Greening Birthday Parties – Reusable Tableware

People ask us about making parties and events greener. A while back we wrote about how you can choose your location to be green and what sort of invitations are greenest.  Another thing to do is use reusable tableware.

I hear your objections:
“But I don’t have that much reusable stuff! It would cost a fortune!”
“All those dishes to wash, isn’t that wasteful?”
“But it’s all plastic!  Yuck!”
bin of reusable plastic cups and plates destined for the dishwasher after the party
Bin for guests to deposit reusable plates, cups and silverware
during the party before we load it into the dishwasher.

Having enough reusable cups, silverware and plates is not as hard as it might sound, especially if you’re flexible about whether they match. You could also use cloth napkins, and I’ve done this sometimes, but generally not when I’m serving something greasy like pizza to five-year-olds.

However, it does take some planning.

Save Up Silverware!

To start with,  you have to think of plastic silverware as reusable, and not one-time-use items. Whenever feasible, I don’t throw away plastic ware, but rather bring it home and throw it in the dishwasher.  Yesterday I wiped off the plastic wear we used at the Museum of Science and brought it home with me to toss in the dishwasher and reuse. The kids are really great about bringing home silverware from school too, as long as they have their lunchbox with them.  Most plastic ware can be reused for years, and it is more convenient for things like school lunches, in case it does get lost or forgotten.

Save Up Cups!

reusable kids-cups from restaurants with straws and lids
Reusable kids-cups from restaurants

Many restaurants use plastic cups with lids for kids that they just throw away after they clear your table.  You are welcome ot take these cups home with you and use them over and over.  I can personally attest to the fact that they stand up to years of repeated dishwashing.  If they get broken,  you can just toss them in the recycle bin without feeling guilty, because you’ve given it a much longer lifespan than it would have had.

Save Up Plates!

Over the years I’ve collected plastic plates here and there as well, usually by finding a few inexpensive ones at the store that catch my eye.  I also save the plastic trays from individual microwave meals and my children use those as plates.  They make very inexpensive toddler plates and it’s nice that they have sides to help hold the food on the plate for the youngest children.

Clean Up Time!

I like to put out a couple of bins and label them “dirty dishes” “cloths” “garbage”  This way people tend to clean up themselves and make clean up a little easier.
labelled bins for dirty reusable dishes and laundry bin for dirty cloth napkins from a BBQ
Be sure to label where to put dirty dishes and cloth napkins
Make sure your bins are in a visible location

One question we get fairly often is whether it takes more water and energy to wash the dishes than it does to make the disposable ones. My general understanding is that it takes more to make the disposable dishes, but it also depends on the process, brand, and type of disposable dishes. However, there is also energy, water and chemicals associated with taking the trash away, and then disposing of it.

If you run full dishwasher loads, then it is definitely a better use of energy and water.  It’s even better than washing them by hand (unless you are very, very conservative with your water use while handwashing).  Yes, running a few extra dishwasher loads is a little more work, but I feel that it is worth it in the long run.

In Green Game Plan For Your Super Bowl Party Jonathan applied all of these ideas, plus cloth napkins, to a Superbowl party.  He took cloth napkins to the party he went to and the guests were thrilled! Give it a try for your next party,  if your friends aren’t as green as you are, think about setting an example.   We are thrilled when we go to parties now that used to be completely disposable and find that our friends are giving it reusing tableware a try.  It gives me the warm fuzzies!

Happy greening,


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  1. I have tried this at events and don’t understand why people are so resistant to it. I have put out bins for the various recyclables and people still put everything in the trash. We put out a tub to scrape the food in (for a friends pigs) and even told people , but they still threw everything in the trash. I have even had to fish my regular silverware and plates out of the trash. Shows how wasteful the mindset of the area we live in now is. Very frustrating.

    • Keep trying! It took a few rounds with our friends to get it to be the norm. One trick is to hide the trash can so they have to ask you where it is. Use a big pot for scraping food scraps into that you can later dump rather than general purpose trash.

      Good Luck and Keep Trying!

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