Throwback Thursday- Everything You Might Want for an All-American (and Eco-Friendly) Backyard Barbecue

by - Thursday, September 01, 2016

fourth of july picnic with big table of food and people sitting on blankets

Every 4th of July, my Dad throws a picnic in his backyard that is one of my favorite times of the year. His dixieland band plays by the river, I see lots of people I genuinely love, and then we sit by the water and watch fireworks. I also eat a hot dog, which I know is probably some environmentalist abomination (is there plastic in it? Who knows), but it is also delicious. I don't eat them all the time, but damn I love an excuse for a hot dog.

My dad and his wife's approach to this party is pretty laid back, and people bring dishes and chairs. The chill is part of the appeal, but now that I am a bourgeois environmentalist, I am wondering if you can switch out some of the "easy" elements of a barbeque for something a little more ethical. Take care of our beautiful summers! And, if it is 4th of July, shouldn't your party be All-American too? It sounds crazy, but a little research shows me this goal is completely possible.

There is a general assumption about outside parties that you want cheap so you can just throw it all away. There's wisdom in that- who wants to put out the fine china for your hot dogs? If you are having a big crowd over, who wants to wash all those plates?

But if you want it to be truly disposable, SKIP PLASTIC COMPLETELY!

 It will last just as long (if not longer) than your regular wares, and you are just adding to a landfill future generations are going to have to deal with.

At the very least, we can all switch out the easy option for the better option in a place or two. It can save money, save American jobs, and save the planet. That's a lot of good to set your hot dog on!

Don't want to go all out? Plastic-free picnic, my friend.

Also, this blog doesn't address actual food items much, because the real rule of thumb is whatever you can get locally (from your farmer's market, roadside stand, local grocer, etc) is the most eco-friendly choice you can make. Probably the most healthy for you as well. The best way to answer that question is to get out there and see what you can find. You might be surprised and, better yet, inspired!

 Let's talk about all the great options that are out there for an Eco-friendly or All-American Picnic!

anchor hocking drink dispenser
Anchor Hocking from Amazon
Drink Dispensers- One time use plastic water bottles are the bane of my existence (loyal readers know that Nestle Pure Life is my sworn enemy), but I can't remember the last time I went to a picnic without one. Why? Because lugging water can be a real pain. I get it, this one is annoying, but cans are actually more easily recycled and plastic bottles are an abomination that makes the angels weep. Instead, why not try a drink dispenser filled with water and give out cups? You could even do a couple and have a few choices for your guests other than pop or bottled water. Drink Dispensers will also save you big money in a relatively short time. A case of bottled water is a lot more expensive than the tap water you can filter in your own house.

Our Pick- We have a drink dispenser made by Anchor Hocking that we really love, and it weirdly makes things feel more summery. We have mostly put strawberry lemonade in ours but water would work perfectly well. I like this one with a chalkboard as well, but I will say it may depend where you are having your picnic. If it isn't right in your backyard, that might be a long way to lug a glass dispenser!

If you do have a further distance to take your dispensers but still want to make a more ethical choice, I did find a Made in the USA and BPA-free version from Buddeez. Yes, it is still plastic, but you can reuse it for all of your picnics. here is a set of 2, where it looks like you can put fruit and other fun stuff at the top (just skip those plastic glasses). Think of how many one-time use plastics you have side-stepped!

dad and toddler on picnic blanket on the 4th of july

Coolers- Ok, so you still want some pop there. I get it. Pop is delicious- go can not bottle. Cans are still cheaper and more efficient to recycle, so they are the better choice by far. If you need a cooler, I can cover you on that too.

Our Pick-
Used! Coolers mostly last forever, and lots of people have more than they need. I see them on Buy Nothing pretty often, so you might just try asking around for coolers. I bet some of your picnic guests have coolers at home- have them bring it with some ice as their contribution to the party. You could also try something a little less traditional if you are going for looks- I have seen metal buckets on many a pinterest post for wedding drinks. You might also be able to track one of these down used.

Both Coleman and Rubbermaid coolers are still made in the States; in fact, the coolers were the only thing in Target's 4th of July section that were actually made in the US! Gah, I still can't get over how embarrassing that is. Coleman sells a steel cooler if you want to skip the plastic, and honestly, it is so pretty! I had no idea, but I love the retro feel, and it could add a little style to your picnic while minimizing the plastic you use. New favorite in my book.

