By Jennifer Margulis: Families like Wendy Scharp's say they want to get away from the excesses of goodie bags, lavish gifts and store-bought cakes in oversized plastic containers that have become the norm in America in recent years.

When Paul Giancarlo suggested to his not-yet-6-year-old twins that they host a "green" birthday party, his son Gabriel burst into tears. His mom, Mary Shaffer, asked her son why he was crying and Gabriel said that he didn't like that color and he didn't want everything to be green.

But Giancarlo and Shaffer had something else in mind. They wanted birthday guests to bring gently used presents instead of going to a store to buy new things.

"Once we established what we meant and told the twins kids would bring them something that they had played with and thought was really cool, they got into it," Giancarlo, who is 58 and lives in Ashland, said. "They received lots of nice gifts that had special meaning because they had been important to their friends. Some people made CDs of favorite stories or songs, and there were great books and toys."

The twins, whose birthday was in April, enjoyed the party and their parents were happy too.

"There is nothing so unappealing to me as bright, plastic, battery-driven, easily breakable garbage from China that's a thrill for about 12 hours and then collects dust until you take it to Goodwill or the dump," Giancarlo said.

Giancarlo and Shaffer are part of a growing trend in Ashland of parents (and children) trying to have more ecological or even zero-waste birthday parties.

"At all parties I host I use reusable plates and cups," said Wendy Scharp, 28, a mother of three. "I also encourage people to make their own gifts or give a toy that is no longer being used. My kids always make the decorations, I never buy them from a store."

Families like Scharp's say they want to get away from the excesses of goodie bags, lavish gifts and store-bought cakes in oversized plastic containers that have become the norm in America in recent years.

"Having eco-friendly birthday parties helps prevent waste "¦ (and) I like to avoid the mass consumption of plastic toys," said Scharp, adding she often hosts her childrens' parties at a park so kids can have space to run around and be outside.

"We also suggested that they consider wrapping the gifts in a recycled way," Shaffer, 45, said. "One of our friends wrapped their presents in cloth that they could use for other things."

Shaffer especially objects to the waste associated with goodie bags: "The things in goodie bags tend to be junky and unused over the long haul and very un-green," she said, "and they're an extra expense, which is also un-green."

Instead of store-bought goodie bags, Shaffer recommends having an activity with a take-home craft for the kids.

"One year we stenciled a skull-and-cross-bones flag that then became one take-home party favor," she said. "Those are the kind of take homes that I'm in favor of — sweat equity and something that's meaningful and will be reused."

Jennifer Margulis is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail her at jennifermargulis@jeffnet.org.