Written by Grove Collaborative

How to throw a sustainable outdoor party, picnic, or barbecue.

Last Updated: September 24, 2020


These easy-to-follow tips will make transforming your next outdoor soiree into a sustainable feast feel like a walk in the park.

The word “summer” generally goes hand in hand with classic warm-weather staples: sandy days on the beach, cool-offs by the pool, gatherings around the grill, and … masked meetups? Sure, our summer parties may look a little different this year as Americans continue to practice social distancing, but some states and counties are loosening restrictions around safely gathering outside. Many local and national parks are open for business again, and more celebrations are moving out of the backyard and into these wider, more open spaces.

And while the COVID-19 pandemic made it harder to be our peak sustainable selves — no bringing reusable bags to the grocery or reusable cups for curbside coffee — this summer’s outdoor gatherings are an easy place to flex a little eco-friendly muscle. From Fourth of July celebrations to Labor Day hangouts, there are plenty of opportunities to throw together a party that keeps sustainability at the forefront — without sacrificing the fun.

It’s often easier to throw an eco-friendly picnic or BBQ at home, but when you take the party on the road, it can be a little trickier to make choices that are good for the environment. Planning ahead, keeping things simple, and choosing sustainable supplies are surefire ways to make your summer picnics as eco-friendly as possible. Here, we break down different ways to reduce the impact of your party on the environment, from sustainably sourced food to plastic-free packaging, eco-conscious grilling, and more.


Food & Drink

Sustainable swaps for eco-friendly eats

A picnic or barbecue starts with the food, and while it’s easy to let your imagination run wild with menu planning and flavor pairings, your food choices are the first step in transitioning to a more sustainable soiree. The production of food has a profound impact on the environment, to the tune of around 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In general, the more processed and packaged a food is, the bigger its environmental impact. These simple tips will help you fill up your picnic guests with earth-friendly food.

Rethink the meat

Recent research finds that processed and unprocessed red meat — pork, beef, lamb, and goat — has the highest environmental impact out of 15 common food groups. While going meatless is ideal, you certainly don’t have to banish meat from your picnic to reduce your party’s carbon footprint — especially if you have some die-hard carnivores in your midst.

  • Choose locally raised meats. Bonus points if you can purchase the meat directly from the farm: The shorter the distance it has to travel to get into your hands, the better.
  • Opt for organic. Certified organic meat is raised in a more humane environment without growth hormones or antibiotics.
  • Use less. Instead of grilling up a mixed-meat smorgasbord, keep it to one meat item, and supplement with lots of seasonal salads, grilled veggies, and a mess of sweet ’n’ smoky beans.

Purchase the right produce

Organic farming practices reduce non-renewable energy use, lessen groundwater pollution, and promote biodiversity. Organically grown food is better for your body, too. Here’s how to responsibly buy produce.

  • Hit the farmer’s market. Buying produce from local farmers cuts out the transportation factor.
  • Buy in bulk. Buying produce in bulk means less packaging, and it’s generally less expensive.
  • Ditch the plastic bags. Even if you buy your produce at the supermarket, you can reduce its impact by eschewing plastic produce bags or reusing your old ones.

Drink sustainably

Americans throw away more than 70 million plastic water and soda bottles every single day, and around 60 million of those end up in landfills and incinerators. Here’s how to hydrate without contributing to land, air, and water pollution.

  • Pass on the plastic. Aluminum cans are better than plastic bottles when it comes to serving sodas.
  • Hydrate in bulk. Instead of serving drinks in individual containers, fill large beverage coolers with ice-cold water, tea, or lemonade.
  • Choose kegs over cases. If you’re serving beer at your picnic, consider growlers instead of cans or bottles. Even better, get your keg from a local brewery.

Grove Tip

BYOC (bring your own cup)

Purchase cups that can be recycled or composted. Better yet, ask your guests to bring their own drinkware. Skip the straws, or opt for silicone, glass, or bamboo straws instead of the plastic variety.

Food Storage & Packing

Packing the picnic

Food packaging, including the packing up we do at home, has a hefty impact on the environment. Plastic wraps are made of PVDC, PVC, and polyethylene, which are costly to recycle and clog machines. When plastic wrap is sent to the landfill, it releases highly toxic dioxin into the environment. According to National Geographic, Americans buy enough plastic film each year to shrink-wrap Texas. Try these alternatives instead.