Grizzly Coolers look a little tough for your average picnic, but these plastic coolers are also made in the US, so it might be the right option for you!

susty party paper cups with blue polka dots
Susty Party from Amazon
Cups- Ok, this is one lots of us don't even buy anymore- you just buy cans and bottles, but it is worth it to eliminate some of this waste, because they can be hard to recycle. If you want to have a more environmentally-friendly party style, you have two great options- buy something you can reuse, or buy something that biodegrades easily, so they don't make any waste.

Our Pick- Honestly, we mostly just use our regular glasses. We have enough, and it seems fine to me. We have never hosted any really big parties though, so if we did, I think we would probably get something like this. We would probably buy clear, biodegradable cups if need be. Swirly Twirly sells paper cups that look fun and biodegrades easily. Want to get something really patriotic? Sur La Table is selling cups that really commit (and are made in the US with biodegradable materials- so great).

Green Point (maybe made in the USA? Mixed feedback on that, which is usually not a good sign) and Eco Products sell a clear corn-based cup, but they are a bit of a gamble because reviews say they melt in direct sun.  Susty Party also sells clear biodegradable cups, but they are made in China, and I honestly like the designs of their paper cups more (especially for a 4th of July picnic).

If you want to go very country and classy, you could buy a bulk set of mason jars for your outside drinking. Both Ball jars and Kerr jars are made in the US, and you could keep the big box they come in to just pack them up for the winter. I feel like this idea works perfectly if your life belongs on Pinterest. Still, washing them and putting them back in storage would be pretty easy, and you can use them for every picnic for the rest of your life, no problem. Just make sure you get an 8 or 16 oz jar. Nothing too big or with too narrow a mouth! You can get 12 for 9 dollars, so they are actually cheaper than plastic tumblers in many cases.
seventh generation napkins
Seventh Generation on Amazon
Napkins and Paper Towels- We have mostly switched to cloth napkins in our house, but even if you can get that eco friendly, who wants to deal with a big party's worth of napkins? Who even owns that many?!? Paper napkins make more sense, and you can buy a bulk set of something recycled and made in America. There is basically no reason to get anything other than recycled napkins anyway.

Our Pick- Seventh Generation napkins are recycled, unbleached, made in America, and still really soft! Are they the prettiest napkins you have ever seen? No. But people's party obsession with napkins is frankly pretty stupid. When have you ever said "Oh that party was so fun. I really loved the napkins"? Oh, never? Yes, that's true for everyone, so recycled makes perfect sense, and you can get them in bulk for crazy cheap (and probably never have to buy napkins again). If you want that crisp white napkin, Seventh Generation sells some bleached versions that are still 100% recycled. 4

Love a pretty napkin but still want something pretty? Check out the Susty Party napkins- made in the USA, 100% recycled, 20% post-consumer.

Still haven't found what you are looking for? Check out Natural Value for Made in the USA and 100% recycled. Green Forest and Marcal have great options too!

preserve plates
Preserve from Amazon
Paper Plates- This is a category where you don't even have to deviate far from the mainstream. Chinet makes some of their paper plates out of recycled material that can be composted. They are also made right here in the United States!

Want something a little more stylish or a little more tree-friendly? I have got you covered on both fronts! Susty Party makes square compostable plates out of sugar cane biproduct. Some of their party supplies are made in the States, but I don't think this is one of them. My pick would probably be MV Trading's Tree Free plates, which are made from sustainably harvested bamboo and are completely compostable! Earth's Natural Product also makes plates from sugar cane, but they are made in China, so it is a trade off.

If you do love plastic plates, Preserve (one of my favorite Made in the USA companies) sells plastic plates you can clean over and over again. When you are all done with them, the company will take them back and recycle them- so cool!
wooden eco friendly silverware

Silverware- Sure, use up the lifetime supply of spoons and knives you have sitting around. But there are better options for this.You can go three ways with this, and they are all way better than the plastic silverware we grew up with.

 First, you can pick a biodegradable material, so when those forks (and spoons and knives, but who are we kidding, just forks) get thrown away, they can be composted or will at least break down with time. Emerald sells a cornstarch set- I have used the cornstarch cutlery before, and it is a little rougher than plastic, but they are sturdy and you can reuse them before you have to compost them, so they might be a good fit! Transitions 2 Earth also sells a biodegradable set they claim will break down even in the landfull- they have solid reviews, and most say they sneak by like normal disposable cutlery. Repurpose makes plant-based silverware that has a good reputation for standing up to hot food while still being compostable and biodegradable. They are made in Taiwan, so not perfect, but a pretty good option.

