How to Host the Ultimate Zero-Waste Event

It can be tricky to be ‘the host with the most’ whilst trying to waste less, but it’s not impossible! Sustainability is at the forefront of everything we do at Social Pantry, and we are well on our way to becoming the first zero-waste catering company.

We recently hosted ‘An Evening of Zero Waste’ in collaboration with Heaps + Stacks, showcasing the best of zero-waste food, drink, tablespaces, and design. Centred on the concept of ‘reborn craft’, we created a hyper-seasonal menu with a circular approach that ensured any waste elements were reintegrated into the food and drink offering throughout the night. Together with Heaps + Stacks, the styling was kept as natural as possible, reusing materials that would otherwise be discarded to landfill.

We believe zero-waste, ethical and sustainable should be the default. We are confident that this doesn’t pose any compromise on quality, which is why we always work with a zero-waste approach, whether it is explicitly stated or requested by our client or not. We are proud to take responsibility for this across all of our events, and it has become second nature for us to think this way. However, without the support of a sustainably-savvy team like ours behind you, we can understand it might feel daunting to try to host a zero-waste event!

Here are our top tips and must-have recommendations for hosting your very own zero-waste dinner party, friends and family gathering, or special celebration. Consider it the ultimate how-to guide for hosting a zero-waste event!

The invites

Let’s start at the very beginning. Zero-waste doesn’t have to mean going without those material touches that mark an event as a special occasion. Laura Likes is a low impact eco stationery service creating beautiful paper goods using sustainable materials. We love the plantable wildflower seed papers which set the tone for a sustainable event and, depending on the time of sending, can give your guests something to grow in the lead-up to your event, ensuring the upcoming party is front of mind!

The décor

Our Evening of Zero Waste with Heaps + Stacks showed the best of zero-waste innovation when it comes to the decor. From placemats made from dried lotus leaves, coasters made from repurposed used coffee grounds, linen napkins dyed using the beetroot juice spare from our menu preparations… you can have a lot of fun thinking outside the box!

If this is your first time hosting a zero-waste event by yourself, you might want to consider an ‘all-in’ rental tablescape, such as the rental packages offered by Tablescape London. Renting is affordable and can help you achieve a one-off look whilst reducing single-use purchases. Plus simple swaps such as using linen napkins instead of paper is one easy way to eliminate unnecessary waste whilst also adding a touch of luxury.

The table-toppers

Menus can be a wonderful keepsake for your guests to take home and treasure. These handmade cotton rag menus by Mille Stone are tactile and long-lasting, making them much more likely to end up in a memory box than discarded. Complete the look with these luxury recycled cotton name place cards too.

When it comes to setting the table, pioneering sustainable brand Zero Waste Club make handmade drinks coasters from a unique combination of non-recyclable plastic waste such as plastic bags, bubble wrap and pallet wrap. Durable and easy to wipe clean, they are designed to last and there is no need to worry about spillages. What’s more, for every product sold, Zero Waste Club plants a tree. Three colour variations are available on their website, plus Zero Waste Club have collaborated with Selfridges on an exclusive yellow range that we particularly love for summer!

Wax + Wine make planet-friendly glassware from recycled wine bottles. The clear repurposed wine bottle drinks glasses offer timeless style, blending effortlessly into any tablescape and perfect for every day as well as special occasion use. Wax + Wine are also best known for their statement repurposed wine bottle candles featuring eye-catching labels from some of the most coveted and collectable natural wines. They provide restaurants with a valuable bottle recycling service and help to further spread the word about exciting winemakers using organic, biodynamic farming methods. What’s more, currently Wax + Wine are directing 10% of sales to Choose Love charity to support those impacted by the conflict in Ukraine. A statement piece and guaranteed conversation starter!

The food

Zero waste catering is as much about planning and preparation as it is about what you do with any waste afterwards. With over a decade of experience catering events of every size, we have finely-honed estimations of how much food and drink is required for an event. Plus we always have a plan in place for what we will do with any leftovers, allowing us to offer the experience of abundance without unnecessarily over-catering. We operate a zero-waste policy in our kitchen and ensure that every part of the ingredient is put to use either within a single menu or over the course of our weekly kitchen production. Our chefs are continually coming up with new, inspiring ways to transform ingredients that would often be discarded into something spectacular or to give new life to leftovers.

For our Evening of Zero Waste, our chefs made sourdough-waste blinis for the amuse-bouche using spare sourdough starter, and for dessert, created a sweet and salty bread brittle from leftover bread that week. They also made fresh labneh from scratch for the starter, whilst reserving the whey – a natural byproduct – for a whey crème caramel dessert.

