Plastic free summer party outdoors with bunting

Eco-parties: how to host plastic-free picnics and BBQs

Summer is on its way, and with it al fresco parties, BBQs and picnics. But the prospect of outdoor entertaining can be problematic for plastic-free party planners.
By Roisin Mcloughlin    |      14 Jun 2018    |      10 min

Read our guide to hosting the perfect eco-party. Maybe you're having friends around to share the triumph or pain of the summer's sporting events or escaping all that by eating outdoors. With our mini guide you'll be grilling up a plastic-free storm at your next BBQ, or chowing down on plastic-free picnic food in no time. We’ve even got a few tips and tricks for taking your plastic-free partying up a notch.

Plastic free eco party in garden; summer bbq picnic
Plastic free garden party
Credit: CC0 Creative Commons

Barbecues

Barbecuing is a favourite British summer pastime. It’s not often that we get to cook al-fresco. When we get a sunny day we really go for it.

There a few things to remember to keep proceedings as plastic-free as possible.

Try not to buy disposable barbecues. They might be stacked high, on purse-friendly offers all summer long, but they’re also wrapped in lots of non-recyclable single-use plastic.

Single use plastic wrapped BBQ's stacked in supermarket
Single use plastic wrapped BBQ's stacked in supermarket
Credit: Roisin McLoughlin

What’s more, it’s likely that the charcoal that comes in these disposable BBQs is far from sustainable.

The debate on which is more eco-friendly - gas or charcoal - is hotly contested. However, it’s clear that many Brits are traditionalists. The UK uses around 60,000 tonnes of charcoal each year. More than 80% of which is imported.

Namibia is the largest exporter of charcoal to Europe, and a 2015 investigation found a range of environmental and human issues with the country's industry.

To reduce the harmful impact of your BBQ, try to buy charcoal produced in the UK. If not possible, make sure you buy charcoal certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

So that's the barbecue bit sorted. Now what to put on it?

BBQ grill with burgers, sausages and grilled vegetables
BBQ grill with burgers, sausages and grilled vegetables
Credit: CC0 Creative Commons

Bangers, burgers and buns

As we’re aware by now, plastic packaging is almost unavoidable when shopping in the supermarket. The meat aisle is awash with plastic trays and plastic wrapping – much of which isn’t recyclable at all.

If you eat meat, take reusable containers – or paper to wrap your purchases – and head to your local whole foods store, butchers or deli.

If the supermarket is your only option, try doing the same at the in-store deli counter. Some supermarkets such as Morrisons have pledged to allow customers to bring their own containers. Although beware, not all supermarkets are as plastic savvy.

If you don’t eat meat, have no fear. As the number of veggies/vegans in the UK continues to rise, more grill-friendly meat alternatives are on the market. Finally, vegetarians and vegans have (almost) as much choice when it comes to charred food.

Barbecued vegan burger in bun
Barbecued vegan burger in bun
Credit: By Shpernik088 [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

As we’ve mentioned above, heading to your local deli, whole food store or street market with paper wrapping or reusable containers is worth a shot. However, veggie burgers and sausages are unlikely to be found unpackaged. Luckily there are a few plastic-free brands you should be able to find in your supermarket.

Linda McCartney has a wide range of veggie and vegan burgers and sausages, which come in a paper box – and nothing else.

Other brands such as Granose, do burger (and sausage) mixes in cardboard boxes that you can make up on the day and grill. You can usually find these in health-food shops or whole food stores.

Or you could have a go at making your own. Check out our ultimate summer bean burger recipe.

When buying bread (baps, buns and barms), most local bakeries still use paper bags. If you’re in your local supermarket, avoid the aisles and head to the bakery counter to buy them loose. You may need to bring a tote bag or other plastic free bag/container with you as supermarkets tend to only offer single-use plastic bags for their loose items.

Plastic free unwrapped bread in bakery
Plastic free unwrapped bread in bakery
Credit: CC0 Creative Commons

Picnics

The sister of summer entertaining, an outdoor picnic is a perfect way to throw a relaxed, informal celebration with friends or family. There’s something quintessentially British about rolling out the checked blanket and sharing a sarnie or two on the grass, that gets us in a celebratory mood.

Plastic free picnic basket for two
Plastic free picnic basket for two
Credit: CC0 Creative Commons

And while we all love an impromptu celebration, the key to going plastic-free here is preparation. As tempting as they look, avoid those plastic tubs of pre-made salads and olives in the chilled aisle of every supermarket. Bring your own instead.

But BYO doesn’t have to mean bland. Here are some plastic-free picnic foods guaranteed to get the party started.

Olives, nuts, and nibbles

Most delis or local food markets will have things like nuts and olives either at the deli counter or self-serve in large tubs. If you don’t have a deli or food market nearby, some supermarkets such as Lidl have a self-serve nuts section – it’s worth popping in to see. Remember to take your own container with you.

