.
  3. Choose holiday decorations that can be reused each year or turned into compost. Pine boughs and pine cones make fragrant, festive décor that can be composted in your municipal yard waste bin at the end of the season. (Note: Remove plastic and metal from wreaths.)
  4. Choose LED lights. An LED uses one tenth the energy of a traditional incandescent mini light bulb, lasts over three times longer and is more durable.
  5. Wherever possible, choose reusable. Avoid single-use disposables!

This last point deserves a little more detail. When I entertain larger groups at my home, I struggle to come up with enough glasses and dishware. My solution over the years has been to either pick up a supply of extra dishes from my favorite thrift store or borrow what I need from friends or family. If you are in charge of a large party, another option might be to rent dishes from the caterer or Diamond Rental. And remember the stash of cloth napkins in the back of the cupboard—who says they must match? If you have no other choice than to use disposable, focus on compostable first, then options with a high level of post-consumer recycled content. Avoid Styrofoam and plastic at all costs!

When planning your menu…

  1. Buy local and in bulk, avoiding individually packaged single servings of food and beverages when possible.
  2. Use pitchers or large thermoses for juice, mulled cider or your magical holiday punch instead of single-serving bottles or cans.
  3. Support caterers who offer sustainable, local food choices (Blended Table, Lux, Utah Food Services, Cantu’s Catering, Urban Pioneer Foods) and use zero waste practices.
  4. Send leftover food home with your guests in the excess plastic tubs from yogurt, salsa and hummus you’ve collected over the year. Or contact Wasteless Solutions, a local nonprofit food rescue operation:

Now, for the recycling

This is especially useful for large parties involving aluminum cans, bottles and paperware. Prepare and clearly label disposal bins, customized to suit your party. Be specific!

Instead of “Recycling,” make separate containers labeled “cans only” and a separate container labeled “Glass only.”

Instead of “Compost,” say “Food Scraps.” (You may want to note “no meat.”)

Customize bins/labels to best serve your party’s waste. You may want a “Clean paper/cardboard” or a “Plastic bottles” bin.

As a result, your remaining bin, labeled “Garbage,” can be quite small!

And remember… While you may wish to line your waste baskets with plastic bags, be sure to empty their contents into your city bins—especially the blue recycling bin. All plastic bags (grocery bags, bin liners, bread bags, zip locks, Saran wrap, etc.) are now considered contaminants. You can rinse and reuse those plastic bags.

Entertaining over the holidays is an important way to connect with friends, relatives and co-workers. However, it’s also important to think about the impact we have on our larger community and the natural environment. It’s possible to connect with the important people in our lives while also minimizing our impact on the world around us! u

Kate Whitbeck is the Communications and Relationship Manager for the Sustainability Office at the University of Utah, and a former managing partner of Momentum Recycling and longtime board member of the Utah Recycling Alliance.

This article was originally published on November 30, 2018.