The menu planning

Zero waste cooking at home doesn’t have to be complicated. Start by focusing on waste avoidance. You can save yourself having to think about what to do with waste by simply not creating it in the first place! This can be as simple as choosing to serve a style of potatoes that don’t require peeling, such as Hasselback potatoes or baby new potatoes with the skins left on! You may wish to think of your menu holistically and try to use ingredients in interesting ways across different courses – for example, making a chickpea-based dip to start and reserving the chickpea liquid – aquafaba – which can be used as an egg white replacement to make easy 2-ingredient vegan meringues. You could serve your dip with crudites such as carrots and radishes, whilst saving the tops, stems and leaves to make a zero-waste pesto or salsa verde to marinade meat, fish or whole roasted vegetables (check out our recipe for hasselback sweet potatoes with zero waste pesto here!).

You can also ‘think ahead’ and ‘think backwards’ about how you will use up any recipe by-products after the event, or how you can incorporate existing waste or ingredients nearing the end of their shelf life into what you are cooking. Don’t be afraid of incorporating existing ‘waste’ into your dinner party menu. If you have a slightly stale loaf sitting around, consider making rustic croutons to elevate a simple salad; crostini to serve as appetisers; crispy pangrattato (garlicky fried breadcrumbs) to finish off a pasta dish, or recipes such as Panzanella salad, Pappa al Pomodoro soup or bread and butter pudding that calls for stale bread specifically. Leftover mashed potato is a convenient time-saver when it comes to preparing dishes such as cottage pie, croquettes and fishcakes, and your guests will never know you are using up your fridge’s remains!

The wine

At Social Pantry, we work with Liberty Wines – the UK’s only ‘carbon neutral plus’ wine supplier, offsetting more carbon emissions than they create – to offer you bespoke drinks pairings that come with an environmentally friendly guarantee. We were shocked to discover that environmental organisation WRAP estimates UK households pour down the sink 42,000 tonnes of wine, costing a staggering £290 million, every year. The biggest reason for wasting wine was “not used in time”, however, this waste is preventable once you understand how to store, cook with, or even freeze wine! If you open a bottle of wine and aren’t going to finish it, try putting it in the fridge or somewhere cold overnight. Wine stored this way will keep for days, and you can bring it up to room temperature (around 17C) when you want to drink the rest.

To reduce excessive oxidisation which will shorten your bottle’s lifespan, close a bottle of wine after pouring individual glasses. Reseal the bottle with the cork it came with, since cork is a natural, sustainable product, or invest in a wine preservation system. The Coravin wine preservation system lets you pour wine without removing the cork. The eto wine decanter is an elegantly-designed, award-winning wine preservation system that seals out oxygen to preserve the wine’s full flavour (and looks stunning on the table too).

Did you know that you can freeze leftover wine to make wine ice cubes that can be used in cooking later? This allows you to save small quantities of good wine for special-occasion cooking and spares you opening a bottle especially for cooking or using a good wine in your sauce when you could have made do with the remains of a more basic bottle you recently had opened.

What’s more, if you want to tackle glass bottle wastage, Borough Wines has a Bottle Return Scheme using bottles that are designed so that they can be returned, sterilised, and reused up to 30 times. All you have to do is bring back your bottle to your local stockist, and they will reward you with a discount on your next purchase.

The cocktails

Social Pantry offers a pioneering zero-waste cocktail menu that eliminates unsustainable ingredients and repurposes ingredients leftover from the rest of our kitchen production. Some simple ideas you can easily do at home include adding a splash of leftover kimchi brine to Bloody Mary’s or adding a leftover lime shell to a bottle of vodka 1-2 weeks in advance of your event to create a lime flavoured vodka. Citrus fruits are more than just the juice, and with the vast majority of cocktail recipes calling for lemon or lime juice, you will want to have a plan about what to do with all that peel. Peeling citrus fruits before you squeeze makes it easier to use the skins as a garnish or in recipes. We love sustainable restaurant Fallow’s recipe for Lemon Peel Pudding that finds use for a whopping 300g of lemon peel in the curd, and eco-chef Tom Hunt’s recipe for a vegan, zero-waste spent lemon rind marmalade tart. You can also freeze lemon zest to use in smaller quantities whenever it is called for in sweet and savoury dishes, or infuse sugar with the skins by leaving in an airtight container overnight, which can be used to replace regular sugar in lemon-flavoured cakes, cookies and desserts.

The leftovers

Consider what foods keep well and that you’ll enjoy eating as leftovers. Breaded, fried or pastry-based canapes are best enjoyed immediately, whereas mezze or tapas-style dips, olives, cured meats, fish and cheeses are long-lasting and easy to incorporate into meals and snacks in the days to come. Fresh pasta dishes often suffer from being refrigerated and reheated – especially cream-based dishes. Most can be salvaged by turning into a pasta bake! Or how about recreating these deep-fried lasagne bites as featured at biodynamic wine bar and restaurant Bright, and as eaten by the domestic goddess herself, Nigella Lawson?! Slow-cooked casseroles, stews and curries, on the other hand, often taste even better in the following days for an easy weeknight dinner or microwaveable office lunch, plus they freeze well too. Identifying potential leftovers in advance and planning how to incorporate them in the following days ensures nothing goes to waste, plus it allows you to take a break from having to think about food once your host duties are over!