You can get wood utensils like these from Pretty Sweet Party that will obviously break down with time (I also think they look much cleaner and more stylish, if that is a thing you care about). You can just get forks as well. These are very smooth (though a little short?), and they are made in the United States! Creative Juice Cafe and Olia Designs sells a really lovely set as well. If you just like to picnic with your family, let me recommend these rePeat utensil sets made of wood and recycled plastic bottles.

The other option is to get recycled plastic cutlery and then reuse it. Preserve makes recycled and foodsafe cutlery that you can use over and over. And they make them here in the US! You can also buy the things you need (forks) in bulk as well, and if you reuse, it should set you for life (unless you throw some massive picnics). When you decide you are done with it, you still don't need to throw it away! You can mail used products back to them and they will recycle them for you. In my opinion, there is really no reason not to use something like this, and just have a separate bun for people to throw their cutlery in, no more trash!

tranquilo paper straws
Tranquilo straws from Amazon
Straws- Paper straws can be a cute way to add to the spirit and decor of your event, and they can have a mostly positive environmental impact! Woot! My pick, forever and always, will be Tranquilo paper straws. Not only are they biodegradable and made in the US, they also donate a portion of their proceeds to The Ocean Cleanup Project. There is absolutely NO reason to buy plastic straws EVER again, and these are the best of the best. If you are planning an event of any kind, including a barbeque, you can check their huge selection and find the perfect straws. If you wanted another option for being amazing, Susty Party sells FSC certified paper straws that are also made in the US! I love that you can get them in BULK, because restaurants could switch over too. This set might be my favorite for the 4th of July.

Aardvark also sells paper straws made in the US, but according to reviews, they don't hold on as well in liquid. For our wedding, I think we used Kikkerland- the straws are sturdy and biodegradable, but they are made in China, so it depends on your priorities. I found some 4th of July-themed paper straws from Creative Juice Cafe as well if you want to be really spirited!

4th of july picnic chairs by the river

Picnic Blankets and Chairs- At Pagmanda's picnic, people mostly bring their own seats. Mostly, this means folding chairs and blankets. Chairs seem to always already be in someone's closet, but they had to get there somehow. I don't think people buy these often, and our picnic blankets are almost always just blankets that we have already gotten a lot of use out of. It doesn't get it's own blanket.

If you do want a picnic blanket that is a little more special than your well-worn blankets, Etsy seller Sewn Natural sells some of my favorites, but these blankets come at a pretty steep price. Modern Cabin sells really pretty ones as well.

Need some serious and stay put lawn chairs? My favorite are Polywood chairs, which are made in the US from recycled plastic. They are getting so popular that you can buy them from Target, and you can find other brands, like Eco Poly Furniture, doing the same thing, so you might check your local garden or outdoorsy store. They absolutely aren't cheap, but if you want something that stays in your yard and the color lasts forever, these could be your (very eco-friendly) chairs. To put it in perspective, you can buy similar "synthetic" but good looking furniture out of all new plastic for the same or more money, so boo on you, Highwood.

Looking for something to fold up and bring with you to picnics or parades? Telescope Casual makes those exact chairs (in lots of versions- some open box and cheaper, so poke around). I researched the chairs people bring to sports games or camping now (you know, the ones with armrests with cupholders and mesh), but I didn't find any definitive answers. When I figure it out, I will let you know.  Need some to pull out just for special events? Glo Dea makes pretty wood folding chairs that look really stylish and comfortable, but are still made in the USA!

citronella candle in a mason jar on etsy
from Lot 450
Citronella Candles- The trick to being eco-friendly when buying a candle is to avoid paraffin. It's another petroleum-based product and it does not burn clean. So you are breathing in a bunch of nastiness. Almost all mainstream candles, from Yankee Candle to most citronellas, are made with paraffin wax, but you don't have to look too hard to find great candles in soy wax, beeswax, or other substitutes (at about the same price too). You can also actually clean out the jars they come in, so they can get reuse.

Our Pick- We just bought two citronella candles from Etsy stores- Lot 450 Store and Zax Beeswax. I can say they look great and the smell isn't quite as rough, but I will have to update this to let you know how they work. But I am excited to have cut this needless chemicals and non-renewable resource out of our home.

