Did you know that the average American generates as much as 25% more waste during the holiday season starting in October? This amounts to almost 2.5 million more pounds of garbage generated in the United States per week. Is it possible to have a joyous holiday season without all the added garbage? The good news is, yes, with a little planning, forethought, and proper waste management techniques, it is entirely possible to reduce the waste and carbon footprint of your holidays this year.
There's nothing wrong with indulging in some tasty treats during the holidays, but it can be easy to go overboard on foods and packaging that end up in landfills after the New Year rolls around. We've made a list of tips for reducing waste during the holidays so that you can enjoy your time off without feeling guilty about all those extra trips to the grocery store! However, we suggest avoiding the temptation seen during the holiday season of starting “fresh” or falling in love with newer themes and deciding it's time to get a whole new holiday look.
Christmas Trees If you're the type to go all out for the holidays, choosing a Christmas tree is a big decision. From cuteness to size and shape, there are a lot of options. What if you don't want your Christmas tree after the season? There are many ways to repurpose it once the holiday season is over.
The best tree selection in our opinion is live Christmas trees, and if you have enough space on your property, consider planting it as part of your garden or yard! Otherwise, donate it to someone who can grow it. The next best selection for a tree would be a cut tree, as you can compost it, or upcycle it into crafts like bird feeders or future Christmas ornaments. Besides opting to compost or upcycle your tree, you can send it out with your yard debris (as long as it's not flocked). Alas, we highly suggest that you never flock your tree as this prevents any ability to recapture the carbon in an environmentally friendly manner. Flocked trees need to be sent to the landfill, where they will generate methane as they degrade into microplastics and toxic leachate.
Since the proliferation of plastic, our stance is that plastic plants, even Christmas trees are unnecessary and serve only to expand plastic production during the holidays. Think about it, how many times have you fought with the tree during unboxing, only to decide it doesn’t look right anymore and you want to replace it? We see thousands of trees at resale shops, in the landfill, and on the side of the road for “free.” Ask yourself, do you really want to contribute to that? Yes, they are reusable and can be more environmentally friendly if used for a decade. However, the low likelihood of this happening is why we would suggest that households avoid plastic Christmas trees.
Decorations across all the special days in November and December Every year we see more and more extravagant decorations and lights available at big box retailers. While these are at times very attractive, one must stop and consider the amount of garbage and plastic packaging associated with almost every decoration you purchase. If it isn’t protected by clamshells, it's wrapped in plastic film. This is why we stand behind the notion that it is far better to reuse past decorations or purchase decorations at thrift shops. This can go a long way towards reducing an individual's significant increase in waste generation during the holidays. An idea that was recently circulating on social media is to use one side of holiday decorations as one theme and the opposite side for a subsequent holiday.
Reuse decorations that are not recyclable (such as foil stars). This will prevent them from ending up in a landfill where they will take hundreds of years to degrade and may leach harmful chemicals and microplastics into soil or water supplies long after we're gone from this planet! Never toss your Christmas strand lights into a curbside recycling bin. This causes tangles and will generally lead to damage to the sorting equipment.
Another aspect often overlooked is those themed dish sets that only come out during the holiday season or are purchased yearly for the holidays. We would persist that it is better to continue to use your normal dishes as much as possible and avoid purchasing themed dish sets that are likely to be sent to a thrift shop in the subsequent years as tastes change. Any holiday-themed dish set is likely to be in storage longer than it will ever be in use.
Excessive Packaging Whether it is your food, decorations, or gifts. With a little forethought, it is possible to reduce the amount of landfilled waste generated during the holidays by maintaining an attentiveness to packaging. If you know that a certain product is over-packaged, look for an alternative.
Making as many foods from scratch as possible is a method you can use to reduce prepackaged food waste. While it may seem small and trivial, think about the last couple of years... how many times have you had to take the garbage out during the week of the holiday you are celebrating? How many times have you had to pull out a larger garbage can or black garbage bags? The vast majority of what is being disposed of is packaging, decorations, wrapping paper, and food.
Disposables What would a waste prevention article be without a reminder that disposables and convenience are what the plastic industry is counting on to continue to expand? As a population, we can stop using disposable tableware and cutlery. By doing this simple act you can reduce the amount of waste generated in your house by more than 10 pounds during the holiday season, based on the average consumer during the holiday season. Yes, that is right, your household generates upwards of 10 pounds of waste simply because someone didn’t want to load a dishwasher. At what point did we as a collective culture, decide that it was acceptable to throw money directly into a landfill? That is precisely what you are doing by using disposables, and we would suggest that you examine your budget as you would likely realize that you are contributing a large amount of money towards a $22 Billion dollar industry that is only interested in making more money regardless of the cost to the planet.
