While the holidays come with a lot of joy, laughter, and good cheer, they come with a lot of waste, too. Between the piles of crumpled gift wrap and the plates of uneaten food, trash bins — and landfills — are all too often overflowing as a result of the holidays. Thankfully, there are a number of ways you can reduce waste during the holidays.
From Thanksgiving to New Year's Day, households in the United States generate 25% more trash than they do at any other time of the year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And all that trash really adds up. In fact, the EPA states that "holiday food waste, shopping bags, bows and ribbons, packaging, and wrapping paper contribute an additional 1 million tons a week to our landfills."
But the excess waste generated over the holidays isn't just harmful to the environment it can be costly, too. In fact, according to Market Watch, government data has shown that roughly $293 million of the $165 billion worth of uneaten food thrown away every year in the United States gets tossed as a result of Thanksgiving. With all that said, here are 20 ways you can help reduce waste during the holidays this year:
Ditch The Traditional Wrapping Paper Altogether
While presents wrapped using rolls of holiday-themed wrapping paper certainly look festive under the tree, they can, depending on the paper, have a big impact on the environment. Instead, consider wrapping your gifts in cloth sacks, scarves, or other fabrics. While you can certainly purchase fabric gift wrap online at places like Etsy and Amazon, you can also make your own with fabric purchased from any fabric store. Or get creative and give gifts tucked inside reusable baskets, bins, jars, or kitchen towels. With a little imagination, the options are endless.
Use Recyclable Wrapping Paper
If making the transition to fabric gift wrap isn't something your household can pull off this season, consider opting for recyclable wrapping paper. It's important to remember that while wrapping paper decorated with foil accents or glitter may look beautiful, it isn't recyclable. While a number of companies are now doing beautiful things with recyclable kraft paper, those looking to replicate the traditional look of wrapping paper may find Wrappily's recyclable wrapping paper is just what they need.
Swap Your Paper Holiday Cards For E-Cards
Speaking of saving paper... consider swapping the paper holiday cards you were planning to send for e-cards this year. According to Stanford University, 2.65 billion Christmas cards are purchased in the United States each year — and most of them end up in the trash come January. E-cards, however, while just as festive and elegant as their paper companions, can help reduce paper waste.
Reuse Packaging Material & Boxes
Cut down on how much trash your household creates by reusing boxes as well as any packaging or shipping material for your own gift giving needs this holiday season. Instead of purchasing gift boxes, for example, repurpose an Amazon box or old show box. My father-in-law was well-known for adding to the surprise of his gifts by using cereal, cracker, and other snack boxes to hold them. Follow his lead!
Opt For A Live Tree
Nothing helps bring the Christmas spirit into a home quite like a Christmas tree. This year, however, you can help offset the added waste that Christmas trees bring by choosing to decorate a living tree that your family can replant from its pot in the new year.
Or At The Very Least, Recycle Your Tree After Christmas
If a living tree won't work for you, consider using any (or all) of Popular Mechanic's seven suggestions for reusing and recycling your Christmas tree. They include, shaking off dead needles to use as mulch, chopping up the tree up to make firewood, or getting creative and making wood coasters and trivets from it (what a great hostess gift to give next holiday season!).
Upcycle Old Holiday Decorations
This idea comes from Country Living and, in truth, I think it's genius. While the temptation to purchase new holiday decor every year can be hard to resist, the magazine recommends turning your trash into elegant holiday decor. Last year's holiday cards can be made into bunting or garland (or tear the front of the card off and mail it as a holiday postcard). Burned out lightbulbs can be painted and made into ornaments. Similarly, Ocean Conservancy has tutorials for turning toilet paper rolls into a festive wreath, plastic bottles into miniature trees, and broken clothespins into snowflakes.
Or Opt To Decorate With Natural & Seasonal Materials
Similarly to converting rubbish into festive holiday decor, comes the idea of choosing to decorate with natural and seasonal materials in place of purchasing holiday decorations made from plastics and other non-biodegradable materials. Pinecones and springs of winter berries, holly, and evergreen can create festive and elegant decor while also being more environmentally friendly in the long run.
Put Your Lights On A Timer
If you have to make lights a part of your holiday decorations, save energy and money by putting them on a timer set to come on late in the evening and go off when you head to bed. Limiting the time your holiday lights are on also helps to reduce how often you need to replace the bulbs, which in turns helps cut down on waste.
Choose Your Gifts Mindfully
It's no secret that gift giving can be hard. Many times the holiday season brings unnecessary pressure to give, give, and give. And while I'm not trying to encourage you away from being generous, giving gifts mindfully can help cut down on the excessive waste traditionally associated with the holiday season.
