Zero-waste Dinner Parties

A primer for going “zero waste” at your next occasion.
A similar graduation party spread can help you and your guests reduce waste while maintaining the same level of fun.

Earth Day is approaching. On April 22, many Minnesotans will show their support for environmental issues by planting trees or picking up trash. Certified master recycler/composter Kathleen Hartman brings additional environmental awareness and solutions to every celebration by hosting zero-waste events.

A zero-waste event is no different than any other dinner party, barbecue or family festivity—only, in addition to having fun, there is the added goal of reducing entertaining-related refuse to as close to zero as possible. “I’ve always thought it’s important to reduce waste,” Hartman says. “Entertaining in this way helps me feel good about my event, and educate guests about recycling and composting.”

Guest education begins with the invitation. Hartman says, “I sometimes let my guests know in advance that my event will be a zero-waste occasion. Many guests understand what I mean. Those with questions might call ahead and I’m happy to explain it.”

Hartman then begins her zero-waste party planning by trying to think of ways to reduce packaging that would end up in landfills. “I buy in bulk wherever possible, use washable dishes, cutlery, cloth napkins and table coverings,” she says. “My initial investment in reusable napkins and tablecloths has long since paid for itself. And I never buy or use plastic water bottles. Drinks can generate a lot of recycling, so I’ve installed a reverse-osmosis drinking system in my home and fill up pitchers of fresh water for my guests. Any other glass, plastic or aluminum gets recycled.”

Items to avoid include candy wrappers and individual chip bags that can’t be recycled. If you’re buying bakery items, Hartman suggests letting the baker know you’re hosting a zero-waste event, then ask if they will package items in larger quantities or in food-quality boxes instead of having items individually wrapped. The same goes for catered events. “Just discuss your zero-waste desires with your caterer,” she says. “I’ve found most caterers to be very receptive to the idea.”

During an event, Hartman provides clearly labeled bins so guests know exactly where to dispose of items. She also enlists helpers to answer any questions about where to put things. “Plymouth has single-sort recycling,” Hartman says, “so you typically only need one recycling bin. If you go to the Hennepin County recycling website, you can print labels to affix to your recycling containers. I also identify the garbage bin with a label that says ‘Landfill Trash’ so guests understand where it ends up. I keep the garbage bin very small and often tape or bungee it off so nothing gets in there.”

Any food waste and paper waste contaminated by food is composted. Hartman clearly labels compost bins and lines them with green organic bags that can be purchased at The Home Depot or Lowes. Portable units for recycling and composting at larger gatherings are available through Hennepin County. “They even supply the bags,” Hartman says. “You just have to pick up the units and later dispose of your own materials.” Her son will be graduating from Wayzata High School this spring and Hartman plans to check out these units for use at his graduation party.

She suggests keeping compost bins covered if they are located outdoors or if there are pets in the vicinity. After an event, Hartman takes any organic food waste to a transfer station in Brooklyn Park. “To my knowledge, Plymouth doesn’t have a place to take organic waste,” she says. “I’ve heard there is a pilot program being discussed and I’m hopeful this service will become locally available.”

For daily composting, Hartman keeps two bins of red composting worms in her home. “I feed all my vegetable and fruit scraps to my worms,” she says. “This reduces the amount of organic waste that goes to the transfer station. I then use the compost in my garden and houseplants. It’s easy and doesn’t smell like decay as one might think. It just smells earthy.”



“When planning an event, I always pick a theme,” Hartman says. “My son played football for Wayzata High School, so we decided on a sports theme for his graduation party.”  

Gourmet Burger Bar

The key is to buy in bulk. Estimate the number of pounds of ground beef needed and purchase directly from the butcher. This will eliminate multiple-pound packaging that generates landfill waste. Offer a variety of cheese, fresh vegetable toppings and sauces for the burgers.


Order directly from the bakery at your favorite grocery store in an assorted variety: whole wheat, white, onion, etc. Let them know that you are trying to reduce waste and would like them packaged in large quantities.

Watermelon Boat

What could be more environmentally friendly then fresh fruit? All organic waste will go into Hartman’s backyard compost bin or will be fed to her composting worms.

Grilled Vegetables

Another great menu item, and like fresh fruit, all organic waste can be composted. Hartman also likes this choice as an alternative for vegetarians who can use the grilled vegetables in a sandwich.

Potato Chips and Baked Beans

Buy both of these items in large-quantity containers. Stay away from individual chip bags because they generate too much waste that cannot be recycled. 

Chicken Wings and Dipping Sauces

This is a mandatory menu item since they are one of Hartman’s son’s favorite goods. These, too, can be bought in bulk. Make sure all chicken bones and food waste make it into the organics bin.


Since Hartman wants the ease of single servings, she will purchase cans of soda, juice and other drinks with a clearly labeled recycling bin close by for the empty recyclable containers.

Graduation Cake

A graduation party must-have!

Hartman makes an important note regarding decorations, plates and flatware. “If this were a smaller event, I would use only washable dishes and flatware, but because of the large scale of a graduation party, I’ve decided to use disposable. I will make sure my flatware is compostable, and use paper products not coated with plastic for the organics bin.

“The party has a sports theme, so I will be using his old jerseys, team pictures and various balls for decoration,” she says. “These items will not generate landfill waste.”



Zero-waste FAQ

Kathleen Hartman shares some of her favorite recycling factoids she learned while studying with Hennepin County:

  • Recycling saves energy. It takes 90 percent less energy to manufacture an aluminum can from recycled aluminum, 50 percent less energy to manufacture a glass bottle from recycled glass and about 75 percent less energy to manufacture paper from recycled paper.
  • Recycled materials can be manufactured into a variety of products that are used by many Minnesota companies.
  • Recycling benefits our economy. Recycling helps support local markets and businesses statewide. Approximately 20,0000 jobs in Minnesota are directly and indirectly supported by the recycling industry.
  • A study from 2006 of 25 different venues and events found that on average, 2.44 pounds of waste is generated per person per day.

Source: Kathleen Hartman’s Master Recycler/Composter Program Course Manual.

For more information on planning your own zero-waste event, visit and search for “Event Recycling and Waste Reduction Guide.”