If you are finding that you do not have enough dishes for your holiday meal, consider asking a guest to bring some instead of a side dish. Consider asking various members in attendance to bring various items that are needed to serve and eat versus asking them, to bring their own sides or alcohol. If this is not possible, look for other ways to borrow or rent what you need. There are several sets of reusables available in Lane County to use for free. EcoGeneration, Lane County Waste Management, and even some Florence Master Recyclers have dish sets that are loaned out for larger events.
Avoid all bioplastics, as these are often greenwashed as an environmentally friendly alternative when in fact they are not. While these are becoming popular and are a tempting method to try and reduce your waste, it is important to understand that most bioplastics are not, in fact compostable in your backyard, and the facilities that will accept these materials for industrial composting are scarce across the country. If you would like to learn more about bioplastics and their shortcomings, read Greenwashing the Problem with Plastic.
Farmer’s Markets and Co-ops An often overlooked avenue for getting your produce for the holidays would be local sources of food such as Farmer’s Markets or food Co-Opts. With the explosion of mail-order food, we have seen a significant increase in both food waste and packaging waste. This is especially true of imperfect foods. Often the alternative is the grocery store, where the allure of plastic film is everywhere. The best way to reduce your food miles and avoid packaging is to purchase from your local farmers or co-ops using your own bags to carry around your produce. It is also important to store produce properly.
Food Waste Plan meals. Consider how you will use leftovers for the following day's meal, and plan accordingly. Consider how many people you are feeding and what dishes are generally leftover at the end of past holiday meals. Consider opting not to serve often uneaten or undereaten foods such as green bean casserole, fruit cake, or cranberry sauce. If you are attending a feast or celebration elsewhere, plan your dish accordingly and consider coordinating with others to ensure that there is less of a chance of repeat sides or desserts. Also, consider bringing your own reusable food storage container to take home that extra piece of pie you have your eye on.
Black Friday and Shopping Along the lines of paying attention to packaging with foods, some thought can go into gift giving and avoiding products that are marketed under the fast consumerism model where they break rather quickly. We all know the type of products, the ones that pop up in stores around the holidays, gift sets, and even unknown brand items. Most of these will come overpackaged and are not designed to last. While gift sets are often an easy go-to for some, consider the amount of additional packaging simply to keep the items in place. As consumers, we do have the ability and power to avoid some of the excesses simply by planning ahead.
When considering gifts, consider more than just the packaging. Did you know that a vast majority of returned items are sent to landfills? This is especially true right now as many stores are overstocked and filled to capacity with products to sell. A tip to help you avoid a return line later in December, ask the recipient what they want/where they like to eat/ or any experiences that may be on their bucket list. Work to align your gifting plans to match what the recipient is after. As always, homemade gifts or experiences are great gifting options, as these typically avoid excessive packaging and are often more meaningful to your loved ones.
Wrapping Paper, Gift Bags, and Greeting Cards So we talked about gifts, food, and disposables. What’s left is often the most overlooked part of any holiday season. The wrappings. Did you know that most wrapping paper is not recyclable and is often the primary source of contamination in curbside bins during the initial weeks of the new year? Between disposables and wrapping paper, it is a miracle that any recycling is viable during January. Wrapping paper, gift bags, and greeting cards are often an issue for recyclers since there are multiple materials, metallic inlays, and glitter, to make them festive. These materials cannot be easily separated from paper pulp and will continue to contaminate paper recycling for the foreseeable future.
There are several ways to avoid contributing to contamination and waste. Last year we discussed making your own wrapping paper from used brown paper bags. This tip is one that many found to be helpful and fun to do with the whole family. However, if art is not your forte, there are still ways to reduce waste. My sister for example, has all the gift bags she has ever received and uses these to give gifts to others. By reusing gift bags, you save both the planet and money. Another popular way to reduce wrapping paper waste is to wrap gifts in things like a new kitchen hand towel, a new scarf, other new clothing, etc. Sometimes you have to get creative on how to wrap items, and in my view, that is part of the fun of the season.
Doing Things a Little Differently can Reduce Waste During the Holidays As you have seen, a little planning can go a long way in waste reduction. However, waste will still be generated, no matter how hard you work to prevent it. This is why it is important to set up source separation for compost, recycling, and landfill. Bones, fats, cheeses, dressings, and excessive salt cannot be composted in a compost pile or worm bin as other foods and will instead need to be put into a bokashi bucket first. Residents of Eugene and Springfield can also compost all their food waste, including bones in their curbside yard debris can. We would recommend tossing them into the freezer until the night before your bin goes to the curb to ensure that they do not start to cause foul odors in your kitchen or yard debris bins. All in all, we hope you’ve found these tips helpful. We know that reducing waste isn’t always easy, but even small changes can make a big difference! So go ahead—give any of these a try, and see what happens. Remember, waste reduction starts with small steps that gradually gain traction and start to form a big change of habits the more you look at how you dispose of your waste. If you have any other ideas for how to cut back on holiday waste, please let us know in the comments section below or share them with us on social media.