Sending guests home with leftovers can be an extension of generous hospitality whilst also ensuring you don’t end up with more spare food than you can manage. Tell guests in advance that there will be the option to take food home and encourage them to bring their own reusable containers. Alternatively, sustainable takeaway boxes such as the compostable packaging made out of seaweed from Notpla are ideal for packing up anything not-too-messy, such as leftover desserts or the remains of a cheeseboard.

The flowers

The floristry industry contributes heavily to single-use plastic waste from excess packaging, as well as organic waste from flowers that are discarded after events. There are also other issues relating to sustainability such as airfreight carbon emissions, the use of agrochemicals, and working conditions at farms in developing countries. We always recommend buying from companies that use as little plastic as possible and are committed to waste reduction and recyclability, focus on local, native varieties, and cut blooms to order, and that invest in sustainable practices such as using solar power, reducing their carbon footprint, and donating leftover flowers to good causes.

Bloom is the UK’s leading online florist where all products are 100% plastic-free, sustainably sourced from reputable growers, cut to order ensuring no wasted stems and delivered via a clean, green delivery service. After your event, we recommend sending flower arrangements home with your guests as a memento, or donating to Floral Angels – a 100% volunteer-run charity that recycles, restyles and delivers flowers to members of the community that could receive a lift by receiving flowers, such as people in hospices, care homes or hostels.

As an alternative to fresh flowers, we are huge fans of Pom Pom Factory – an East London paper florist specialising in hand-crafted eco-friendly floral designs that can be used time and time again.

The dress code

If BAFTA asked its guests to rewear existing outfits or hire as part of its sustainable fashion guidelines (take a look here!), then this is definitely something to consider for your next event.

Upcycling is the sustainable way to dress up – re-wearing, recycling, restyling, repairing, renting and borrowing are all ways to take existing clothing and transform it into something that feels new. The word ‘sustainable’ is ubiquitous in fashion marketing but is overused and misused to the point of becoming meaningless, so it is always important to do thorough research and critically evaluate any claims to sell sustainable fashion. (We highly recommending listening to Wardrobe Crisis with Clare Press – a fashion podcast about sustainability, ethical fashion and making a difference in the world to learn more!).

One designer we love in the realm of sustainable fashion is Freya Simonne – an upcycled brand with zero-waste making one-of-a-kind items from quilts, old duvets, fabrics and materials already in existence that no longer have a use. The iconic collection features shiny rainbow smock party dresses, vintage babydoll duvet dresses, exaggerated puff sleeves, quirky padded waistcoats, vintage floral fabrics and quilting galore. The range is available to rent from Hurr Collective and By Rotation, allowing you to stand out from the crowd wearing a one-of-a-kind dress at a fraction of the retail price, whilst also participating in a more sustainable and ethical clothing economy.

The gift policy

If you think it is likely that your guests will come bearing gifts, you may want to consider expressing a preference for ‘no gifts’. Many people believe it is important never to show up empty-handed. However, common gifts such as boxes of chocolates, fresh flowers and bottles of alcohol can contribute significantly to the waste and carbon footprint of your event – especially when they come elaborately wrapped with excess packaging, tissue paper, cards, gift bags, tags and more.

Having an open conversation with your guests about why you would prefer not to receive gifts because you are working to reduce your environmental impact is often the best way to communicate how much sustainability matters to you, and ensures your preferences are truly heard. Explaining to your guests that by not bringing a gift, they will be supporting you to live by your own values of sustainability goes a long way to alleviating any worries they may have about turning up empty-handed. It also helps to shape the cultural norms surrounding gifting and make people more aware of the environmental impact of their gifting habits. For the person who insists on bringing a gift, ask for a charitable donation or a non-material or zero-waste gift such as a plant (free from packaging!).

The last word

A zero-waste event is one without a lasting environmental impact. However it’s likely you are hoping to make a lasting impact on your guests – perhaps even inspiring them to host their own zero-waste event in the future. Consider providing your guests with a ‘cheat sheet’ of the zero-waste elements you incorporated in your event which will equip them to make environmentally-friendly choices and support the sustainable businesses you love. A zero-waste event is a great opportunity to open up the conversation around sustainability, but it’s also okay if you want to host a zero-waste event without drawing attention to the extra steps you have taken. At Social Pantry, we have made zero-waste the default and operate in a sustainable, zero-waste way regardless of whether it is the focus of an event. Actions speak louder than words and you don’t necessarily have to shout about what you’re doing – just doing it is enough!

We hope this guide provides you with lots of ideas, inspiration and tips for hosting your own zero-waste event. However, don’t forget that the Social Pantry team is always here to help you pull off an event in sustainable style. Please get in touch to discuss how we can help!