How to Throw an Eco-Friendly and Zero-Waste Backyard Barbecue

by - Tuesday, June 26, 2018

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

Most of us will be attending or throwing a picnic in the next few months. A lot of us will be picnicking for the 4th of July next week. I'll be honest with you- I have never felt less ready to celebrate the 4th of July. I am trying to focus on the things I love about this country, and remember that everything we do, choose, or buy can do some good or add negativity to the world, so this is still an opportunity to do good (in the constant face of evil). Every 4th of July, my Dad throws a picnic in his backyard- his band plays by the river, I see lots of people I genuinely love, and then we sit by the water and watch fireworks. There is also (as you can see in the picture) a lot of waste involved. I think we can do better though.

Barbeques tend to be super laid back- bring a dish, plastic silverware, blankets on the ground and more. 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 an eco-friendly (or even zero waste) 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 eco-friendly, SKIP PLASTIC COMPLETELY!

Plastic trash 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!

The Food

I won't get too deep into this, because the menu differs from picnic to picnic, but there are a few easy shifts to make in your approach to food to have a more positive impact.

-Serve local food. it's one of the best things you can do for the environment. 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. American food travels literally thousands of miles from farm to plate, so anything you can buy from nearby seriously cuts down on fossil fuels.

Serve way less meat. You think BBQ, you think beef and meat. You don't have to have none, but try way less. People won't notice less meat if you give them more carbs. Try more watermelon. Because watermelon is unbeatable picnic food. Meat, especially beef, has a huge carbon footprint, fossil fuel usage, and more. We all should be eating less, so by just making your picnic less of a meat fest, you can do a lot of good.

The Drinks

The biggest thing you can do to green your BBQ drinks? No plastic bottles! 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.

I know people are used to using plastic water bottles, but if you want to do right by the environment, you have other options that are pretty simple! If you are picnicking close to the house, you could just use the pitchers you already have. If not, try these:

anchor hocking drink dispenser
Anchor Hocking from Amazon
Drink Dispensers- 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. If you need something really easy to lug, one of these sports coolers from Rubbermaid would be easy to move and you could basically use it forever.

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.

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.

susty party paper cups with blue polka dots
Susty Party from Amazon
Cups-  If you want to have a more environmentally-friendly party style, you have three great options to bring back cups- use what you have, buy something you can reuse, or buy something that biodegrades easily, so they don't make any waste.

Our Pick- 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 biodegradable cups (not Dixie cups, which sometimes have plastic lining and are owned by the Koch brothers).

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.

Party Supplies

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 tend to 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 (ever)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).

Love a pretty napkin but still want something responsible? Check out the Susty Party napkins- made in the USA, 100% recycled, 20% post-consumer.If you want that crisp white napkin, Seventh Generation sells some bleached versions that are still 100% recycled.

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-  If the party isn't too big, you might just use what you have (we do it- it's one extra run of the dishwasher). If it's just too many people, you don't even have to deviate far from the mainstream to be green. 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. 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 and reuse. 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. The best option is to just use and wash what you already own. If you don't have enough, have your guests bring their own or borrow from neighbors. Use the money you save to make a donation to The Sierra Club or the ACLU.

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. 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.

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. Bonus- 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 bin 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! There is absolutely NO reason to buy plastic straws EVER again- there are tons of paper straw options out there.

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!

More Barbeque Staples

4th of july picnic chairs by the river

Picnic Blankets and Chairs- At these picnics, people may 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. I have also used old tablecloths. You already have something you can sit on.

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 (the synthetic ones of similar quality can be just as expensive while sucking a lot more).

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).

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. We have used the Lot 450 one quite a bit, and it works great. 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, 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)

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, you can find top end grills made in America, but I couldn't find anything less than a thousand dollars. 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 brushgrill pangrill 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.

Even worse, 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.

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!).

 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!

How to Throw an Eco-Friendly Barbeque
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  1. Very timely post! Thanks for the eco-friendly tips!

  2. Why is there so much plastic and tin foile on the first picture? like on the picnic picture. Sorry for my skepticisim but expected something else considering the title of this post :D is the point that its reused counatble times before it is recycled and that's why it zero waste?

    1. It's a picture of one of my dad's barbeques that I mention in the first 2 paragraphs! Sometimes it helps to read the article and not just judge the picture ;OD

  3. This is an excellent and really comprehensive list! I love using Seventh Generation napkins for parties. Have you heard about the new compostable coolers? Those would be a good item to add as an alternative if you can't find a used one for sale. : )

  4. awesome post!! love these ideas, BBQ's are so popular in Canada and also so wasteful! would love for more people to be conscious of all the throw-away plastic they use at events

  5. Nice post! I am not a thrower more of a goer but nonetheless I always try to bring eco friendly things to it. Went to a ‘bring your own plates’ one and I think it was the best!



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