A balloon-free birthday party won’t burst your kid’s bubble

Ideas for greener birthday parties

I’m planning my baby’s birthday party. By baby, of course, I mean my middle-schooler, who is quickly ageing out of birthday parties — this one could be the last. And while two or three hours with a bunch of screaming tweens hyped up on cake isn’t entirely my idea of a relaxing way to spend an afternoon, I’ll miss the birthday-party years, the sweetness of a bunch of little kids bowling or swimming or running through the neighbourhood on a treasure hunt.

What I won’t miss, though, are the presents. When my kids were tiny and before they cared or noticed, we asked guests not to bother with gifts — our kids didn’t need anything, and the piles of plastic-wrapped, plastic toys felt overwhelming and wasteful.

This stance, though, has proven unpopular, both with my kids who, being children, love presents, and our guests, who seem profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of showing up empty-handed.

Ideas for greener birthday parties

For this party, my son and I have come up with a middle ground. On the invitation, we’ll let people know that gifts are entirely (really!) optional and unexpected. And if they still can’t wrap their heads around going gift-free (see what I did there?), a gift certificate to our local wilderness supply store — we’ve got outdoor adventures planned for this summer, and he could use some quality camping gear — would be appreciated.

It’s not 100% elegant, but I’m willing to throw elegance by the wayside and welcome a bit of social awkwardness if it means that my kid’s friends and families don’t have to spend money on stuff that he really doesn’t want or need. (I can’t tell you how much Lego is in my basement). Especially when so many toys are made of (and packaged in) plastic.

Here are some other things that won’t be at the party:

Balloons: I hadn’t really thought much about the impact of balloons on the natural world, but they’re a killer of wildlife, in particular turtles, who ingest spent or broken balloons that enter our waterways after being released into the air. When you think about it, balloons are designed to be used precisely once, often for minutes. And how often does anyone think to throw the shredded remains into a trashcan, let alone recycle it? It kind of bursts your bubble, right?

Plastic ribbon and other gift decorations: With no presents, there’s no plastic ribbon to tie around them. Which means that there is no plastic ribbon to end up in the landfill, or our waterways, where it can also be hazardous to marine life. There also won’t be gift bags (although yes, I do reuse them when I get them) wrapping paper (which isn’t recyclable — too much ink), or clear plastic/PVC tape, which is toxic and never breaks down — use masking tape instead, which is made from paper.

Paper invitations: Why bother, when we can send invites by text?

Disposable plates, cups, cutlery: I love making cakes for my kids’ birthdays. (And yes, some years, that cake has come from a mix in a box; everyone’s busy.) My homemade cake can be transported in the glass dish I baked it in. That cake will be served on reusable plates, with reusable cutlery. Kids will drink from reusable glasses. If I’m feeling really fancy, I may even break out the (old) cloth napkins.

Loot bags: Call me a curmudgeon (you wouldn’t be the first), but I am over the idea that kids need a present at the end of a party. Especially when that present consists of a bunch of plastic toys and individually plastic-wrapped candies in a plastic bag. (What, in case they get hungry on the way home?) The party is the present, dudes. If you’d like to take a slightly softer line on the whole issue, though, why not go low- or no-waste? Maybe hand out gift certificates to a local ice cream shop? One mom I know compromised by handing out candy from the bulk store in Mason jars.

If you hear delighted screaming some weekend afternoon in the not-too-distant future, it’s a good chance it’s my kids and his friends at his party. I have a feeling they won’t notice — or care about — the absence of balloons or wrapping paper, or what the cake was served on. They’re just going to have fun with their friends — and I’m going to enjoy their fun even more, knowing that it hasn’t come wrapped in plastic.


SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to be able to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines,and several anthologies, includingChasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.

The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.

Leave a Reply