Candle options have exploded in recent years, so you have lots of options. Bite Lite sells soy candles that uses essential oils to repel bugs away. A year ago, I would have thought that was too crazy and granola, but we started using peppermint oil to keep ants and spiders out of our house, and it works so well! Sugar Creek sells a paraffin-free candle as well in a 16 oz jar, so this should last you a long time. You can find tons, and if you don't care about paraffin, you can still keep an eye out for Made in the USA candle choices.

wedding cornhole

Yard Games- In case your party needs some games (ours don't always go that route, but it can be really fun for somebody when it does), you can find them made in America way more than you might expect. You can find anything on this list Made in America on Etsy or Amazon, or you can use someone else's idea as an inspiration and make your own:

Giant Jenga (this looks so fun! And you can find lots of options)
Frisbee (I really like these ones from The Wright Life as well)
Cornhole Boards (tons of these on Etsy, some made of recycled wood)
Cornhole Bags
Horseshoes (St. Pierre has a set too)
Ring Toss
Badminton (only assembled in the US

This is one that I feel like I am missing lots of things- try going to your local sports store and ask what is made in the US still. Or make some games! It might be fun!

hefty recycled trash bags
Hefty Trash Bags on Amazon

Trash Bags- Yep, we may not think about it, but at a picnic, don't you feel like you always have to look and find the garbage bag hanging off the corner of some table? Your best option would probably be PAPER grocery bags, but if that doesn't make sense for you, then always use recycled trash bags. Right now everything that is described as biodegrading plastic (in this case) doesn't cut the mustard (if you actually want biodegradable bags, I highly recommend Biobags, but they are mostly for green waste, not regular garbage). They basically break up into tiny pieces that will be impossible for our children and grandchildren to clean up someday. Instead, look for garbage bags with a high percentage of post-consumer plastic.

Our Pick- Hefty sells a recycled garbage bag made of 65% recycled plastic. I love this because it sends a mainstream brand the direct message that their recycled initiatives are worth it and will sell.

Other recycled bags that still have solid reviews- Seventh Generation (55%, 16% post-consumer recycled), Earthsense (60% recycled), Pride Green (100% recycled, but they do have lower reviews, so may not stand up as well to party use), and the best is If You Care (97% recycled with glowing reviews).
lodge grill skillet
Lodge at Sur La Table

Grill Gear- Most of the time we aren't really buying a new grill. If you are, Weber makes some of theirs in the United States, and you can buy them from Sur La Table- if it isn't worth it to you, you can also find TONS of used grills on Ebay- used and US, treat them like the only choices! Even if you aren't buying a grill, you might need a tool or two for your planned menu, so here are a few ideas.

You can find most anything you would need made nearby- Grill brush, grill pan, grill basket. Serious about your grill pans? Lodge sells a cast iron one, and like everything they make, it is no joke. If you are going to do a lot of grilling this way, Lodge is an investment.

LA Linen gingham tablecloth
LA Linen from Amazon
Tablecloth- This is the kind of thing you just sort of throw in the cart while shopping for other things, and often we settle for something disposable, because it seems a lot easier. But these are usually plastic, which means you can throw it away, but as a planet, we are still stuck with it. Basically, forever. And if you can use the same cloth (even vinyl or polyester) one over and over, the cost might be higher up front, but in the long run, you can save money over those disposable table clothes year after year.

You could very well be able to find something perfect for outdoor use at your neighborhood Salvation Army or Goodwill. I always see lots of tablecloths there, and if you don't have to worry about size, this could be the ticket.

My other pick? LA Linen makes a bunch of outdoor tableclothes in different sizes and fabrics (though mostly polyesters). Everything is made in Los Angeles, and they are also washable, so you can just throw them in with other laundry. Want one like your grammy has? Blue Hill sells those checkered vinyl-y ones that remind me of grandparents. The upside is that they repel stains, the down side is if they do get dirty, they are harder to clean.

If you wanted to take on a craft project, these tablecloths made of sewn-together bandanas look patriotic and cool, and you can buy bandanas made in America for pretty cheap. Essma clothing sells their Made in the USA bandanas in packs of 12. It's a great deal, and you can made a really fun and memorable tablecloth quickly.

American flag blowing in the window and made in America
Valley Forge Flags from Amazon
Decor- I just posted a blog on amazing 4th of July decorations that are made here and could definitely take your 4th of July picnic to another level. If nothing else, you might want an American flag this summer. You would think all American flags are made here. You would think wrong, because that isn't the case at all. So if you want to get an ethical (and actually patriotic) flag, Valley Forge Flags are one of your best bets (look locally too, just check those tags!).

Ok, Paggy, what barbeque stuff am I forgetting? These are just the kinds of things we would never think twice about just picking up whatever at the store and tossing it when we are done. But that doesn't work anymore, and we know better. No picnic is worth that much more headed to the landfill, and since you are feeding more people than usual, you can make a bigger impact with one meal! Score!

Want more shopping inspiration? Check out my Giant List of Shopping Lists here!

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