Disposable Fun: Birthday Party Culture

Does anyone watch the show Parenthood? It follows the lives of four grown siblings and their kids in Berkeley, California. The youngest brother, Crosby, recently found out that he has a five-year-old son. Eager to make up for all those lost years, he volunteers to help the mom throw a big birthday celebration with both of their families.

Jabbar and Crosby in Parenthood

So what do they do? They go to the store, argue about a theme for a few minutes (“We did Sponge Bob last year!”), then proceed to buy stacks of theme-appropriate paper plates and decorations. The weirdest part was, there didn’t appear to be many kids (aside from cousins) at the party. So what was the point of all that disposable party gear—in Berkeley no less, a progressive, eco-friendly community?

Now, I know that it is only television. But is this a reflection of reality? Do kids these days expect to have themed birthday parties with disposable plates to go along with it? Am I naive to think that I can continue to throw low-key celebrations for my daughter and serve cake on our everyday dishes? Are our tips for throwing an “eco-birthday bash” in The Eco-nomical Baby Guide hopelessly unrealistic?

Or does consumerism and waste go hand in hand with birthday parties?


  1. This coming weekend I’ll be throwing a combined party for both my 11 year old and 1 year old girls at a local park. I am committed to not making extra trash and not using anything disposable, but it is posing some logistical challenges in terms of transporting dish ware and the like to the park. It would have been much easier to have the party at home but our home is very small and it would be impossibly crowded with all the kids of various ages, plus all the adult family members. Despite the challenges of an offsite eco-party, I remain committed! I’ll let you know how it goes…

  2. Aja, I’ve been to park parties where the parents transport everything in a wagon. Also, check out our posts on Chinet dishes. They’re made out of 100% recycled materials! If I ever have to use disposable dishes, I will use those. I know Joy had a park party and served cupcakes instead of cake so she didn’t need dishes at all.

    Good luck! Sounds like fun!

  3. No, I don’t think that kids expect themed party accoutrements–I think it’s the parents who either 1. just think that’s “how it’s done” and haven’t questioned it or thought about other approaches or 2. enjoy doing a themed party like this.

    My kids are 9 and 11. Although we’ve done ‘themed’ birthday parties, I’ve never purchased plates, decorations, etc. specifically for the parties and no one missed them!

    The one thing it seems kids do expect is a “goody bag” of some sort. At my daughter’s party last year, the kids painted flowerpots and we sent home a flower plant that they could plant in their pot. That was their party favor. I doubt it was as popular with the kids as a bag full of candy, but my daughter was excited to pick out the plants for each of her friends and I felt better sending it home with them than I would have about a pile of junk!

    [ Rant: I hate all the plastic trinkets that come home from parties with my kids. They get played with for 2 minutes (if that) and are forgotten. I re-use them as Halloween trick or treat giveaways, but I think that probably just means that someone else’s parent throws them in the garbage instead of me! ]

  4. A few years ago I bought two sets of colorful melamine plates from Target–these are our outdoor party dishes, whether it’s a grown-up party or a kid party. That way, I don’t have to worry about our regular dishes getting broken, but I also don’t throw anything away. We just use our regular forks, etc. and all the reusable plastic tumblers we seem to have accumulated over the years. The only disposable thing I buy for parties is the napkins.

    My son is about to turn 4 so we haven’t had any parties with other kids yet; this year we’re just planning to bring a pan of brownies to a local park. I can’t see myself doing a theme party, unless it involves some kind of home-made decorations.

    Lori, I love your idea of the personally-decorated flowerpots as party favors!

  5. My son just turned 1 and I had to fight my mom about getting the first birthday stuff from the party store. It was just family and only about10 people anyway so buying the stuff would have been an even bigger waste without kids around to “enjoy” them.

    She ended up buying two packs of birthday napkins because she just couldn’t stand it. She really wanted the “high chair decoration kit” with the plastic drop cloth and banner. I think this is especially silly. Is it really that hard to clean up the mess? We let the dog loose on the cake and barely had to do any real cleaning under the chair anyway.

    Over the next year, I plan on keeping an eye out for clearance sets of unbreakable (preferably not plastic?) plates and bowls and cups and even utentils to use for parties. I’d love to do white but bright colors would be easy to use. However, white could be used for any theme, so we’ll see what I find. I think that owning separate party dishes is a little bit less green than using what you have (especially since our everyday dishes are white anyway), but if you consider all the years of parties, you’ll eventually get way more use for the money and they don’t ever HAVE to be thrown away.

    As far as napkins and the like go – I prefer to avoid paper products whenever possible (I would love to insert a rant about the new Kleenex bathroom hand towls!) so I think I’ll consider making inexpensive cloth ones that match, or make new ones for parties with themes every year that my kids can then use for all meals until they wear out enough to get tossed in the kitchen rag bin for use instead of paper towels. A few spongebob or the like hand made napkins will still be greener in the long run than paper.

    I think the biggest factor is your committment to the cause! If your kids frequently attend birthday parties with disposable theme products, they will possibly want them, too, but you can use it as a teaching moment to talk to your kids about contributing to the landfills for the sake of a few hours, when they won’t really get that much enjoyment from them.

    And I LOVE the idea of a real, useful party favor that isn’t just earth friendly, just also will teach kids about growing plants, nurturing them, and seeing the beauty of the earth that we seek to protect with our efforts!

  6. I agree that it’s the parents who are creating this problem. But since we deal with every single holiday, celebration and special event, what we’ve come to realize is that most parents are just on autopilot. It never occurs to them that there is another way. And when it does, and they begin to take a few small steps (like using regular dishes instead of paper plates), they see how easy it is and begin to stop and THINK.

    I admit not everyone is convinced, but there are MANY more people doing the eoc-thing when it comes to parties than ever before. If you’re looking for ideas for birthday parties, we’ve got lots of ideas and links on our website and we’re also interested in what parents are doing so if you’ve done something special, please let me know.

    The best thing we can do when it comes to partying is raise awareness. Thanks for raising it with this post!

  7. (love that show:)

    i think people largely don’t think about alternatives. we never use/buy disposables, but my mother is always trying to bring holiday-related stuff here “to make it easier.” we have a dishwasher! how hard is loading that?

    i live at a camp and luckily have access to stacks of dishes, bus tubs, and an industrial washer for bigger parties. we also own two boxes of wine glasses. it’s so much nicer to entertain with real stuff!

    i don’t think my kids will mind. we don’t go much for licensed character stuff across the board, anyway.

  8. I’m planning my daughter’s second birthday party now and I never even considered a “theme” or buying a bunch of crap for it. I like the idea of purchasing some dishes at a thrift store to be used for parties, though. These kids aren’t old enough to care about goody bags yet, either.

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