The trappings of extravagant parties, while fun, often wreak environmental damage. Millions of birthdays occur each month, often contributing to the consumption of natural resources (think gifts) and waste problems (from packaging, wrapping paper, etc.). Unsustainable menus, food waste, long-distance party travel, and throw-away decorations and favors only compound the growing bash trash problem.
The gift of garbage
Gift-giving is an enjoyable way to celebrate occasions of all sorts, but the resulting waste from decorations, packaging, giftwrap, and festive meals puts a real damper on the process for those concerned about the environmental impact of their generosity. Each American resident generates approximately 4.6 pounds of garbage every day; more solid waste than the residents of any other country. Canadians generate the next largest amount of waste, about 3.75 pounds each per day, whereas Germany and Sweden produce less than 2 pounds per day per person, the least of all the industrialized nations.
As much as half of all the 85 million tons of paper America consumes every year goes towards packaging, wrapping, and decorating consumer goods. Wrapping paper and shopping bags contribute considerably to that waste, accounting for some 4 million tons of the annual trash burden. A whopping 38,000 miles of ribbon is discarded in the US every year. New parents and caring friends spend thousands of dollars on gifts for new babies, much of which is used for only a few months.
Second only to straws, these birthday party favorites are actually a serious eco-hazard. In fact, balloons were the most abundant form of land debris found on a US beach clean-up conducted by the Ocean Conservancy between 2001 and 2006, making up 7.8 percent of the total. This coastline trash has increased steadily over the past decade. Marine animals, including whales and dolphins, turtles and fish, can swallow balloons, often choking or starving to death as a result.
The ribbons commonly found on balloons can also pose entanglement dangers to marine life. Some have argued that latex balloons, made of natural latex rubber, are biodegradable, and therefore not harmful to wildlife, but studies have indicated that balloons floating at sea decompose much more slowly than on land. Further, an animal’s digestive tract cannot break down a balloon in time to prevent it from causing the animal’s death.
Party food choices—including where food comes from and how it's grown—also have an environmental impact. Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture researchers found that conventionally grown US produce travels up to 27 times the distance of its locally grown counterparts. What's worse are the chemical pesticides and fertilizers used in conventional farming which are not only believed to be harmful to human and animal health, they also pollute ecosystems and waterways.
By contrast, organic food choices like chocolate, produce, meat, and coffee are free of dangerous pesticides, insecticides, and other chemicals. And locally-purchased food means fewer transport miles. Additionally, local, small farms preserve rural open space and conserve immense amounts of water, energy, and other resources used by factory farms. To be certified organic by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), food must be grown in soil free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers and cannot be genetically modified or irradiated.
Vegetarian menus also offer significant environmental benefits. A recent Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) report suggests that livestock generate greater quantities of greenhouse gases than do all the cars on the road across the globe. One greenhouse gas, methane, is produced both during normal digestion in cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels, as well as during the anaerobic decomposition of livestock manure, especially when handled as liquid manure. Another, nitrous oxide, results from the nitrification and denitrification of nitrogen in livestock manure, and urine. Cutting meat out of even one meal a week (or one party each month) can have an even more significant impact on personal greenhouse gas emissions than driving a more efficient car.
Eco-exposure equals eco-conscientiousness
Beyond party-related waste issues, a large majority of Americans choose to host their events indoors, confirming the trend that people are spending less and less time in the natural world. This alarming global movement away from the outdoors is directly related to human perception of the natural world, which ultimately affects human decisions and environmental outcomes. Frequenting outdoor venues, like botanical gardens and wildlife refuges, not only provides financial support for nature-preserving projects, it also creates jobs and stimulates economic activity.
Exposing children to activities in nature before the age of 11 is also strongly correlated to both stronger environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood, according to a recent Cornell University study. Spending time outdoors has even been shown to reduce ADHD symptoms, increase academic performance, and improve health.
- genetically modified organism: A GMO results from merging the genetic make-up of two organisms to create a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature.
- food irradiation: The use of radioactive waste to eliminate bacteria and extend the shelf life of various food products.
- Plenty Magazine
- The Rotten Truth About Garbage
- Responsible Purchasing Network - Purchasing Guides
- Green Girl Guide - How the Hell Does a Green Girl Throw an Eco-friendly Party?
- Crunchy Domestic Goddess - How to throw an eco-friendly party (with a giveaway)
- Green Hour: A program encouraging parents to give their children a “Green Hour” every day.
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Municipal Solid Waste Basic Facts
- Denver Recycles - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
- Recycleworks - Facts on Holiday Waste
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Paper and Paperboard Products
- The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report - The Yuletide Guide
- PBS EEKOWorld - Eco-Friendly Birthday Bash
- Ocean Conservancy - The National Marine Debris Monitoring Program: Total Debris Collected/National
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations - Livestock a major threat to environment: Long shadow
- Cornell University - Cornell Chronicle: Camping, hiking and fishing in the wild as a child breeds respect for environment in adults Page 9