How to Throw a Zero-Waste Barbecue

By Nicole Caldwell for Martha Stewart

Grill-outs can create a whole lot of waste, but they don’t need to! There are tons of great ways to enjoy a special occasion without creating a ton of trash. Here's how to make your event reusable, homemade, recyclable, or compostable.

Most cookouts are riddled with disposables like tinfoil, plastic wrap, plastic cutlery, paper plates and napkins, plastic cups, and food packaging. But it doesn’t have to be this way! We host lots of events at my farm all summer long that manage to produce no garbage. That includes large-scale events like weddings and music festivals! For more ideas on improving your environmental impact, be sure to check out my new book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living.

Basics: Use What You Have

We all have mason jars, mismatched plates, a variety of silverware, and scraps of fabric lying around. Put all those things to use, and supplement what you don’t have with items from your local thrift shop. Stacking different plates for salad and entrees, folding up bandannas as napkins or using lace curtains as tablecloths are all ways to utilize what you have to make a beautiful, country setting for your event. Doing your part for the environment will also lend your cookout a classy, country-chic feel.

ake Your Own

From homemade barbecue sauce to fresh-baked burger buns or farm-to-table zucchini relish, each item at your barbecue that you’ve made yourself will be showstopper. Best part? Canned foods like relish, pickles, dilly beans, and beets will keep for a year or more. So preserve your foods in bulk, and you’ll have enough sides and fixings for multiple events.

Use the Freshest Herbs -- Live Ones!

If you’ve been growing kitchen herbs in pots, bring them over to your buffet line and let people clip their own oregano, basil, or dill.

Buy Whole Ingredients

Stop in at your local butcher to get specific cuts of meat for your event. This will eliminate excessive packaging from the supermarket and ensure you have local, healthy food you can feel great about serving your guests. For sides and salads, ditch premade fare in excessive packaging loaded with preservatives and instead opt to make your own. Fresh ingredients and herbs means reduced waste and happy taste buds!

Ditch Onetime-Use Goods

Paper napkins are so passe! Opt for cloth napkins that you buy at a store or make from old clothes, or -- my favorite -- use bandannas! For grilling veggies, you can buy a stainless-steel grilling basket or utilize reusable skewers (or use rosemary stems or other skinny branches). Corn can be grilled in-husk. If you still want to wrap something in foil, try using banana leaves.

Compost the Scraps

All fruits, veggies, buns, salads, and pasta can be composted. Meat, dairy, and grease should only be added to covered bins safe from predators. If you aren’t already composting, fill a five-gallon pail and bring your scraps to a neighbor who is, or bring it to a community garden.

Provide Clearly Marked Refuse Containers

For small parties, people can bus tables on their own by emptying food scraps into a compost bin and bringing dishes and napkins inside for washing. For larger events, leave labeled big plastic bins out for dirty dishes, another for napkins, and a pail for compost. Recyclables can be put into a large, marked garbage pail. Keep an eye on these bins in order to correct any mis-tosses.

Most Important, Let Your Guests Know!

It’s hip to be green! Your guests will be happy to play their part in reducing waste and will enjoy hearing about the different ways you’ve made it a zero-waste event.

How do you try to limit waste at your events? Share your tips in the comments section.