12 Tips to Reduce Waste at the Holidays

Gift wrapping items: wrapping paper, gift bags, boxes, and bow

Americans produce a staggering amount of waste. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, in 2013, we collectively produced 254 million tons of trash, an average of about 4.4 pounds per person per day.  (That’s much higher than the global average, though other wealthy, developed countries aren’t far behind.) The upside is that we recycled and composted about 34% of that waste, but that still left a lot of trash headed to landfills or scattered as litter. There are about 2,000 active landfills in the US, and simple math leads to the conclusion that we will at some point run out of space for all of our trash. In addition, properly managing municipal waste is expensive, and both landfills and incineration can pose serious environmental and health concerns. Moreover, think about all the resources we are wasting by throwing so many things away rather than using them to their fullest potential.

To be honest, I feel like a bit of a hypocrite writing about this topic. I am continually amazed by how much waste my household of two people and two cats produces each week. I do a lot of my shopping online, which generates substantial packaging waste, and while I have plenty of reusable grocery bags, I often forget to take them with me to the store and end up with disposable bags anyway. When you add in daily junk mail and the leftover food we didn’t manage to eat before it spoiled, we seem to fill our trash dumpster just about every week. We do recycle plastic, glass, aluminum, and cardboard, but the amount of stuff we take to the recycling bins each week seems tiny compared to the amount we put out for trash collection.

This problem becomes more obvious around the holidays. I enjoy giving and receiving gifts as much as the next person, but I cringe at the sight of all that torn and crumpled wrapping paper being stuffed into garbage bags, along with the disposable dinnerware that is so common at holiday parties and other gatherings. So I decided to brainstorm some ideas for reducing the waste I generate this season. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Choose gift bags over wrapping paper, as they can be reused at least a few times before becoming trash.  Buy the natural paper gift bags that can be recycled or that are made from recycled material.
  2. Better yet, choose durable fabric bags over paper gift bags, such as Amazon’s gift bags or reusable shopping bags.
  3. Store and reuse tissue paper. There’s no reason to throw it away after one gift. The same goes for bows and ribbons.
  4. Use scraps of wrapping paper for craft projects like these. I loved making beads out of wrapping paper triangles and watered-down Elmer’s glue when I was a kid.
  5. Wrap gifts with paper grocery bags turned inside out, newspapers, Or magazine pages, or use decorated boxes that don’t require any wrapping.
  6. Give durable gifts that will last rather than single-use items or things that are likely to break or become obsolete. Give fewer, better gifts.
  7. Send guests home with leftovers or freeze whatever food you can’t eat within a few days.
  8. Repurpose, reuse, and recycle cardboard shipping and packaging boxes.
  9. Use regular dinnerware instead of single-use options. If that just isn’t practical for whatever reason, choose eco-friendly, compostable disposable dinnerware.
  10. If you receive a gift that replaces an older version you already had, donate or sell the old one instead of throwing it away.
  11. Send holiday postcards instead of traditional cards in envelopes. Some people save and display the cards, but the envelopes end up in the trash almost instantly.
  12. Give experiences rather than things. A gift card or pair of tickets generates less waste than a large packaged item and may be more meaningful and memorable.

What are your tips for reducing waste at the holidays?

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