10 Tips for a Zero-Waste Wedding
Updated: Feb 25
From the moment we become engaged, we suddenly find ourselves subjected to the wedding industry's ideals and all of the things we "should" do and have. Planning a wedding is overwhelming, even without the added layer of eco-consciousness and having to filter through everything to figure out what is and isn't eco-friendly. I assure you, though, it does not have to be that way - In this post, I will break down the main parts of a wedding and focus on what to consider to keep your wedding eco-friendly. Take a deep breath - we've got this!
Since the vast majority of our family and friends live in New York, when my husband and I were planning our wedding, we decided to get married where we grew up, on Long Island, instead of where we live in North Carolina. This kept travel emissions to a minimum, as fewer people had to drive or fly long distances to attend our wedding. It also meant that our wedding would be less of a financial strain on our guests.
This is the true first step in planning a wedding. Before you can choose a venue or a date, you must decide on a general location: this might be the area in which you are living now, it might be a fun destination such as Italy or Greece, it might be your hometown, or it might be Vegas! Once you have decided on this, you can start putting the other pieces of the puzzle together.
1. Choosing a Venue & Caterer
This is typically your first decision in planning your wedding, as the availability of the venue can dictate your wedding date. Look for a venue and caterer that will accommodate eco-friendly requests, such as not using plastic straws or stirrers, and collecting food scraps to be composted.
If you have the flexibility to choose a third party caterer, search for one that uses locally-sourced and seasonal food, offers some (or all) vegan menu options, uses reusable and/or compostable serving-ware, and composts their prep scraps! Also, discuss food surplus with your caterer and ask them not to prepare an overabundance that will ultimately go to waste.
To keep things simple, since we were planning from a distance, we chose a banquet catering hall for our venue. We provided them with paper straws and wooden stirrers to avoid the use of plastic. They worked with us to compost organic waste through a third-party compost collection company. There was definitely a surplus of food, and our menu was not locally sourced nor predominantly vegan, but did we ensure that there were vegan and vegetarian options available to our guests and we were careful to choose items we knew our family would eat and enjoy.
2. Waste Management
I know what you're thinking - "if it's a zero-waste wedding, why is there a need to manage the waste?" Well, at any event, there will be "waste," or discarded items, and we want to ensure that those items are going to the right places and not to the landfill or incinerator.
Ask your venue or caterer if they recycle the empty bottles and cans from beverages. If they do not, make sure they'd be willing to collect them for you to recycle on your own.
If your venue or caterer does not already compost food scraps and such, make sure they would at least be willing to do so for your event. Search for local compost collection companies or drop-off sites in your area. If none exist near you, check out ShareWaste to see if you can find someone with a compost pile nearby who would welcome your scraps. (Keep in mind that this would likely mean separating out meat and dairy scraps).
Our venue sent empty bottles back to the distributor, and we used Vokashi, a Brooklyn-based composting company.
There is a lot of paper involved in weddings: save-the-date cards, elaborate invitations complete with additional reception and RSVP cards, ceremony programs, seating cards, menus, thank you cards, etc.
First, minimize by asking yourself the following questions:
Is this necessary?
Can it be replaced digitally?
If printing, can it be simplified to use less paper?
Next, consider where to source printed items and look for recycled/recyclable paper and natural inks, such as soy.
We sent our save-the-date cards digitally through Paperless Post, and utilized our wedding website for sending out information about the ceremony, and relied on the digital RSVP feature. Our invitations were one simple card, with the Church, reception, and RSVP information printed on it. We made a seating chart grouped by table to use less paper. Our thank-you cards and invitations were printed on recycled paper with soy ink from Forever Fiances.
In an effort to reduce emissions associated with your big day, you may want to consider how you, your bridal party, and your guests are getting to your event. Firstly, if the majority of your guests live in the same state or area, it may be worth considering planning your wedding to be where everyone else is rather than requiring the majority to travel and find lodging. If not, it would help to offset some of the travel emissions by purchasing carbon offsets from a reputable company (a few of my favorites are Terra Pass, Cool Effect, and Native Energy). We dedicated a section of our wedding website to explaining to our guests that for less than $3 per person on average, they can offset their travel emissions! We also purchased carbon offsets ourselves to help mitigate the things we had less control over.
