It all started because my pesky kids have birthdays 17 days apart. Faced with the prospect of buying and chucking two stacks of disposable plates, cups, and silverware, I hit on a new plan: I would head to the Salvation Army and stock up on cheap, unbreakable dishware that I could reuse for both parties. No guilt, no waste, no muss, no fuss.
One hour and about $20 later, I had a box of mismatched plates, miscellaneous forks, and random glasses and cups … and thus, Party Box was born. For such a simple concept that’s actually a great money-saver, I’m not sure why I didn’t think of this one sooner. But Party Box doesn’t just save ME money and help me keep trash out of the waste stream — it has done so at tens of parties of my friends. As soon as I started the box, I knew I would share it — and, because I have a close-knit group of environmentally conscious friends, the idea caught on in an instant. So Party Box goes camping. It goes to work functions; it comes to back-to-school events; and it has witnessed many a pinata-smashing. It’s one hard-working box.
Party Box comes fully stocked with plates, cups, silverware, napkins, and more. Credit: Carol Church.
On its first run, Party Box needed supplementing from my own cupboards. But, as soon as it started making the rounds to other people’s parties, other folks started adding to the box, from appetizer plates shaped like Hawaiian shirts (a gift from someone’s mother-in-law, naturally) to long-unused silverware sets that had sat in closets for years. Someone had the smart idea to pick up a dishwasher silverware organizer to hold the forks, knives, and spoons. A dish towel appeared. And duct tape, because, well, you never know.
Party Box has an extremely active social life — more active than my own, in fact. I often don’t know exactly where it is, and it sometimes goes to parties to which my family has not been invited. All this seems to be working out just fine. When someone needs the box, we just put out a Party Box APB, if you will. Though it nominally belongs to me, it doesn’t actually spend much time at my house, and I don’t feel much sense of ownership about it. Every once in a while, there are two people who want the box on the same weekend, but this has always worked out amicably.
The Party Box in action. Credit: Carol Church
It’s true that it’s a bit of a storage issue, but we make sure to buy only nonbreakable items. Everything is stored in a 25-gallon plastic storage bin with a lid, making it easy to move in and out of car trunks and garages. When it’s at my house, Party Box lives in a shed in my carport. It is not pampered. And, yes, you have to WASH those dishes … but everything goes in the dishwasher.
We keep saying that we’re going to put a little notebook into Party Box, so that the box can tell tales of where it’s been and what it’s done. I’m honestly not sure if anyone will ever get around to this, and it might get lost or misplaced anyway. Even if it never happens, though, when I look at Party Box, I remember birthday parties and camping trips gone by. I have a favorite weird mug (glitter green plastic with a cheesy dolphin) that I always try to drink out of. I see my daughter washing Hawaiian-shirt-shaped dishes in a bin of soapy water in the woods. Just try getting sentimental like that over a pile of dirty paper plates.
Kids help tidy up by washing Party Box's plates. Credit: Carol Church.
Party Box Tips and Tricks:
Mark all items, especially silverware; it’s easy to get them mixed up into people’s personal stuff. Nail polish works best.
Unbreakable items only, if you value your sanity.
Think stackable! This is especially important for cups.
You need lots of forks, lots of cups, and lots of small plates (for cake and appetizers). You don’t need many knives.
Extras that are nice to have: tablecloths, serving utensils, a few towels, something to keep the utensils in.
Buy used for the best prices and least environmental impact. Cups are the hardest and may need to be bought new.
Don’t forget to buy cloth napkins!
At times, you may need to supplement with disposables … but, if you put them out, people will ALWAYS use them first. If you prefer they not be used, monitor the table and only put out the ‘sposies as needed.
It’s a good idea to have two bins. When the dishes are clean, store the bin with the dishes inside the empty one. At the party, put the extra bin out with a sign on it that says “Dirty Dishes.”
It’s also awesome to have a compost bin out and available for people to scrape leftovers into, if that is an option for you.
A glitter green dolphin mug, the key to saving the planet and building community. Credit: Carol Church.