But what does gifting mindfully look like? The fact is there are a number of ways. It may be opting to purchase items that don't come with excessive packaging or sending gift cards that can be delivered electronically instead of mailing packages to loved ones far away. It could mean gifting experiences or your time or skills in place of a store-bought knick knack or gag-gift that will ultimately get tossed in the trash. Similarly, it might mean gifting something edible that's sure to get enjoyed, such as homemade jam, granola, or a flavored cooking oil. What's more, gifts like this often don't need to be wrapped, meaning you'll save paper.
Or Just Gift Less In General
Another way to help cut down on all the added waste the holidays can bring? Instead of giving loved ones multiple gifts, opt to give just one really thoughtful gift. Similarly, if you know your children will be gifted more toys and games than they can realistically enjoy, you might ask people to refrain from gifting your kids toys. For those that insist on giving a gift, you could recommend a gift built around their time or a specific experience. As a kid, my aunt once gave me a series of cooking classes (taught by her in her kitchen, of course) that resulted in memories (and recipes) I treasure still to this day.
Shop From Sustainable & Eco-Friendly Companies
Another way to lesson the impact your gift giving may have on the environment is by shopping with reputable sustainable and eco-friendly companies. But while many companies market themselves as "green," it can be hard to know who, and what, is actually eco-friendly. That's why Waste Advantage magazine recommends consumers look for specific claims such as "made from 100% recycled material" as well as official third-party certifications such as Energy Star, USDA Organic Seal, Forest Stewardship Council, and Green Seal.
Donate Gifts You Know You Won't Use To Those In Need
As the holiday season winds down, take stock of the things you and your family were given. Are there things you already know will sit unopened on the back of a shelf somewhere? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 35% of Americans have at least one unused Christmas present tucked away in their home. Donate any gifts you know you or your children will never use to those in need.
Take Your Reusable Bags With You When You Shop
By now many of us are well-trained when it comes to bringing our reusable shopping bags into the grocery store. But did you know you can — and should — bring those same bags with you when browsing a mall, department store, gift shop, or book store? Help cut down on plastic consumption by saying "no, thanks" to plastic shopping bags this holiday season no matter what store you're at.
Repurpose Food Scraps
Start Composting At Home
With all the extra food scraps large family gatherings can produce, the holidays can be a perfect time to start composting at home. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food scraps and yard waste currently account for more than 28% of our trash, despite the fact that both are easily compostable. In fact, composting food scraps and yard waste doesn't just free up space in landfills, it also cuts down on the amount of methane such scraps release when left to rot in landfills. You can learn more about what to compost and how to compost it from the EPA's official website.
Buy & Serve Only What You Can Actually Eat
When it comes to holiday meals, it can be easy to go overboard. And all that extra food often times means extra waste. In fact, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency states that much of the 28 billion pounds of edible food thrown away throughout the year is tossed during the holiday season. The agency recommends taking the time to calculate how many servings of each dish you really need and buying and preparing only what's necessary. Thankfully, Butterball has a handy online portion calculator and conversion tool. Help any leftovers get eaten before they expire by sending them home with loved ones.
Nix Single-Use Plates
While no one likes a sink full of dishes, it's much better for the environment to eat, drink, and be merry without single-use paper or plastic plates, cups, and cutlery. Opt for reusable dishes instead and turn clean up into a chance to catch up with someone you hold dear or even as an excuse to step away from the chaos large family gatherings can bring.
Reduce Your Holiday Travel
While the holidays are known for producing some of the busiest travel days of the year, those looking to reduce their environmental impact might consider cutting back on their holiday travel. In 2018, a United Nations report warned that people would need to make rapid and unprecedented changes to the way they travel, eat, live, and consume energy resources if we wanted to keep the Earth's temperature rise to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. By reducing air travel whenever possible, or even attempting to offset your travel with companies like Carbon Fund, you can help reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Shop Local, Give Local
You can further cut back on your carbon footprint by choosing to shop and give locally. Instead of surfing deals online and filling virtual shopping carts, purchase gifts from stores within your local community. What's more, you might consider leaving the car at home and instead walking or using public transportation when heading out shopping. Doing so saves CO2. In the same spirit, consider only giving gifts to the folks you'll see in person over the holidays as a means of reducing the emissions produced by shipping packages. Or, if not giving a gift isn't an option, consider gifting things that can be e-delivered such as electronic gift cards, donations to their favorite charity, or tickets to a concert, ballet, play or other event.
However you choose to reduce waste over the holidays, know that every action helps.