6 Easy Ways to Minimize Your Holiday Waste—Including Gifts, Decor, Food, and More

Photo: Stocksy / Blue Collectors
The holidays are a period of excess. Excess eating. Excess traveling. Excess buying. If you look at the actual stats, all that extra consumption is contributing to your carbon footprint in ways that might put a damper on your holiday spirit. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, American households produce 25 percent more waste between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, adding one million tons per week to our landfills (plus enough ribbon to wrap around the entire globe!).

That’s a lot of pressure on a planet with finite, dwindling resources. But it’s not only environmental waste that’s a cause for concern. “Looking at economic ramifications, it’s no secret that the holiday season can be an extremely expensive time of year,” says Brent Bell, VP of recycling at Waste Management. “By cutting down and being more mindful with shopping, hosting and gift-giving, you can also give your wallets a breather. Focus on spending special times with family and friends, and giving back to those in need.”

With these tips on how to minimize waste during the holidays, you’ll be reducing, reusing, and recycling your way to fulfilled New Year’s resolutions—and a protected planet.

Decking the halls

Decorations are a huge part of creating holiday cheer, but their materials are not doing the environment any good (especially if you throw them out instead of recycling them properly—oops!). Bell recommends donating older decorations to local charities before buying new ones, or even better, reusing your decorations from year to year. Promise: your guests won’t notice. If you do take pleasure in mixing up the décor from year to year, Bell recommends using natural evergreens, dried flowers, and dried berries to jazz up your home and your tree, which should all be composted immediately after the holidays.

Hosting a party

Get creative with eco-friendly strategies to celebrate in a way that won’t feel like you’re missing out on any fun. Green is one of the two main holiday hues, after all. Instead of offering your guests plastic cutlery and solo cups, break out the fine china and stemware you reserve for special occasions but always seem to make an excuse for keeping locked away. If plastic and aluminum utensils are a must, Bell suggests making it easy for your guests to recycle them properly.

Cooking for guests

It’s easy to fall into the trap of cooking for 20 guests when you’re only hosting 15 (or is that just the future Jewish mother in me talking?). After all, some guests show up unannounced with a plus-one, and some guests require second and third helpings to feel satisfied. While these concerns are certainly valid, your goal should be not to cook for the sake of appearing overly hospitable, but to put whatever food you do make to good use, and never to throw out leftovers.

“Start with making a concrete grocery list and checking it twice to avoid impulse buys and prevent yourself from accumulating excess groceries and food,” Bell says. Then, freeze any leftovers, pack them for easy lunches and dinners the next day, and donate a portion to a local food pantry for families in need. Your guests will also be thrilled to go home with leftover food in reusable containers.

Giving of gifts

In the spirit of giving, your first inclination might be to shower your loved ones with Amazon Prime boxes upon boxes of gifts wrapped in an endless ether of plastic wrap, Styrofoam and cardboard. But less is more. Instead, opt to gift one bigger or more sentimental item than multiple smaller ones. When purchasing your single gift, Bell says to look for items created with recycled materials and wrapped in nothing but recycled materials. “This can have a long-term impact as purchasing recycled products creates a demand and encourages manufacturers to make more recycled content products available,” says Bell. Your single gift also conveniently reduces the need for multiple postal service deliveries—and thus carbon emissions—should you be shopping online.

When gifting, think of paper-free ways to offer your loved ones experiences, like electronic passes or gift certificates to concerts, museums, movies, or festivals. Ditto for holiday cards. There’s really no reason to send snail mail when an e-card is a lot more sustainable.

Dressing to impress

Chances are you haven’t worn that ugly sweater from an office-wide gift swap in six years. Bell says that as you begin to accumulate more clothing and accessories as gifts, be sure to donate a significant portion of your rarely used items to deserving charities and families in need in your community. (Consult Givewell.org, a non-profit that suggests charities where your donations will go the furthest.). If you can’t bear to downsize your closet during a time when you might need your funky clothes most, host a clothing swap among friends so you can give forgotten garments a more loving home.

Getting around

It’s the holidays and you’re popular, so you naturally have many places to be. Instead of taking a rideshare service to an event by yourself, Bell says to use the pool option, carpool with friends in a single car, use public transportation, or walk or bike if the weather outside isn’t too frightful. Bonus? These sustainable options are far cheaper anyway.

Your efforts to minimize waste shouldn’t end once the holidays do. Use the holidays as a way to dip your toes into the exciting—and necessary—habit of practicing sustainability, and let it carry you into the New Year. Who knows? Maybe as a planet we can collectively minimize our waste come the holidays of 2020.

This year, give the gift of sustainability. Here's a round-up of our favorite eco-friendly gifts for your friends and family. And are "eco-friendly Christmas trees" even a thing?

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