According to the EPA, household garbage in the US increases by 25 percent during the holidays, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. And that comes on top of an already high baseline! But you don’t have to be a Grinch to scale back this consumption season. The following ideas, grouped by theme, will not only help reduce waste, they will also help reduce stress and make the holidays more enjoyable.
If you no longer want to exchange presents—either the quality stuff or merely the landfill in transition stuff—it may be time for “the talk.” You might be able to have this frank discussion about gift-giving and receiving with certain friends and family. With others, you’ll have to get creative. Go here for some ideas on how to broach the topic. (They won’t all work with everyone but even if you get one person on board, you’ll both win!)
Or opt for non-physical gifts. Gifts of memories keep on giving! In 2017, I bought my daughter Charlotte tickets to the symphony (she had never wanted to go when she was younger, but suddenly did one year). Of course, she needed someone to go with and I happen to love the symphony… A few months later, we went to see Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. I can still hear the opening trill of the clarinet. And they played Take Five for an encore! OMG.
I can’t remember a physical gift ever giving me such a thrill or such a lasting memory. (Okay, it wasn’t technically a gift for me but I know Charlotte also really enjoyed it.)
I have to take a break from writing this and listen to both songs right now…
If you do buy gifts for the holidays, by shopping at a local small business, you’ll not only support a mom and pop shop in your community, you’ll also likely reduce the number of returns that go to landfill. A small business can’t really afford to throw merchandise into the trash if a customer returns it. However, this can happen when you shop online with the big guys.
In 2020, for a CBC Marketplace investigation, journalists bought 12 items from Amazon Canada, hid GPS trackers inside them and returned the items. By the time the story aired, only four of the returned items had been resold. And some of the items traveled hundreds or even thousands of kilometers on their meandering routes, releasing emissions all along the way.
Months on from the investigation, some returns were still in Amazon warehouses or in transit, while a few travelled to some unexpected destinations, including a backpack that Amazon sent to landfill.CBC Marketplace
The backpack had been in perfect condition. As the article goes onto explain, the waste created by free returns isn’t limited to Amazon. Other online giants follow similar practices.
If you find yourself with an unwanted gift on your hands from an online behemoth, you could re-gift it, trade it, sell it, donate it or post it in your Buy Nothing group or on Nextdoor or the free section of Craigslist, etc. Someone somewhere wants the something you don’t.
Paper containing glitter, metal or laminate cannot be recycled. Besides, recycling is a last resort that consumes resources to haul, sort, ship and so on.
We have so many choices to wrap without adding to the waste stream: reusable cloth bags, Japanese Furoshiki cloth wrapping, recycled paper and homemade paper tape.
- For patterns for simple produce bags, go here.
- For bento-style bags go here.
- And for homemade glue and paper tape, go here.
According to Stanford University’s recycling center, if every American family wrapped a mere three gifts in reusable materials, the amount of paper conserved could be spread across 45,000 football fields.
When my kids were little, we loved to make paper out of paper we fished out of the recycling bin. Actually, we still love to make paper. (Go here for a tutorial. The one step we do differently from this tutorial is the drying method. We slap the wet paper onto a window, where it dries very flat and stays flat after removal.)
Our paper in the images below is a little thick for Christmas cards but you can make the paper thinner. The thicker stuff is good for tags on presents though. Or cookie recipes.
You could also use old greeting cards to make paper, thus closing the loop!
One clever way to upcycle the cards
Do you sew? My friend Amy uses her fabric scraps up for English paper piecing—and puts old cards to good use as well.
To make the grandmother’s flower garden quilt blocks shown below, Amy sews each hexagon around a template she cuts out of old cards. As she adds a new circle of hexagons, she removes these templates and uses them to work on the next section. (But it might be nice to leave the odd one inside like a time capsule!) Because the thread doesn’t show, Amy uses up whatever thread she has on hand. She stuffs things like pillows with the tiniest of scraps left over from cutting out these scraps.
In the pic of the flour flowers, the top right flower’s inner plaid petals came from scraps for a robe Amy made me in the 90s while we were roommates in Toronto!
To tree or not to tree, that is the dilemma.
In 2020, when I asked my audience on Facebook if they would put up a Christmas tree, people posted pictures of their beautiful “trees”:
- Trees made out of driftwood
- Wooden ladders covered in lights
- Floor lamps wrapped with boughs and lights
- Ditto treatment around wood-fired stovepipes
- Bare tree branches strung with lights (my mom does this)
- Potted trees to plant outside later
We are able to rent live trees in pots. At the end of the month, the rental company picks up the tree. If you string a rented tree with lights, you must use LEDs. Unless hotter incandescent lights, cool LEDs won’t damage the tree.
Buying a secondhand artificial tree would give that tree a new life so to speak and would reduce the need to manufacture another plastic tree.
Go here for an article from Treehugger that tackles the faux vs real debate (spoiler: real wins).
