Resource Guides, Zero Waste Living

6 Tips for a Zero Waste Picnic and BBQ (with an itemized checklist)

Ahh, summer in the northern hemisphere. Sun, blue skies, and picnics/BBQs. And I’m going to guess, if you’re like my family, and since COVID, we’ve been having a lot more (socially distanced) picnics and BBQs with family and friends – as that’s one way we can all get together safely.

However, not only are picnics and BBQs fun for getting together with family and friends, playing games, talking, and just enjoying each other’s company, they can also be big waste producers (much of which can end up as litter). Not judging, just stating an observation. Have you noticed this too?

Think: single use paper plates, silverware, cups, food packaging, plastic water bottles, and more.

The good news is that any future picnics and BBQ you have or attend can be great opportunities to not only reduce waste, but also open the door for conversations with those who may not be familiar with zero waste/low waste living.

Obligatory disclaimer: do what you can in the season of life that you are in. If you’re new to implementing low/zero waste, don’t try to do everything all at once. Cue major overwhelm and burnout (I speak from experience). Pick a couple of items from the list of tips below, and see how they go. After you’re comfortable with those, add in a couple more.

Additionally, utilize the resources and items you already have at home. You don’t need to run out and purchase a bunch of things in order to be zero waste. Reuse and repurpose. It will not only save you money, but reduce waste.

IF you do need to buy something, try to puchase from a small BIPOC and/or women owned business. I’ve included a link to some of my favorite products from such places in the checklist.

To help you plan a zero waste picnic and BBQ, I have provided the following tips, and broken each tip down into ‘if you’re attending’ or ‘if you’re hosting’ so you can get information that applies to your situation directly.

I want to be clear that none of the following comes out of judgement. I talk a lot about avoiding single use items, and that is not out of judging those who use them. We are all at different places in our journey, and some haven’t even started (and don’t want to). And that’s OK. These tips are specifically for those who want to learn how to reduce waste.

These tips also list out the best case scenario in a situtaion. Privilege allows us to do all of the following, but please know that some of these things may not be available or reasonable for you or someone else. Again – no judgement.

Additionally, I’ve provided a list of things that you can utilize that I’ve found particularly helpful for zero waste picnics and BBQs. I included this in case you’re a list person like I am.

6 tips for a zero waste picnic and BBQ


If you’re attending:

If you’re attending a zero waste picnic and BBQ, it may feel awkward to bring your own reusable dishes under normal circumstances. I remember the first time I did to a picnic, I felt really uncomfortable while everyone else was using disposable. But you know what? No one said anything. The other thing to consider is who you may be inspiring!

During COVID times, you may be having more socially distanced picnics and BBQs where everyone is bringing their own stuff. Use this as an opportunity to start bringing your own reusable dishes and encourage others to do the same.

You can also plan to bring a container for compost and recycling in case you’re meeting at a park or somewhere that may not have the option. Communicating ahead of time can let the other attendees know up front that the option will exist, so they can plan ahead.

If you’re hosting:

If you feel up for it, let your guests know what they can expect when they come over (in terms of trying to reduce waste). Suggest if they are able, to bring food in reusable containers, etc.

However, communication becomes especially important during the event. If you want guests to compost food scraps, make the compost bin prominent, and even consider making a sign letting people know what can and can’t go in it. Same with recycling. You get the idea.


If you’re attending:

Bring your own reusable water bottle for yourself and your family so you’ll always have something to drink no matter what is offered. If you do end up consuming a beverage in a single use bottle/can, plan to bring it home to recycle if the host doesn’t have that option.

Additionally, if you bring a beverage in a can/bottle, just plan on bringing it home with you to recycle. If the host or location has a recycling option, great! If not? You’re already prepared.

If you’re hosting:

Look for drink options that can easily be recycled such as aluminum cans and glass. While plastic can be recycled, most of the time it doesn’t end up recycled, and it has such a limited lifespan that eventually it ends up in the trash. Products like aluminum and glass can be recycled into a variety of other items indefinitely.

Another thing you can do, especially if you’re hosting a potluck, is to encourage guests to bring their own reusable water bottle. You can plan to have a few other options in case someone forgets that fall into the tip above.

Another option is to have a large pitcher (or a few) of water with reusable cups. If you don’t have enough, ask friends and family to bring extra pitchers/cups (or borrow them beforehand), or look at your local second-hand store. To make it even more fun, you can explore different kinds of flavored water. Citrus slices, mint, cucumbers, and herbs all make yummy water.

Plates, napkins, silverware

If you’re attending:

Plan to bring your own. Feel uncomfortable about it? Use it as an opportunity to talk with others about the benefits of zero waste and using reusables. Honestly though, most people won’t give it a second glance.

You can use what you have at home, but there are also cute zero waste cutlery kits you can get from small businesses, if it will help you feel more comfortable. I have one from Beego Handmade (a woman-run company).

If the zero waste picnic and BBQ is at someone’s house, and the host is using reusable dishes, offer to help the host clean up (see below). Or if you’re close with the host, ask if they’d be willing to use reusable dishes instead of disposable if you helped them wash up afterwards.

If you’re hosting:

I’m sure I’m going to get some eye rolls with this one, but hear me out. Tell your friends you’re hosting a zero waste picnic or BBQ and encourage them to bring their own (have a few back-ups on hand just in case someone missed the memo).

Or, if you are hosting a smaller group, use the reusable plates you have at home. Yes, it might mean a little more work, but hopefully, you have awesome friends/family who are willing to help you clean up.

Another tips is to put a large bucket near the sink inside or near the picnic table/blanket outside with hot, soapy water. Encourage people put their dishes right into the bucket and/or wash their own dishes right away! Most people would be more than happy to help.