It helps if your ceremony location and reception venue are in the same place or not far from one another, and additionally, you might want to look into carpooling with your bridal party rather than having a separate getaway car for the bride and groom. Even better, if you are able to find an energy efficient vehicle to transport all of you! Lastly, if your venue partners with a nearby hotel, encourage out of town guests to utilize the shuttle service, if available!
As mentioned earlier, we opted to have our wedding in our hometown because far fewer people would need to travel and find lodging accommodations. For our day-of transportation, we hired one limo to bring the groom and groomsmen to the Church, then bring the bride and bridesmaids to the Church, and then bring both the bride, groom, and entire bridal party to the reception venue five minutes away. Everyone found alternate transportation home.
It can be very easy to get caught up and start adding items to your wedding registry left and right. Suddenly you're like a kid in a candy store, scanning anything and everything that grabs your attention! I strongly encourage you to resist the urge. Sit with your partner and really think about what you already have and what you truly need. Many couples today already have basic housewares. Avoid upgrading just for the sake of upgrading! I also suggest steering away from big retail department store registries. Instead, opt for an alternative registry where you can list more than just material items, such as charitable donations, contributions to your honeymoon, etc. Some examples are SoKind Registry, HoneyFund, and Zola.
We opted not to have a bridal shower, and physical gifts are not common at Long Island weddings, but we knew that some guests might prefer to purchase something off of a registry. With that in mind, we created a very small SoKind Registry where we listed a few items that we truly needed or wanted, and were able to specify if we would like an item to be homemade, or purchased second hand instead of new. We also added charitable donations, carbon offsets, and contributions to our Future Fund as additional options.
6. Decor & Floral Arrangements
When choosing floral decor for your wedding, you will first need to decide if you would like real flowers or faux flowers. There are pros and cons to both! If opting for real flowers, look to source in-season, preferably native, flowers from a local nursery in order to reduce transportation emissions. Talk with your florist and request that they do not use plastic or floral foam in transporting or putting together your arrangements.
If faux flowers are more suitable to you, I highly recommend sola wood flowers. Sola wood is a byproduct of the tapioca plant, and sola wood flowers look very realistic! Granted, not all of the components of sola wood floral arrangements are natural and biodegradable, but the biggest benefit is that they are reusable! Your guests can take them home to display, or you can sell them to be used in another event after your wedding! The best part is that you can display your wedding bouquet and continue receiving joy from it long after your big day!
For non-floral decor items, such as signage, trays, or table numbers, look for items that are reusable, and either rent or purchase second hand. Check online buy/sell sites such as Facebook Marketplace, LetGo, Craigslist, etc. and you will see that numerous couples look to sell decor and other items that are left over from their wedding! If you need to rent tables, chairs, and linens for your wedding, search wedding websites such as The Knot and Wedding Wire to find rental companies local to your area!
In an effort to reduce the level of long-distance coordination, we kept our floral needs minimal and opted for sola wood flowers for our wedding. For our centerpieces, we opted for small bouquets in thrifted vases on thrifted trays - our guests were amazed that they weren't real flowers, and happily argued with one another over who got to bring them home! My bridal bouquet is displayed on my dresser where I can see it every day, and it brings me so much joy! Any floral pieces that were left over, we sold so that someone else could give them another life. We found our card cage, seating chart, centerpiece components, sweetheart table decor, and more by scouring buy/sell website and thrift stores. Afterwards, we resold the vast majority of our decor, and reused some items in our friends' wedding a few months later!
The fashion industry is very resource intensive, and has many negative effects on the environment and human health. "The average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year." (The True Cost). So, of course, it wouldn't be very environmentally friendly to buy a beautiful, lavish gown only for it to be worn one time. If it is important to you that you purchase your dress brand new, consider finding one from a sustainable fashion designer. Otherwise, there are plenty of options for a previously-loved dress! Borrow or refashion a dress from a friend or family member, or purchase a secondhand dress from a thrift or consignment shop, buy/sell website, or PreOwnedWeddingDresses.com!
For your bridal party, rent, if possible, or shop second hand! If you have a specific designer, color, or style in mind, it is entirely possible for your bridesmaids to find their dresses second hand on Poshmark, Ebay, or other buy/sell websites! For the groomsmen, it's even easier because renting tuxedos is extremely common! Also, encourage your parents and guests to rewear something in their closet, borrow from a friend, or rent an outfit from places like Rent The Runway!
