The Cheapest, Most Sustainable Essentials for Large Family Gatherings

The Cheapest, Most Sustainable Essentials for Large Family Gatherings

I just got back from an annual family reunion, and I made some pretty avoidable zero waste fails. Our trash filled rapidly with single-use disposables, lovingly bought so that the 12 of us could focus on enjoying each other’s company. After the reunion I asked permission to be the “waste manager” for the next go. This post is intended to catalog how exactly I plan on doing that!

I’m not here to dump on disposables, I understand that people -especially women- need a break from dish duty when they’re on holiday. So let’s make sure these conveniences are also sustainable, you with me?

This isn’t just about the turtles, it’s about us too. Maybe you’ve heard that scientists have found microplastics in human feces. Or that humans unknowingly eat the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic every week. If you’re still not convinced, how about this study showing microplastics are currently floating around in the air we breathe? We need to break up with plastic not just for the fish, but for ourselves too!

So here are the essentials I’ve rounded up for my next family gathering. I’m on a budget, so I’m aiming to achieve maximum sustainability at minimal cost. Here’s what I found:


Image Description: Fork, knife, and spoon laid on top of each other on a black napkin laid across a white dinner plate. Photo by Debby Hudson 

Sure, you might reuse your own metal cutlery on the trip, but is it realistic to expect everyone else to? To avoid the environmental degradation of disposable plastic cutlery, I’ll prepare for our next family gathering with disposable bamboo cutlery. Happy Planet has a set of 250 (100 forks, 100 spoons, 50 knives) for $14.99, or just under 6 cents per piece. Compare that to a 360 pack of plastic cutlery at Walmart for $9.99, or just under 3 cents a piece, and yes, you’re paying nearly twice as much for the low waste version. If that sets bamboo disposables out of budget, the best alternatives are to use the dishwasher to wash ordinary silverware or reuse plastic cutlery instead of throwing them away. In actuality, these two alternatives are actually more eco-friendly than bamboo disposables when you factor in carbon footprint, but they require more work. Tradeoffs, folks! Decide what works best for your situation.

Why: plastic forks, knives, and spoons were the 4th most common type of trash (after cigarette butts, wrappers, and plastic straws) collected by the Ocean Conservancy in 2018. Remember the viral video of a marine biologist dislodging a plastic straw from a turtle’s nose? Marine biologists have extracted plastic spoons from turtle’s nostrils as well. Don’t watch it!

Plates, bowls, and cups

Image description: Two stacks of white paper cups on a black tray next to a kitchen sink. The cups have some type of blue logo on them that looks like a bottle. Photo by Jon Tyson 

Yes, you have your reusable and you’re prepared to wash it. How about the other 15 people at your gathering, did they bring theirs? In large gatherings of people who are not zero waste, disposables are essential unless you’re okay getting stuck with load after load of dishes on your own vacation. So let’s make those disposables as sustainable as possible, shall we?

These are the sugarcane fiber plates and bowls I’ll be bringing to our next family gathering. They’re tree-free, plastic-free, unbleached, and cost about 13 cents a piece. Update: You can now get 10% off these with the code ECO10, and your purchase helps support the operating costs of this blog! Woohoo!

Cups? Eco-friendly disposable cups are too expensive at around 40 cents each. If you’re camping with a large group of people and no dishwasher in sight, you can make disposables reuseable by… reusing them! Don’t stress about people reusing them on their own, just keep a separate waste bin for them so when it’s all over you can take them home, run a load in the dishwasher, and have them ready for the next shindig.

Why: Sugarcane-derived disposables take the bagasse, or pulp left over from sugar cane juice extraction, and turn it into a usable compostable product. No trees were cut down to make it, which is ideal since we need trees alive to soak up all the CO2 we’re doling out. Unbleached paper products are recommended to protect aquatic ecosystems from chlorinated rainwater runoff from landfills.

