By Laurèn DeMates.
Weddings are inherently wasteful, so I knew it was going to take some work to have a sustainable wedding. Reading through some how-to lists and thinking about the handful of zero-waste events (90% diverted from the landfill) I’ve attended over the years, I realized that I needed to go further to feel comfortable having a wedding. I accepted early on that some environmental footprint is unavoidable but worked to minimize the overall waste created through the decisions I made along the way. Weddings are so personal that tips may not work for everyone but here’s guidance from my sustainable Texas wedding (if you can do it here, you can do it anywhere!) including what worked and lessons learned:
Venue: Find an eco-friendly one, onsite lodging ideal
This is the most important decision that can support or hinder a sustainable wedding. We chose The Cedars Ranch in the Texas Hill Country specifically because they walk the talk (e.g. waste, water, energy-efficient practices, solar, recycling, compost, native plants, etc.). If the venue doesn’t have sustainable practices in place it will be an uphill battle. Our venue had three lodgings on-site (yurt for us and two geodesic domes) which was great but if you can find an eco-friendly venue where all your guests can stay onsite that would be the jackpot to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from driving. We tried to minimize the use of personal cars by encouraging folks to stay at the same hotel and joint Airbnbs. We also organized a shuttle to and from the wedding.
Rings and other jewelry: Opt for family jewelry or secondhand
Jewelry that’s had a previous life is more sustainable as you aren’t supporting additional mining and processing. Our rings were secondhand from family, and other jewelry was also secondhand. We focused on a vintage style which meant we could still look good while being sustainable, collecting other pieces from antique stores and flea markets.
Outfits: Second-hand or re-wearable
I took a chance and ordered my dress and shoes on the resale site Poshmark but got lucky and both seemed like they had never been worn. It’s also likely you will have at least one re-sale dress shop in your area to try first. The shoes I selected were comfortable and a style that I will wear in the future so their lifespan isn’t only one night. My partner’s suit was new but also a style that he wants to wear in the future along with stylish secondhand shoes. My white dress was pretty dirty after the outdoor wedding but after dry-cleaning and a trip to my wonderful local tailor to cut it shorter, I can wear it at a nice event in the future. I love my dress but looking back, a non-white wedding dress would have been fun and more sustainable.
Food: Minimize meat and single-use items, and round down the headcount
I thought this would be more challenging than it was but communication is key. If our hearts weren’t set on Tex-Mex, we would have opted for a caterer that guarantees local, sustainable ingredients. However, we made appetizers and dinner sustainable by having all food vegetarian and no single-use items. Avoiding single-use included renting real glasses, plates, cutlery, and napkins. I cut and sewed cocktail napkins from large secondhand napkins following this DIY How-To, which was fun to work on with family but probably not the best use of time. Compostable plates, cutlery, and napkins that will actually be composted would be good too (particularly for appetizers) but you have to be careful here to avoid greenwashing. To minimize food waste, I rounded down the headcount I gave the caterer by 5 people but could have rounded down even more due to last-minute cancellations. We took the leftover food home, freezing some to enjoy over the next few months.
Drinks: Fewer choices and local and/or sustainable
In general, fewer choices help reduce waste in the form of alcohol bottles and tops. We had a keg from a local brewery instead of individual beers, and margaritas. Margaritas were batch-made in pitchers by our bartenders with sotol from Desert Door Distillery, which is wild-harvested and comes in bottles they take back and reuse which equates to zero waste. We didn’t have any wine (so bold!) but if we did I would have opted for wine from a “Certified California Sustainable Vineyard and Winery” or that’s organic, natural, or biodynamic. We did run out of sotol despite thinking we were liberal in our estimates (many guests arrived extra thirsty!) so be sure to avoid a run to the store by purchasing even more than you think is needed. Alcohol, kept properly, doesn’t go bad so you can save your receipts to return, give away as gifts, or keep for yourself.
Dessert: Do what works best for you, but try not to over-order
We had mini pies from a small local bakery but this is one area where I was torn and made the decision after weighing the pros and cons versus various other options. The pies came in aluminum tins which I didn’t love but ended up going with because it meant no one needed to cut and plate, no dessert plates, less clean up, and aluminum is infinitely recyclable so wouldn’t end up in the landfill. If you have aluminum (or any other materials that may be questionable) it’s worth confirming with your venue that they will recycle it. Otherwise you can always make a plan to take the material to be recycled yourself. The bakery put the pies in two large reusable containers for transport and I returned them after the wedding. Our pies were all eaten and enjoyed. This is in stark contrast to a big traditional cake which often results in leftovers since it’s more about what it looks like rather than being seen as food.
Flowers and decoration: Less is more
Less is more here. We liked the look of our venue so we didn’t need to decorate much. I went all-in on wildflower-type flowers from a local flower shop that provided them zero waste in buckets that were then returned. We toyed around with growing our own flowers or having someone we know with a green thumb grow them but decided against both due to the effort, risk, and logistics involved. I think both are lovely options though and worth considering if flowers can be grown close to your venue, you can time everything, and also be flexible. You can also do a lot with decor that is secondhand and then re-sell it or donate it afterward. A friend put our flowers in old bottles that I collected from various thrift stores and garage sales and those became our table centerpieces. I encouraged people to take them as wedding favors and more people took them than expected, which was great. We had some flowers left including my bouquet so I took some to dry at home and composted those that weren’t looking so good. Places may take your flowers as a donation, it could be worth calling around to nursing homes to see if they’re interested.
Paper-use: Go digital and get creative instead
We went digital in various ways by not printing traditional items like save the dates, invitations, schedules, menus, or seating charts. We used a Google doc for our “website,” Google form for RSVP, Canva for some design elements, and Constant Contact for emails, all of which worked well. Our emails went to some people’s Junk/Promotions folder which wasn’t ideal but okay since I could track who opened it and re-send it to those who missed it. We projected the seating chart with a projector and created table names and other signage from old maps.
We requested no gifts for a variety of reasons, but one positive aspect of that was it negated the customary waste that comes along with gift-giving like cardboard boxes and wrapping paper. Another, zero-waste option for gift giving but where you still get gifts is to set up a digital fund to accept money.
At the end of the day, we were fortunate to have a venue to collaborate with to minimize our waste as well as support from family and friends. The trickiest items were greenhouse gas emissions from transport, surprise plastic film waste (i.e. some rented items came wrapped), and packaging that must go to the landfill (e.g. wrappers from some specialty items like Gluten-Free options not on the main menu and small items brought the day of). It does take time and follow through to have a sustainable wedding but it is possible and I hope this helps! Best of luck to the brides and grooms who read this and I would love to hear your sustainable wedding stories.