My college friend has an 18 month old, a new house, a husband that works over an hour away, and a very busy social calander. She is taking part in a CSA, purchased half a cow direct from the farm, and purchases a lot of items organic when she can. She doesn't use paper plates, paper towels, paper napkins, or disposable cups and plasticware. She had a BBQ this weekend, and with 7 siblings, in-laws, cousins, great aunts, work friends, and long time friends there were a lot of people there. She relented and used paper plates, plastic cups, paper napkins, and plasticware.
Which made me think...if I were hosting a BBQ for 40+ people, would I be able to avoid the disposables?
The answer is yes, you can avoid disposables without spending a lot more or worrying that the kids are going to break all of your plates trying to balance them on their laps while swinging on the hammock.
Since BBQs are not intended to be a fine dining experience in most cases (especially when you've invited just about everyone you know) you don't have to worry about matching plates or cups. Usually I'm against the use of hard plastics but for an occassional BBQ they are better than the landfill ones. But I'm not suggesting going to your local walmart and stocking up on all of their outragous summer plastic junk. You don't need to buy it new. And you don't neccessarily need plastic unless you are worried about children (or klutzy/inebriated adults) breaking dishes.
The best way to go disposable free is to ask a relatives/friends to bring plates, cups, and silverware that they aren't too fond of. Lots of people have some old kitchen stuff around that they wouldn't worry about if it did accidentally get broken or lost.
If your friends and relatives don't have what you need, or enough of it, the next best option is to hit up the thrift store. There are usually some great retro (read hideous) pieces that will add some conversation pieces to your BBQ. You can get mismatched plates, bowls, mugs, and glasses and you can probably find way more than you'll need. You can also get some pretty ecclectic silverware. Baby spoons anyone? (They're great for serving condiments out of jars!) Many of these items sell for less than $1 a piece. Silverware is usually less than a quarter an item so you can stock up without breaking the bank! You could also try Freecycle, Craigslist, and yard sales. Chances are there are lots of people in your area looking to get rid of some unattractive kitchenware they were gifted long ago.
Once your BBQ is ended and all of the dishes are cleaned you can keep them for next year's BBQ or other big event at your house or redonate them if you don't have the storage space.
The paper free napkin option is easy, cloth napkins are easy to make out of old sheets, t-shirts, or kitchen towels. It's also a good idea to have some larger rags around incase of spills. If you're feeling extra crafty you could make all of the napkins out of the same old sheet and then stamp them with a logo to represent your family or the BBQ theme. If you take the time to hem them you can give them as gifts to your guests so they can take them home and remember your BBQ. Or just keep them yourself so you have lots of napkins for next time!
As always if your guests are bringing food to share ask them to bring it in a reusable container. Be sure to have plenty of jars on hand for storing leftovers. I made myself a fabulous layered leftover jar from my friend's BBQ, it looked really neat and tasted great later that evening when I got hungry again, that's a really fun way to share leftovers with guests if they don't want to take them home on a pasley plate!
Since we've moved into our new apartment my boyfriend has managed to break 2 bowls, 1 glass, and a small plate. He never used to break dishes, apparently the cabinets don't like him. Since we didn't have many dishes to begin with I have been visiting out local thrift store regularly to hunt for not so hideous pieces to add to our dwindling collection. Every once in a while there is a not so excessively decorated item to be found. For some reason the only time I see a full set of dishes is when they are a color somewhere between brown and yellow or decorated with some kind of animal motif. Now when I see these I'll be thinking of them as great party-ware...and maybe snatch up some of the esecially ecclectic ones just in case.