Tree disposal idea
If you buy a live Christmas tree and have a yard, consider burying the trunk in a hugelkultur bed or mound. Buried in a hugelkultur bed, decomposing wood releases water and nutrients into the soil, putting these precious resources to good use. The organisms that break down the rotting wood to make all of this goodness available to the soil also help aerate that soil.
Because the beds contain bulky wood, they require less soil to fill, which reduces the need to spend hard-earned cash on soil bagged in plastic. And on top of all of those benefits, you get to say the word “hugelkultur” over and over!
If you have a large property, you could build hugelkultur mounds—what you’ll mostly find when reading up on hugelkultur. These tall mounds provide more surface area in which to grow plants and they enable gardeners to harvest their bounty without bending over, saving their backs and knees.
If last year’s lights have all burnt out or the string is defective, you may be able to drop off the lights at your recycling depot. Ours accepts these. Check with your city to find out if it does.
When buying new lights, consider LEDs. LEDs consume at least 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs. They also tend to last longer. And if you rent that Christmas tree, LEDs won’t burn the needles.
Pinecones, acorns and evergreen sprigs not only look beautiful, they biodegrade. Homemade ornaments also tend to cost very little and, if you have kids, provide them with a fun activity during the holidays. Popcorn or paper chain garland are so easy to make, for example.
Egg carton ornaments
My daughter MK made little roses out of paper egg cartons during the first Covid Christmas. She used homemade glue to put them together. (Go here for a glue recipe.)
For each rose, you need four egg cups and one flat strip from the top of the carton. You’ll roll this strip up for the center of the rose. Cut four slits in each egg cup, then trim the corners to round them so they look like petals. With the first cup, pull in the petals a bit to overlap them, then glue the rolled strip to the bottom of the inside of the egg cup. Glue this to the inside bottom of the second egg cup. Repeat until you have glued and stacked all four cups, arranging the petals as you go.
You could paint these or glue tissue paper onto them before gluing the cups together. You could also make a wreath out of a bunch of these. To do that, cut a circle out of paperboard (like a cereal box from the recycling bin) cut out the center, then glue the roses on.
Skip the plastic-wrapped candy canes and hang your tree with dried fruit! Slices of apples, persimmons or oranges all look beautiful. Make extra to give away as gifts… you can’t go wrong with food. Go here for dehydrating Fuyu persimmon and apple slices (shown below).
My daughter Charlotte made her little cousin a gingerbread dump truck last year (he loved it!). If you happen to have any Halloween candy left, you could use it to decorate a gingerbread house (or dump truck).
Choosing to serve food and snacks at parties with reusable dishes, cups, glasses, utensils and napkins will slash waste. If you don’t have enough reusables, ask friends and family to lend them to you, rent them, or if you live in a city like Palo Alto, borrow party packs from the Zero Waste Block Leader in your neighborhood. Each party pack contains settings for 24 guests: plates, bowls, tumblers, utensils and cloth napkins. So smart! Green Town Los Altos runs a similar program. Perhaps your city does as well.
And if you go to parties over the holidays, tuck your reusables into a bag in case you need them. I felt self-conscious doing this at a large funeral reception a few years ago. But I happened to have a metal tin and utensils with me so I just pulled those out of my bag and filled up at the buffet. Several people told me they loved the idea. My reusables helped spark conversations about waste and kept some disposables out of landfill. If BYO reusables can go over at a funeral, they can go over at a New Year’s Eve party.
And remember, if you don’t want to attend a party or can’t possibly attend all the parties, you don’t have to attend all the parties.
A bit of planning will reduce lots of food waste at your parties. We tend to go overboard on food during the holidays and buy much more than we need—yet we can eat only so much. The Guestimator dinner party planning app from Save the Food calculates how much food you’ll need to prepare and buy for your shindig.
In the days leading up to the party, eating what’s on hand in the refrigerator, freezer and pantry, you’ll ensure that food doesn’t go to waste and you’ll free up space for the ingredients you need and any ensuing leftovers.
More tips for reducing waste before and after the paty:
- Buy whatever ingredients you can in reusable bags and containers. And remember, some produce doesn’t need a bag—it has its own natural packaging.
- Store food without plastic. Go here for an A to Z list on storing produce without plastic.
- Freeze the leftovers. Enjoy food from the holidays months later! Go here for freezing food in jars.
- Give away leftovers. Tell your guests to bring a reusable container so they can take some leftovers home to enjoy later.
- And if you do have some food that goes south before you can eat it, give it away or feed it to animals, it belongs in a compost pile of some sort (e.g., yours, the city’s, a community garden’s).
This year, let’s give Mama Earth the gift of less!
My book won silver for single-subject cookbooks at the Taste Canada awards!
I’ve also won a second-place Gourmand cookbook award in the category of food waste. And my book was shortlisted for an award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.