Self service 'plastic free' nuts in supermarket
Self service nuts in supermarket
Credit: Roisin McLoughlin

Another ‘reduced plastic’ hack to try is swapping out your standard crisps (and all that non-recyclable plastic foil) for home popped popcorn. You can buy popping corn in bulk from most whole food stores. Even if you have to buy in a plastic packet, a little goes a long way with popping corn so you’ll vastly reduce your plastic consumption. Then all you need is a large pan and some butter and oil. You can have lots of fun trying different flavours like chilli flakes or brown sugar. Truffle oil and parmesan is a particularly decadent treat for a grown-up party.

Salads

No picnic would be complete without a potato salad. And what’s better, most recipes make it super easy to avoid plastic and still throw together a tasty treat. Just make sure you buy your spuds loose, and stick to glass bottles and jars for the dressing.

Sandwiches

And speaking of picnic staples – here’s to the trusty sandwich. Keep yours plastic free, by buying bread fresh from your local bakery, as most will provide a paper bag to take out. Ask the baker to slice it for you in store if you don’t like a rustic looking sarnie.

Pickles

Fermented or pickled food are a great accompaniment to a sunny picnic. They’re also a fantastic way of using up any leftovers in the kitchen and cutting down on food waste. Why not have a go at making your own kimchi to bring along.

Homemade plastic free pickles for picnics in glass jam jar
Homemade pickles in glass jam jar
Credit: CC0 Creative Commons

There’s no need to spend lots of money on plastic-free boxes to transport all this in either – a simple jam jar (washed of its previous contents) make handy tubs for keeping picnic food in. And they can double as a handy glass for drinking from.

If cling film is usually your go to for wrapping up sandwiches, try switching to beeswax wraps. They’re becoming much more widely sold online or alternatively have a go at making your own.

Garden parties and grown up soirees

Of course, there are some occasions which call for a bit more pomp and circumstance than a picnic or barbecue. If you’re wanting to add a bit of class to your party, without the plastic pitfalls, give these ideas a go:

Night time garden party with sparklers. Cocktail party or wedding
Night time cocktail party in the garden with sparklers
Credit: CC0 Creative Commons

Glassware

As we’ve said above, avoid plastic cups at all costs. Even the fancy champagne flute that we all say we’ll wash and reuse (but we know we never do). Proper glassware always adds a touch of class to an occasion, and most good supermarkets now run glassware hire schemes.

Waitrose offer a completely free glass hire service for parties. Just pop into your local store and book.

Majestic do free hire and delivery, so long as you order your drinks with them. They also do ‘Sale and Return’ on anything unopened at the end of your party.

Plates and cutlery

This is a no brainer. Don’t buy disposable plastic plates, cups or cutlery. If you’re at home, your everyday homeware should suffice. If you’re out and about, take reusable tubs and jars, and forgo the cutlery for finger food and nibbles.

Food and drink

Canapes; finger food is the perfect way to add a touch of class to your party whilst avoiding plastic completely. A really simple way to make canapes is to buy pre-made puff pastry, cut into small squares and top with pesto or tapenade from a glass jar, plus some grilled veg or sundried tomato.

Cocktail sticks are another plastic-free party staple. Let loose your inner Abigail and assemble a cheese and fruit classic. Just make sure when buying cheese, to head to the cheese counter and request it wrapped in paper or in your own container. Buying fruit loose also cuts down on the plastic.

Check out some more classic canapes with a modern twist.

Plastic free salmon and cream cheese canapes
Plastic free salmon and cream cheese canapes
Credit: CC0 Creative Commons

Wine and beer

If you can find one near you, a refill station is a brilliant way to buy by wine completely plastic free. In London and Hastings, Borough Wines offer a refill scheme. Check your local whole foods store or deli to see if they will offer the same.

If you're buying single-use bottles, opt for corked bottles as they’re compostable. Screw-top varieties often come with plastic seals, and the aluminium tops are frequently not recycled.

When it comes to drinking beer, draught beer from a keg bought from your local pub or brewery appears to be the greenest option. A 6 pack of beer usually comes with a plastic holder. Metal bottle tops can also contain plastic seals.

Bottles of plastic free wine with biodegradable corks
Bottles of wine with biodegradable corks
Credit: CC0 Creative Commons

Soft drinks

The most obvious choice here is to steer clear of plastic bottles of soft drinks. Cartons of juice are also a deceptive plastic-free no-no as they’re coated with plastic polyethylene.

Glass bottles of soft drinks are the best option, but can be costlier than their plastic counterparts. One way of making your soft drinks go further is to buy concentrated cordials in glass bottles and then dilute with water from the tap. Or just serve good old-fashioned tap water.

Do you have any top tips for keeping your summer parties as plastic-free as possible? We'd love you to share them with us on our social media channels. Or why not try and take the #PlasticFreeFriday challenge with us this week?