How to reduce your holiday waste

EPA says it all adds up to an extra 1 million tons of trash a week during the festive holiday period

We’re coming into the season of abundant good cheer, parties, celebrations and gift giving. And  –  not to be a Grinch about it  –  the season of abundant solid waste.

The most oft-cited statistic on the subject says U.S. families increase their waste 25 percent in the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

It makes sense: office parties with disposable plastic plates and cups set on top of disposable plastic tablecloths; new rolls of plastic-wrapped wrapping paper and ribbon; toys and tools that come in plastic clamshell packaging; all those shipping boxes filled with Styrofoam noodles; and wasted party food from over shopping, over cooking, over buying.

More from Celebrate 2018: Gifts

The EPA says it all adds up to an extra 1 million tons of trash a week during the festive holiday period.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can be thankful, festive and generous – and still think about keeping our waste production to a minimum. Don’t let the rush and bustle of the season make you forget your reusable bag when you’re out shopping – it’s not only for groceries. If you decorate with lights, look for LEDs and put them on a timer or turn them off at night. Don’t abandon your practice of refusing a bag or bringing your refillable coffee mug – even if you’re in a hurry.

Here are some simple ways to reduce waste around the holidays.


You are not actually obligated to give gifts to everyone you know – they don’t need more meaningless stuff anyway. If you need to give something to everyone in your office or your book club, make it a small something that can be used up – a few homemade cookies, a beeswax candle, a jar of jam.

People always advise giving homemade gifts – which is great if you like making things. I do, but I am well aware that not everyone does. But if you are handy, think of something you can make in bulk and package it up for people who you know would like it – breads, or candles, or pancake mix, or placemats.

If you have a like-minded friend, you can work together on, say, a batch of ginger-pear butter or limoncello.

Right-size your holiday meals. The NRDC estimates that 40 percent of food grown or produced in the United States is never eaten. Holiday gatherings bring out the excess, so try to avoid over cooking or over stocking the table. And if you do, send guests home with leftovers, or wrap up extra meals for the freezer.


You can save wrapping paper from one year to the next, or you can wrap packages in newspaper or butcher paper decorated with stencils or painted designs.

My daughter is obsessive about unwrapping presents without destroying wrapping paper, then folding the used paper carefully for reuse. My son, on the other hand, is a rip-and-tear unwrapper – and I’ve never discouraged him because it’s part of the fun of opening a present. Besides, there are always smaller pieces that can be saved from big pieces of wrapping paper, to wrap next year’s little gifts.

More from Celebrate 2018: Gifts

Between them, I always have a box of used paper to wrap gifts in. I also have old calendar pages, a bunch of old maps from atlases that were being thrown out at work a few years back, some deli paper from the end of a roll at my friends’ store – all of which make good wrapping paper.

But sometimes you want to buy new wrapping paper. In that case, try to avoid the metallic, foil and plastic wraps – they can’t be recycled and they tend to contain harmful metals and dyes. You can also wrap gifts in reusables – a piece of fabric, a kitchen towel, a reusable bag.

Or you can package a gift in another gift. Have a hiker in the family? Fill a reusable water bottle with some homemade (or store-bought) trail mix. Pack small gifts in festive cookie tins, which you can find at thrift stores for pennies and which are reusable and recyclable.


It’s easy to save ribbons and bows – even for the rip-and-tearers in your family – so we have a box of those, too, ready to dress up the map or calendar paper.

If you don’t, you can skip the ribbons altogether. If you wrap a present in plain paper, paint or draw a bow on it. If you’re a sewer, use a scrap of fabric for a bow. Or cut a piece of that used wrapping paper or that old calendar and fasten it to a package as if it were a ribbon.


If you have packages being shipped to your house, save the boxes and the packing peanuts or bubble wrap to use in packages you send. If you’re not mailing gifts, shipping centers will take your packing peanuts for reuse, and the cardboard boxes are recyclable.

You also can pack your fragile items in newspaper, which can be recycled by the recipient.


This is a sore point for me. I see a lot of recommendations for people to send e-cards instead of paper cards, but making block print cards is one of my annual traditions, and I tend to do it even if it takes me until Groundhog’s Day to mail them out.

But if it’s not that important to you, send e-cards. If you do buy cards, look for those made from recycled paper. And avoid foil and metal in the prints, which makes the card unrecyclable after the fact. Also avoid noisemaking or musical cards, which have batteries, electronic, metal and plastic parts that end up in the landfill.

You can save cards you get and use the fronts as gift labels, place markers on holiday tables, or to glue onto plain paper wrapping to festoon a gift.


You’re on your own here. The rigid plastic packaging that is so hard to open is just as hard to dispose of.

Generally, it’s not recyclable so it’s a whole lot of garbage. You can try to avoid things packaged that way, but it’s not easy. Seems like everything from dolls to toy cars to pliers to Christmas lights – even the takeout food we’re more likely to consume during busy holiday times – come in clamshell packaging.

The good news is some manufacturers are moving away from clamshell packaging. Maybe if you write a strongly worded letter every time you have to fight a sturdy but unrecyclable clamshell wrapper more manufactures will go back to using cardboard.
Happy holidays!

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday on The Gazette’s Environment Page. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

Categories: Life and Arts

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