8 Ways to Reduce Holiday Waste

by | Updated: October 13th, 2020 | Read time: 4 minutes

It’s consumption season again. Yep, this time of year we pack another 1 million tons of trash into landfills.

But “with a few simple steps, we can all do our part to make environmentally responsible choices throughout the holiday season and help make a positive impact in our communities for generations to come,” says Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Arizona-based Republic Services, which handles more than 6 million tons of recycling a year through operations in 41 states and Puerto Rico.

Indoor Cactus Houseplant Decorated with Christmas Ornaments to Reduce Waste | Vitacost.com/Blog

How ’bout we give the earth a break by trimming that massive million down? Here are 8 low-waste ways to spend the holidays.

1. Create your tree with cast-offs or plants you already own.

Descriptions of my recent Christmas trees, which you can use as inspiration for your own:

  • Twinkle lights strewn among the leaves of a tall dracaena/croton potted plant.
  • Discarded branches from a store that sells pines, which I artfully placed in a large vase filled with rocks. Those twinkle lights made an appearance again.
  • Discarded branches, yet again, but this time bigger ones, placed in a contraption built with wooden blocks left over from a furniture project. Added a few branches cut from a large living pine (much more sustainable than cutting down a whole pine).
  • A small downed pine I came across while hiking. Lugged that sucker home and decorated it.

2. Gift an experience.

How much stuff do we want? We’ve heard it over and over: Joy from experiences outlasts happiness from physical items. There are definitely arguments against that adage (if your experience sucks, it sure won’t be joy-inducing). Still, if someone you know would be as happy with a trip to the sauna as a new sweater, go with the sauna.

3. Choose quality items.

If there’s no getting around your husband’s hankering for speakers, buy the good ones if your budget lets you. I speak from experience: Inferior versions of products lead to wasted money, botched returns and the eventual purchase of the high-quality item, which also means your crappy buy ends up wasted.

4. Reuse everything that holds a gift.

The sole reason to toss wrapping paper, boxes, ribbons or bows is if they’re wrecked. Otherwise, reusing them takes you down memory lane, plus it diversifies your stock. Cut up holiday cards too, repurposing them as name tags.

5. Skip traditional wrapping.

Be creative about how you outfit your presents. Put them in totes, sheets and pillowcases, or cinch them with a scarf. Magazine pages work well for smaller items, and it’s fun to seek out scenes or words that fit your recipient. Grab crepe myrtle twigs, pinecones or other pretty stuff from the great outdoors to decorate packages.

After your gift exchange, the textile items go right back where they came from (zero waste) and magazine pages get recycled (low waste after dual usage). Another zero-waste option: Hide gifts, and let the recipient hunt for them.

6. Recycle.

For the love of the planet (and yourself, given the planet sustains you), if you can’t figure out how to reuse your wrappers and such, recycle them.

“We know that our customers want to be better recyclers—especially during the holiday season,” Keller says. “But many aren’t sure how.”

Mr. Keller and I are here to help. Excellent general tips for recycling, holiday season or not, thanks to Republic Services:

  • Standard wrapping paper can be recycled, but usually anything with glitter or foil can’t.
  • Common holiday items that do not belong in recycling include bubble wrap, foam packaging, cellophane, holiday ribbons and bows.
  • Toy packaging made of heavy cardboard generally is recyclable only when the cardboard is separated from the plastic. This includes the plastic window on the box of a doll or action figure.
  • To be sure, know what can actually be recycled where you live by reviewing your town or county website.
  • Clean cans, bottles and other recyclables that hold food. Also, you can’t recycle sodden take-out containers, greasy pizza boxes or the like.
  • Do NOT bag your recyclables—unless your recycler asks you to. Plastic bags typically aren’t recyclable (though stores such as Kroger can recycle them for you).

7. Go on a trip.

Skip the holiday rerun, and take the vacation you’ve been yearning for. To be sure, driving and flying have big carbon footprints—but if you’re going to take the trip anyway, do it now, and eliminate all the waste that comes with physical gift-giving.

8. Feed using a plant-based in-season menu.

Eating seasonal plant-based food that’s locally sourced always helps the planet. Put the practice to use when you throw your holiday bash. What’s local and seasonal varies depending on where you live, but generally now’s the time for pumpkin, squash and sweet potato. Lots of recipes offer ideas on what to do with them.

Click here for 11 Creative (and Eco-Friendly) Gift Wrapping Ideas for the Holidays.

Mitra Malek writes and edits wellness-related content, including for Yoga Journal.