UCSF Sustainability Stories

By Lauren Ng, Guest Writer, UCSF Sustainability Outreach and Communications Coordinator

Six Tips for Sustainable Holiday Parties

It’s that wonderful time of year again. With holiday parties abound and gift-giving at hand, we become enraptured with the material splendors of the season: plastic-coated plates in the shape of pine trees, pumpkin-spice scented candles, that sparkly tinsel made of – well, nobody quite knows, but it seems to make an appearance at every office party. In the spirit of sustainability, and to make strides towards UCSF’s zero waste goal, here are some tips for gatherings that spread joy and sustain our planet.

Share this article with a friend or coworker who loves to plan events, and feel free to email them our LivingGreen Event Guide.

Six Things You Can Do to Host a Zero-Waste Event

#1 Decorate with Lasting, High-Quality Items
When planning your next holiday party, take the opportunity to step back and assess how each purchased item – food, décor, service ware, invitations, party favors– will be used.  Ask yourself: How long can this item be used or reused? Are we purchasing the highest quality item within our budget? Think durability and long-term value. For instance, rather than buying disposable table coverings, consider a tablecloth that can be wiped off/washed and reused. Or instead of plastic tabletop decorations, consider using natural objects that convey seasonality – pine cones, autumn leaves, leaves of holly, miniature potted Christmas trees, and cinnamon sticks, to name a few. You can also double your table centerpieces as gifts and giveaways. Centerpieces such as succulents or flowers in terracotta pots make lovely gifts that can be planted in one’s garden. 

#2 Gift to Others What You Would like to Be Gifted
Recall the last time you received a party favor. Do you still use it today? If you can’t picture yourself squeezing that foam stress-reliever ball for years to come, or you have a sneaking suspicion that fold-up fan will break after a few uses, then those are not sustainable choices. Other unsustainable freebies include: rubber bracelets, water bottles (most of us have too many already), and t-shirts with tacky designs or logos. As a rule of thumb, anything consumable and/or easily reused is a great choice. 
Seed bombs
Here are some ideas for eco-friendly stocking stuffers:
- A packet or seed bomb of California poppies or other native flowers;
- Natural soaps wrapped in paper and twine;
- Spices in glass jars;
- Rainforest Alliance certified chocolate;
- Notepads, stationary, etc. made of 100% post-consumer waste (PCW) recycled paper; and
- Bird-feeder ornaments.

#3: Create Shared Platters
Sharing from an abundant platter of food, arranged beautifully, feels more special than a boxed lunch. Not to mention, durable dishes and serving ware can be washed and reused, eliminating unnecessary waste from single-use containers and sauce packets. You’d be surprised how many small changes we can make to eliminate waste from our menus. Instead of buying pre-portioned snack bags, buy in bulk and pour it into a bowl to share, or have shared condiments instead of individual packets.

#4: Design a Sustainable Menu
Here are some easy tips for designing a more sustainable event menu:
- Serve mostly finger foods;
- Use ingredients that are in-season and locally grown;
- Aim for most foods to be vegetarian, with 25 percent or less of the dishes containing meat (holiday staples like squash, stuffing, casseroles, and side dishes can all be vegetarian);
- For dishes with meat, focus on lower-carbon options, such as turkey instead of roast beef;
- Check that seafood is sustainably sourced; and
- Provide compostable takeaway boxes for leftovers.

Veggie burger sliders from our 2019 Sustainability Awards Ceremony

#5:  Use a Green Catering Service
What counts as a green catering service? At UCSF, we look at three criteria: zero waste, at least 20 percent sustainable food purchases (plant-based, local, organic, etc.), and Green Business certification.  UCSF assigns a green leaf symbol for each criteria that is met. You can find these caterers with our green leaf symbol on the America Go (ATG)/BearBuy Website. On-campus green caterers include Moffitt Long Catering and Aramark at Mission Bay Conference Center.
You can also ask the catering company ahead of time what can be done to minimize waste. For instance, if you already have silverware, let them know to hold off on disposable utensils, or ask to use wax paper in place of plastic wrap.

#6: Deck the Halls with Compost and Recycling
Paper plates, food scraps, napkins – most of the waste produced from holiday parties can go into the compost, so make sure these green bins are conveniently located and labeled with this sign.
The best option is to reuse, but if you have single-use items such as plastic cups, utensils, and foil, make sure to provide recycling bins. Foil and aluminum party trays can also be recycled, even with food residue. Just crumple the foil into a ball before placing it into the blue bin. Be sure to display our recycling sign so your guests know exactly what to do. You can contact Facilities Services to request recycling, compost, and trash bins for your event.
Lastly, avoid food waste by implementing an RSVP system to confirm a final guest headcount. In general, 20-30 percent of guests will be no shows, so order food accordingly. Donate left over food with Food 4 UCSF Students.

More Information on Green Events
UCSF’s LivingGreen Event Guide contains helpful guidelines to follow when planning a zero-waste event. Information on food, tableware, decorations, and transportation is included.
• If you plan events multiple times a year, consider a UCSF Green Event Planner certification.
• Watch our video webinar on How to Plan a Zero Waste Event.
• Refer to the UC Sustainable Procurement policy

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