How to Reduce Waste Over the Holidays

Wrapped holiday gift

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The holidays are here! And with them, festivities, food, and fun. You may travel to see friends and family. You may give gifts and send cards. You may cook special recipes and decorate your house — inside and out. There may be parties, school events, and religious services on your calendar.

And, with the barrage of advertising coming at us from all media, it’s easy to feel that we need to do and purchase “more” each year. This generally comes with an increased amount of waste. Wondering how to reduce waste over the holidays? Keep reading to learn how!

Holiday Season Waste

Holiday celebrations are a wonderful way to bring people together for good times and memorable events. But they also come with a cost, and not just what comes out of your wallet. For example, amazingly, in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day in the U.S.:

  • Trash accumulates faster: Americans will throw out an extra 25 percent of trash, amounting to about 25 million extra tons. The landfills that take the trash will emit even more methane, a greenhouse gas that is more potent than CO2.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions rise: This is largely due to the extra travel that occurs at this time of year. According to AAA, 50.9 million Americans drove more than 50 miles for Thanksgiving in 2017 — a 3.3 percent increase over 2016 and the most since 2005. Add in the 3+ million Americans who will fly over the holidays, and the emissions pie just gets bigger.

The point is not to skip celebrating. The point is to understand the impacts those celebrations have, and to choose your way to minimize those impacts. Because there are many things you can do to reduce waste over the holidays, you’ll have plenty of options to choose from. Pick what is easiest for you, and do it. Feeling guilty doesn’t help — but taking action, however small, really does!

Wall-e toy overlooking airport

More than 3 million Americans will fly over the holidays. Image courtesy of Morgan.

What Can You Do?

So how can you keep the holiday cheer coming while stepping more lightly on the planet? Let us count the ways:

  • Drive instead of fly. Flying is the most greenhouse-gas-intensive form of travel, so if you can avoid it, do! When you drive, try to pick a less-congested time to travel and keep your speed to the posted speed limits. Cars that just idle in congested traffic burn fuel and create emissions — while going nowhere! Lower speeds are safer for you, save you money on fuel, and create fewer emissions.
  • Send e-cards instead of paper ones. Hallmark, American Greetings, and a host of smaller players make it easy for you to send digital greeting cards. According to Google, we send around 500 million e-cards each year. You can connect with everyone on your list while avoiding postage, saving some trees, and helping to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that come from the U.S. Postal Service delivering an estimated 14.9 billion pieces of mail during the holiday season this year.
Joy e-card

Image courtesy of Christian Soulliere.

  • Think before you gift. Where appropriate, give gifts that aren’t just more “stuff.” Give time. Give an experience, whether it’s a hike through an amazing park with your kids, a romantic dinner with your significant other, or a “boys’ night out” with good friends. Give gift certificates if you’re not sure what someone wants, to avoid the costs of them returning your gift. Donate to a favorite charity in someone’s name. Whether you donate to a medical cause like curing heart disease or an organization like Heifer that provides people in poor countries with animals and training to help raise incomes, be sure to pick a cause that resonates with your giftee.
  • Decorate with LED lights and put them on timers. By now you know that LEDs use about one-tenth of the electricity as old-fashioned (and hot!) incandescent lights. Lighting manufacturers today have decorative LED lights in every color, size, and length of strand. And remember to put them on timers that turn them off when you go to bed.  
  • Reuse paper and packages. As a kid, I loved seeing the array of beautifully wrapped presents under the tree. I also remember helping clean up, and stuffing all that paper and packaging into garbage bags without a second thought. This year, UPS is hiring around 100,00 seasonal employees to cover the expected seasonal surge in packages shipped — numbers that are expected to nearly double the 20 million packages shipped daily during the rest of the year. And the impact of wrapping, ribboning, tagging, and shipping those packages is staggering. These days, I buy simple holiday boxes from a place like Michaels, and reuse them each year. They are pretty, seasonal, come in a variety of sizes, and still keep the gift a surprise until the big day. You can wrap gifts in the comics, reuse gift bags, or even hide gifts around the house, giving clues to the recipients as to where to find them. Whatever works for you, do it!
  • Reduce food waste. Great food — and lots of it — is an intrinsic part of the holidays for most people. But in the U.S., it’s estimated we waste 40 percent of the food grown between the farm and the consumer’s table. And holiday foods are especially prone to wastage because we make too much (just in case) and create those once-a-year recipes with unusual ingredients that never get used up. So, send food home with guests or get creative with your leftovers. And, of course, look for local, fresh, and fair trade foods when possible.
  • Make a green resolution for 2020. Changing habits takes time. So, pick one thing to do in 2020 to make your life or business greener. It may be learning to compost food scraps. It may be ramping up your recycling efforts. It may be buying your first electric car. Whatever it is, set your intention now so you’re off and running in 2020!

Happy holidays! May you maximize your cheer and minimize your waste!

Feature image courtesy of storebukkebruse

Editor’s note: Originally published on December 11, 2015, this article was updated in December 2019

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Alison Lueders

Alison Lueders is the Founder and Principal of Great Green Content - a green business certified by both Green America and the Green Business Bureau. She offers copywriting and content marketing services to businesses that are “going green.”Convinced that business can play a powerful and positive role in building a greener, more sustainable economy, she launched Great Green Content in 2011.

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