Napkins: paper napkins can be composted, so if you do compost that is an option. Otherwise, again, reusables (I saw somewhere that people have used an upcycled old sheet to make a bunch of cloth napkins for a party), encouraging others to bring their own, etc. Have a small bucket (labeled) for the napkins near the trash/recycle/compost bins. After the party, just throw them all in the wash right away!

If you really want to use disposable, there are disposable compostable cups, plates, and silverware. However, if not composted (instead thrown away), it can still take over 100 years for the product to break down in a landfill.  Additionally, some only break down in an industrial composter vs. a backyard one. I would only recommend this option if you plan on composting the products. Remember, we are trying to reduce overall waste!

Community Dish Share

Side but related note: There is a very new movement taking place where you can rent a set of community dishes for free. At the time of this posting, COVID is very much still happening, so that may not be applicable at this point. However, I’m throwing it out there for you to look into just in case.

If you’re in the Twin Cities (Minnesota) area, there are at least two free community dish rentals. You can find more information in my zero waste Twin Cities post here.

Otherwise, I would suggest doing an Ecosia search in your area to see what comes up.

If you want to learn more about what community dishes are, check out this post here from Treading my Own Path.


If you’re attending:

If you’re bringing a dish to share, bring it in a reusable container with a reusable utensil (and a reusable food cover if you’re going to be outside – beeswax wraps are a great option, see list below). Additionally, if you are able, opt for recipes that use whole foods (less waste than convenience foods). Garden or farmer’s market produce is best.

Once you’re at your location, ask about composting options, or bring a container with to bring home any food/other compostable items. Be prepared with a bag or container for trash and recycling as well – especially if you’re at a park.

Finally, and this is just good manners, offer to help the host clean up (see below).

If you’re meeting somewhere that everyone is bringing their own food, opt for packing food in reusable containers (bonus, the containers can be used for leftovers or trash/recycling/composting after).

Related post: How to reduce food waste at home (plus save money)

If you’re hosting:

If guests are bringing things to share, encourage others to bring food in a reusable container with a reusable utensil (and a reusable food cover if you’re going to be outside).

If you’re planning on providing all the food, use reusable food containers and utensils. Ask for some help cleaning up (seriously, people WANT to help).

Additionally, take advantage of all the fresh produce/farmers markets/gardens this time of year and base your picnic/BBQ menu around whole foods. Whole foods = less packaging = less waste = tastes WAY better!

Better yet, offer a delicious menu (or ask guests to bring certain items on said menu) of hor devours and finger foods which would require less cutlery and plates altogether.

If you compost, make a labeled compost bin for guests to properly dispose of their food waste. Use it as an opportunity to educate others about composting.

Plan on making a ton of food? Have a plan in place for how you are going to use up leftovers. For example, planning to send food home with others? Put the food in a reusable container or ask guests to bring their own. Otherwise, plan some meals for the week after the picnic/BBQ to use up any leftovers if you know you will have some.  

Need to keep food cold? Use reusable ice packs! Ask friends and family to bring some extra if you need.

Related post: The Ultimate Guide to Composting (in Any Sized Space)

Miscellaneous Tips

Plan to use what you already own. You don’t need to go out and buy a bunch of new reusable items in order to attend or host a zero waste picnic or BBQ. You likely already have a lot of items on hand that you can repurpose or reuse.

Additionally, go in knowing that your party may not end up being fully zero waste. And that’s OK. We are all learning and doing our best, and sometimes that involves waste. As I said at the beginning, do the best you can in the season of life that you are in, and you’re already doing great!

Finally, whereever you go, practice ‘leave no trace’ and leave an area better than you found it (bring a bag for any trash/litter you find).

Related post: Plogging: What it is and how it can help the earth and your anxiety

Itemized zero waste picnic and BBQ checklist

I’m a list person – I can’t help it. If you’re like me and like a good list, this is for you. This list can also be good for packing meals/snacks for road trips (short or long), in addition to zero waste picnic and BBQs.

This list could also be a spark of ideas of gifts for someone in your life, or for you to give for someone for ideas.

  • Beeswax wraps – buy or make your own (you can find vegan ones here) for food storage or bringing home leftovers

  • Reusable containers (jars, old take out containers). Use what you already have, but for fun, check out this BEAUTIFUL container.

  • Reusable water bottles

  • Reusable dishes (or plastic ones you’re still using up).

  • Reusable silverware and utensils (or plastic ones you’re still using up from home). You can use a bag/container for storing, or these cute reusable cutlery bags. I found some secondhand that I just keep in the cutlery bag.

  • Compostable dishes if reusable is not an option (with access to an industrial composter)

  • Container for bringing compostable materials and recyclables back home with you (if you don’t think you’ll have leftovers you can pack this stuff in your reusable containers)

  • Reusable snack bags (for food storage, bringing home leftovers, or bringing home garbage/compostable materials/litter). I love these and these. You can also wash and reuse plastic bags – whether ziploc or items like bread bags (something my family and I also do)

  • Food

  • Reusable ice packs/cooler to keep food fresh

  • Drinks

  • Condiments

  • Spices (salt/pepper)

  • Bag/basket (I use a reusable grocery bag, but you may be able to find some cute baskets secondhand if you don’t own one already)

  • Blanket

  • Chairs

  • Bag or container for any litter you may find

  • Unpaper towels for cleanup (can just use old cut up towels or clothes too)

  • Cloth napkins (or plastic/disposable ones you’re still using up)

  • A wet bag for any dirty napkins or unpaper towels (I have one from this women-run business and love it)

  • Bug spray 

  • Sunscreen

  • Games

  • Music

What is your favorite way to reduce waste during a BBQ/picnic?

Want to learn how to adopt a reduction based lifestyle (through mindfulness, minimalism, anxiety management, and zero waste living but not sure where to start?

Take the quiz and find out!