Bee’s Wrap

Reusable, biodegradable, and compostable, Bee’s Wrap is made in the USA and replaces the need for plastic wrap. Cover a bowl of fruit salad, or wrap up some hoagies—the strong seal won’t budge. Bee’s Wraps last for about one year.

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If You Care 100% Recycled Aluminum Foil

Aluminum mining and standard foil manufacturing are energy-intensive processes, but If You Care Aluminum Foil uses 95 percent less energy to produce. Made from 100-percent recycled aluminum, this foil can be recycled over and over again.

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BioBag Resealable Bag Set

Zipper-sealed bags are invaluable for transporting food, but recycling them usually requires a special trip. BioBag Resealable Bags are made from plant-based materials that are compostable and biodegradable, suitable for your compost bin.

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If You Care Paper Snack & Sandwich Bags

If you’re serving up sandwiches for a traditional picnic, seal them in these If You Care Paper Snack & Sandwich Bags — they’re unbleached, uncoated, and untreated. Grease-proof and biodegradable, they’re also great for packing chips, cookies, and nuts.

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Deciphering product labels: What’s the difference?

Biodegradable

Biodegradable products break down in the environment, turning into basic components like carbon dioxide, water, and biomass. Although almost everything will eventually break down — even if it takes hundreds or thousands of years — it’s understood that calling a product “biodegradable” means that it will biodegrade within a reasonable amount of time. The landfill doesn’t have the right conditions for breaking down these products, so it’s always best to toss them in your compost bin whenever possible.

Compostable

Compostable products are, by nature, biodegradable, but they’re designed to break down in a specific composting environment, where they become nutrient-dense compost for the garden. Your backyard compost doesn’t get hot enough to break down most compostable products, but if your city has a composting facility, it’ll take about 90 days for compostables to decompose. Compostable products are not recyclable.

Recyclable

Recyclable materials can be turned into new items. Aluminum, glass, paper, and certain plastics are the most commonly used recyclable materials. Recyclable plastics are labeled with a number (one through seven) that corresponds with the type of plastic and the recycling process it requires. Not all recycling companies will accept all plastics, so ask about their policies.

Reusable

Reusable products aren’t necessarily biodegradable or recyclable, unless they’re labeled as such. In many cases, products that are reusable, such as plastic plates or canvas shopping bags, take more energy and resources to produce than biodegradable, recyclable, or compostable materials. The key to “breaking even” is to get as much use out of your reusable items as possible.

Grilling & Cooking

The lowdown on charcoal

If your picnic outing involves grilling, you’ll probably be using an on-site charcoal grill. Unfortunately, charcoal grilling releases up to 11 pounds of carbon dioxide into the environment per hour, compared with just 5.6 pounds for a propane grill. Lighter fluids, too, are rife with volatile organic compounds and can alter the taste of your food. Try these eco-friendly alternatives to standard charcoal and lighter fluid.

Natural charcoal

The main problem with charcoal briquettes is the toxic additives, such as coal, sodium nitrate, and borax. Choose a natural charcoal that doesn’t have these and other additives. Charcoals certified by the Forest Stewardship Council come from sustainable timber operations.

Charcoal chimney

A charcoal chimney replaces lighter fluid and consists of an open-ended metal cylinder with a handle. To use it, place the charcoal on the grate inside the chimney, and start a small fire at the bottom of the cylinder. The charcoal will light from the bottom up. When it’s ready, carefully pour it into the grill.

Electric charcoal starter

An electric charcoal starter is faster and safer than a chimney. Hot coil starters have a heat-resistant handle on one end and an electric coil at the other. Stack the charcoal up, insert the coil in the middle, and turn it on. The charcoal should be ready in around eight minutes.

Grove Tip

Grilling before and afters

Pre-grilling: Pack a wire brush and a paste of baking soda and water to scrub the park grill.
Post-grilling: Put the fire out with water as soon as you’re finished cooking to reduce emissions.

Serving & Utensils

Dig in guilt-free

A picnic can quickly go from eco-friendly feast to environmental nightmare when you pull out the disposable tableware. Plastic plates, utensils, and cups that end up in the landfill may take lifetimes to decompose, and they leach chemicals into the ground when they do. While bringing reusable plates, cutlery, and cloth napkins from home will get you the most sustainability points, we know circumstances and storage don’t always make that a possibility. Here are some sustainable swaps for traditional picnic disposables.