Paper Towels

I have a stack of HandiWipes that are a reusable replacement for paper towels. This will work for my camping trip, I’ll just keep them in a bag after they’ve been used so I can put them in the laundry when I get home. In case that doesn’t fly with some people, there are plenty of tree-free, recycled paper towels on the market. The plastic film casing is recyclable at plastic film drop-offs. It’s not the best option, but if people are going to use paper towels either way at least use recycled paper to reduce the party’s carbon footprint.

Why: Tree-free is the way to be! Reusable towels would be the best option if you already have them, but when you’re working with large groups of people who aren’t zero waste, tree-free disposables are more realistic.

Toilet Paper

Image Description: A white tiled bathroom with two unused rolls of toilet paper stacked on top of each other on a ledge at left, with a third unused roll of toilet paper sitting upright beside it. A fourth, nearly used-up toilet paper role sits upright at right on the same ledge. Photo by Michael Jasmund.

No, I’m not ready for family cloth. Kudos to those who do it, though. I’ll be minimizing our environmental impact by seeking out recycled toilet paper in plastic-free packaging, which is available from Who Gives a Crap (discount code), Scott, Marcal, and more.

Why: If we’re going to use TP anyway, may as well go tree-free and plastic free to reduce our ecological footprint.


Image description: A glass water cooler set on top of concrete blocks. There’s a rosemary plant in a gray pot on the left and white flowers in a tall glass vase on the right, with stacked drinking classes on either side. Photo by Sven.

A large refillable water cooler is a best bet. If people are too put off by the idea of drinking tap water, you can fill it up with a large refillable water jug found in most major grocery stores. You can always check the EWG tap water database to check if the local tap water is safe.

Supposing people don’t feel safe drinking the local tap water, how do you know how much to bring? Adults need ~64 oz of water a day, or a half gallon a day. Most jugs are measured in gallons, so divide the number of people by 2 and then multiply by the number of days to get the number of gallons you’ll need.

(People/2) x Days = Gallons needed
Ex. 8/2 x 3 = 12 gallons

I would just get two 5 gallon jugs for $6.99 since I know kids drink less water and I know some people prefer soda…

Why: People need water to live! Refillable water jugs take unnecessary waste out of the equation.


Image description: A red and silver Coca Cola can that reads “America” laying sideways on the ground. Photo by Ernest Brillo.

While I don’t see soda as an essential, there are people in my family who do! I plan on finding the lesser of two evils (joking) by stocking up on soda in cans. Aluminum cans are infinitely recyclable, which can’t be said for plastic. You may already be aware that only 9% of the world’s plastics have been recycled, due to improper disposal, contamination, and recycling facility’s limitations. Still, it bears repeating that recycling should be treated as a last resort rather than a first defense when it comes to plastic. Cans, though? Throw them in the recycle bin without trepidation!

Why: People will indulge. Let them indulge sustainably with infinitely recyclable aluminum cans instead of plastic bottles.


Image description: red, green, and blue LED glow sticks glowing in the dark. Photo by EverBrite.

My sis-in-law recently enlisted me to find a sustainable alternative to glow sticks for an upcoming camping trip. Luckily there are loads of rechargeable, battery-powered LED sticks. One problem, however, is many of them are foam sticks that break easily. These LED glow sticks were the only ones I found that weren’t foam. Here are some battery-powered LED glow bracelets, in case they’re of interest.

Why: My family wants to do glow sticks and bracelets for a spooky camping trip, but the traditional versions we grew up with are single-use plastic disposables with a toxic dibutyl phthalate interior. Thanks to advances in modern technology, there are plenty of LED glow sticks and bracelets on the market that can be used over and over instead of one and done! If they’re no longer useful to us at any point I’ll put them up on our Buy Nothing group and I’m sure a parent will come snap them up.

Are any of these suggestions relevant to your next family get-together? How will you modify these ideas to your specific needs? What would you add?


One thought on “The Cheapest, Most Sustainable Essentials for Large Family Gatherings

  1. Interesting stuff! Whenever I went camping with family we always just brought reusable plastic plates cutlery and the rest of it! This seems like a great plan though, and of course leds are better and non toxic but I’ve heard (if you do have any) you can reuse glow sticks by freezing them and then you can recrack then. Don’t know how viable that actually is though!

    The Quirky Queer

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