I purchased my dress secondhand from PreOwnedWeddingDresses.com, and my bridesmaids purchased their matching dresses secondhand between Poshmark and Ebay! The groomsmen rented their tuxedos from Men's Warehouse. We even a had a section about attire on our wedding website, where we encouraged guests to rewear something they already own instead of purchasing a brand new outfit to wear on our big day!
Be intentional about mementos and keepsakes from the very start of the planning process. When it comes to weddings (and children), anything and everything can become precious! If you are a very sentimental person, such as myself, even if you plan out your keepsakes, you will still likely find yourself holding onto more items than you'd intended, so it's best to reduce from the get-go. Avoid personalization and customization. This makes it very difficult to rehome an item down the line when it no longer fits into your lifestyle, and it also makes you feel more connected to the item. I will be the first to admit that personalized items are cute and trendy! Believe me, I do see the appeal, but the more you have personalized, the more you are likely to hold onto. You don't want your home to be a shrine to this one day - you want to leave space to fill it with the life you're about to start!
Despite all of our intention surrounding mementos, we still hung onto a fair amount of additional items from our big day. We had planned on keeping my bouquet, making a photo album, and keeping the ceremonial items. However, I decided to hold onto my wedding dress, veil, hair comb, and jewelry in case either of our sisters would like them, or a future daughter or niece. While I generally try to abide by The Minimalists' "just for when, not just in case" rule, there are some items you simply cannot get back. Fortunately, the smaller items all fit nicely in a slender box in the closet.
More often than not, guests leave wedding favors behind. This is not only a waste of time and money, but now you're tasked with figuring out what to do with 60 pint glasses with your names on them! Nowadays, many couples are doing away with wedding favors altogether, opting instead to donate to a charity or cause that they care about. If you do wish to give a physical wedding favor, however, do so with intention. Ask yourself how likely it is that the majority of your guests will find value in the item that you are gifting them. Avoid personalizing favors, as this makes it difficult to re-home if the item does not bring your guest value or does not fit into their life. A few ideas include: little jars of honey or olive oil, succulents, wildflower seeds, etc.
The tradition of giving guests little sachets of odd-numbered jordan almonds is rooted in beautiful symbolism, but unfortunately most of these almonds end up being wasted - guests either love them or hate them! If you do not think they will be missed, then I suggest doing without them. Otherwise, my advice would be to source your almonds package-free or from a large package and to avoid synthetic or new material for the sachets.
In lieu of favors, we donated to an animal shelter and purchased carbon offsets for our big day. We did, however, have little sachets of almonds at each place, but with a twist! We alternated each place setting with jordan almonds and chocolate-covered almonds so that guests could trade with one another according to their preferences! We purchased the almonds from the bulk section (they weren't all white, but they were more festive that way!) The sachets were made from lace leftover from an old project, and they were tied with ribbon I found at the thrift store.
It is customary to present your parents and bridal party with a gift in thanks for all of their help and support, and for taking on certain financial responsibilities. These gifts, however, do not need to be as elaborate as the wedding industry will have you believe. Choose items that are meaningful, that you know will be used and valued, and avoid personalization. Personalized robes are cute and trendy, but if a bridesmaid is in multiple weddings, they could wind up with more than one robe with their name on it that they honestly might never even use after your wedding photos, and things with our names on them are a bit tougher to sell or give away. There are also many items marketed as "mother/father of the bride/groom" gifts that, frankly, your parents may not actually want, or they might only hold onto out of sentiment. You know your parents - you know their tastes, their styles, and their preferences. Use that and look beyond the marketing tactics to find something meaningful for your loved ones.
For my bridesmaids, I put together gift boxes containing a pouch made of upcycled upholstery, which included a set of recycled silver jewelry, an essential oil roll-on fragrance, a folding metal spork, and a knotted keychain made from salvaged ghost nets. For our parents, we decided to take care of putting together their most important sentimental item, their photo albums.
I hope this post has helped to boost your confidence and motivation in planning a traditional wedding without the waste! Of course, if you are looking for some one-on-one, customized assistance and guidance in planning your wedding or event, please book a consultation! I would love to help you through this journey!
What creative means are you using to keep your event eco-friendly?
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