Grove Collaborative Hydrating Hand Sanitizer

Your picnic site may not have a suitable place to wash up before the feast, so bring along this Grove Collaborative hand sanitizer spray, which kills 99.9 percent of germs. Made with moisturizing coconut oil and pure essential oils, it has a soothing lavender scent.

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Tree-Free Napkins

These Tree-free napkins are made from sugarcane and bamboo, which are sustainable resources. They’re fragrance- and dye-free, making them great for sensitive skin. Biodegradable and compostable, these soft and absorbent napkins serve as a solid alternative to conventional paper napkins if you’re looking for a single-use alternative.

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Grove Collaborative Compostable Cutlery

Strong, heat-tolerant, and petroleum-free, this compostable cutlery is made with sustainable materials and comes in responsible packaging. But you don’t have to give up on them after one picnic. Take them home to wash and reuse.

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Grove Tip

Aim for a zero-waste party

“If you buy compostable plates, cups, and utensils, then everything from your barbecue or picnic can be composted, making it a zero-waste outing!” says Grove Director of Sustainability Danielle Jezienicki. “You can shop Grove’s compostable bags, too.”

Clean Up

Post picnic to-dos

Like most forays into nature, leaving the spot better than you found it is the golden rule, and you should strive to pack out everything you brought with you to your picnic or grilling party. If you’re in a region of the U.S. that has been slower to reopen, consider also packing out your trash, as facility maintenance may be limited. Luckily, cleaning up after your picnic is easy as pie with these Grove favorites.

Seedling by Grove Tree-Free Bamboo Paper Towels

These paper towels are made from 100-percent sustainable bamboo, making them a more environmentally friendly option than conventional paper towels. The super-absorbent 2-play sheets require less roll for wiping up messes, and serve as a sustainable swap for jobs where cloth towels just won't cut it.

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Grove Collaborative 100% Recycled Trash Bags

Dispose of your picnic trash responsibly with these trash bags, made in the USA with 100-percent post-consumer recycled plastic. These trash bags are strong and durable and contain no new plastic. Minimal packaging further reduces their carbon footprint.

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BioBag Pet Waste Compost Bags

If a furry companion is included in your picnic plans, bring along a few BioBag Pet Waste Bags to clean up after him or her. These bags are super sturdy and made from plant-based materials that are compostable and biodegradable.

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Other Picnic Must-Haves

Sustainable safety

Don’t forget these picnic essentials that’ll keep you safe and comfortable all day long. These outdoor must-haves protect your family from the sun and pesky insects, ensuring a carefree outing you won't be recovering from for days afterwards.

Babo Botanicals Spray Sunscreen

Protect yourself from the sun with this fragrance-free sunscreen, made with zinc oxide and organic plant extracts that are gentle enough for sensitive skin. Made in the USA, this SPF 30 sunscreen offers broad-spectrum protection and is never tested on animals.

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Murphy’s Naturals Mosquito Repellent Stick

Keep the mosquitos at bay all day with Murphy’s Naturals Mosquito Repellent Stick, which comes in a travel size that’s perfect for tossing in a bag. Apple the DEET-free and plant-based stick to exposed areas of skin for on-the-go mosquito protection.

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Badger Balm After-Bug Balm

No matter what precautions you take during your picnic, chances are, you’ll end up with an insect bite or two. Bring along this soothing balm to end the itch and find relief. Made with colloidal oatmeal and menthol, it’s doctor-approved and hypoallergenic.

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Looking for more entertaining how-tos and other sustainable swaps you can make at home? Grove has you covered. From timely topics such as our natural sunscreen breakdown to evergreen primers like our simple ways to reduce your plastic use at home, our handy guides are here to answer your most pressing questions. And let us know how if you have any sustainable entertaining questions (or share your own tips using #grovehome) by following Grove Collaborative on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

If you're ready to celebrate summer, shop Grove Collaborative's paper products and pantry essentials for eco-friendly items and sustainable summer swaps.

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Shop picnic supplies

4 tips for a zero-waste picnic

1. Forego the forks. Serve up finger foods like sandwiches, nuts, and fruit kebabs so you can skip the utensils altogether.
2. Pack real plates. Bring reusable plastic or tin plates from home.
3. Nix the paper napkins. Pack a stack of cloth napkins for guests to use.
4. Cover the table in fabric. Don’t buy a plastic tablecloth. Instead, cover the table in flat sheets, which you can get for a song at your local thrift store.

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