An Expert's Take on Celebrating a Zero Waste Holiday Season

It is said that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, Americans bin 25% more trash than the rest of the year.

Christmas Tree in the Garbage
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'Tis the season to be jolly, but this joyousness comes with some detritus. It is said that during the time stretching between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Americans bin 25% more trash than compared to the rest of the year. This amounts to a staggering amount of waste, about 25 million tons of garbage, or about 1 million extra tons per week!

Whether it is packaging waste, leftover food, a straggly Christmas tree, or cringe gifts, there’s a way to tackle the holiday season scrap-free. We spoke to Kathryn Kellogg, the founder of Going Zero Waste and author of "101 Ways to Go Zero Waste," for handy tips. 

She is celebrating her sixth year of the holiday season in a low-waste way. “There is so much hustle and bustle with shopping, gifting, decorating, and celebrating, the list goes on. Being mindful about waste increases my creativity, helps me save money, and most importantly really helps to ground and simplify the season,” she says. 

This awareness has given her clarity on what’s really important: “It allows me to keep a good perspective on what truly matters—spending time with the people I love.”

Ahead, she shares her tips on how to whittle down the waste of the season. 

Bring a real Christmas tree home: The debate around a live tree versus a faux tree rages on. About 350 million trees are grown on renewable Christmas Tree farms, planted by farmers across every state in the U.S. and even in Canada. They smell great, and at the end of life can be composted or recycled: There are 4,000 local Christmas Tree recycling programs across the U.S.

When it comes to faux trees, which are reusable and cheap, she writes on her blog: “You can reuse a really good fake tree for over ten years, if you keep it in good condition. Some are designed to last 20 or 30 years, give or take.” But the downside is that they’re made from petroleum-based plastic PVC and might contain lead. Artificial trees need to be reused for at least 20-years to be a more sustainable choice than a fresh tree and eventually will end up in a landfill.

Her pick? Using a real tree. The most eco-friendly way? She recommends buying a tree from a local farm that’s been sprayed with minimal pesticides and composting or recycling it at the end of its life. 

DIY Décor: When it comes to ornaments, Kellogg takes the DIY route. This includes an upcycled homemade wine cork garland, toilet paper roll snowflakes, popcorn, and even dry orange rings strung on a string. Another great way is to ask friends and family for excess Christmas décor. “I find that most people have an overwhelming amount of decor (My grandma is always trying to give decor away) – all you have to do is ask!” she blogs. “Our stockings and tree skirt have been passed down from my family,” she says.

Thoughtful gifting: According to Kellogg, gifting can be kind of tricky. “I see value in buying something someone needs or wants, but I also see value in buying experiences because maybe someone doesn’t need or want anything,” she writes.

And gifting experiences needn’t be a pricey affair. You can gift anything from a DIY present, roller skating, or movie tickets to yoga classes, tandem skydiving or even donating to an organization close to their heart, depending on your budget. The best way is to have a conversation before you buy a gift so that you can shortlist one that’s useful and cherished. Wrap gifts in cloth or slide them into gift bags that can be reused again.

When it comes to receiving gifts, she suggests making a list that you can share in advance. To know what you really, really want, jot down what you really like about the products.

“I don’t want to be a part of a throwaway society. I want my things to matter and have purpose,” she writes. What happens if you still end up receiving that ugly sweater? Accept it graciously, but you don’t need to keep it. You can donate, sell or use it, without sentimentality bogging you down. 

Planning the menu: Plan your menu in advance, hit the farmers market, and buy only what you need. Save the scraps to make stock or regrow them, while composting the rest. Send guests home with a full belly and doggy bags (ask them to get reusable containers), and freeze the remainder to enjoy at a later date. 

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