When Did Birthday Parties Become So Wasteful?

CC BY 2.0. misocrazy/Creative Commons

It feels like birthday party season around here. My son has received multiple party invitations in recent months, which I view with mixed emotions. On one hand, I’m thrilled that he’ll enjoy a few hours of diversion with little friends. He needs it during the summer, when he’s bored from hanging out with me all day. On the other hand, I don’t like how most birthday parties are planned and executed with such a ‘disposable’ mentality. The amount of waste generated by a typical party disturbs me because it sends the wrong message to our kids.

It starts with the gifts. 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.

Birthday parties are a lot of work for parents, so I understand the desire to simplify, but I can’t help feeling horribly guilty whenever I slide a dirty Styrofoam plate -- piled with food scraps, a crumpled paper napkin, plastic cutlery, cup balancing on top -- into a garbage bag that’s been set out for this purpose. Sometimes there’s even a thin plastic tablecloth that, presumably, saves the host from having to wipe the table. This goes against everything I stand for and teach my kids to do at home – compost, wash, reuse, recycle. There are more responsible ways to simplify a party than resorting to a disposable table setting. One could trim the guest list so that doing the dishes isn’t so daunting, or guests could bring their own plates, or kids could have fun operating an outdoor dishwashing station.

The waste follows us home in the form of loot bags. There is candy that I must confiscate, since my son would eat it all, and our jovial post-party mood is usually destroyed by a tantrum at that point. There are also cute little toys from the dollar store, but they fall apart so quickly that my son is heartbroken. For weeks after, I find bits and pieces of non-functioning plastic motorcycles and action figurines that end up in the garbage.

Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s very important to celebrate birthday parties and I hope for my child’s sake that the invitations keep coming. But since when did it become necessary to consume so much in order to celebrate something so basic? There are ways to host parties that do not rely on such excessive consumption and consumerism. I think of the church potluck dinners, family reunions, and dinner parties I attended as a child, where real dishes were always used and entire meals were served that generated almost no waste. Parents could tell birthday party guests not to bring gifts at all, or guests could pool money to buy a single high quality gift that is built to last for years. These lessons in sustainability are precisely the ones that we parents need to teach our kids at this age if we want them to be conscious of their footprint on this planet. That’s probably the best long-term birthday gift we could give them anyways.