Reduce Packaging Waste This Holiday Season

hands hold out glass jar wrapped with twine and fir branch for eco christmas wrapping gift

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

You don't have to strive for zero waste perfection. Every effort to reduce unnecessary paper and plastic waste is worthwhile.

Giving and receiving gifts is one of the great pleasures of the holiday season, but that pleasure is somewhat reduced when you behold the pile of packaging waste that's left behind. And this year, in the midst of America's Great Recycling Crisis, the residual packaging waste is a bigger deal than ever.

As we've written before on Treehugger, China closed its doors to plastic waste imports in January 2018. Up until then it had taken 70 percent of the United States' plastic waste and two-thirds of the UK's. Even though the U.S. had ample warning of the impending change, it failed to build additional recycling infrastructure or to launch waste-reduction campaigns or to pressure manufacturers to come up with better packaging designs – just a few of the many things it could have done to cope with this enormous problem. As a result, the recycling situation is in a state of chaos.

USA Today reports that countless municipalities across the country cannot find a market for their recyclables. Many are driving their trucks directly to the landfill. Others are paying recycling companies to take away their trash.

"In Sacramento County, California, recycling goes on, but the economic toll is adding up. Mixed paper was worth $85 to $95 a ton to recyclers a year ago. Lately, it's been fetching $6.50 to $8.50. Lesser-quality plastics were worth $45 a ton. Now it costs $35 to get it recycled. Cardboard prices fell, too."

These issues, which are big enough on a day-to-day basis, are intensified during the holidays, when people are shopping and consuming more than ever, particularly online. UPS predicts it will deliver 800 million packages this holiday season, up from 762 million last year at this time. If FedEx's numbers match those from last year, it will deliver 400 million. That's a whole lot of cardboard boxes, plastic bags, and packing peanuts.

Lamenting the lack of recycling infrastructure is not going to change the unfortunate fact that our society is not set up to handle this level of waste right now. But knowing that, we have a clear responsibility to minimize this waste as best we can, and tackling it on a personal level is all we can do.

I urge you to make a point of avoiding unnecessary packaging when shopping for and wrapping holiday gifts. You can do this in a number of ways.

  1. Make your own presents, using materials you already have. Check out 5 last-minute hostess gifts from your pantry and 10 luxe DIY gifts made from old sweaters.
  2. Buy presents loose, without outer packaging, and refuse any additional bags or boxes from the stores.
  3. Buy second-hand presents from thrift stores, local swap sites, or antique shops. These always come free from packaging.
  4. Leave surplus packaging at the store – whatever you don't need in the case of a return. Send a message to the brand that you don't support their packaging design.
  5. When shopping online, inquire about packaging prior to placing an order. Support companies whose shipping bags and boxes are plastic-free and fully recyclable. (I'm no Amazon fan, but their Certified Frustration Free Packaging is an ingenious idea that more companies should emulate.)
  6. Wrap gifts in newspaper, old wrapping paper or gift bags, cloth (check out beautiful furoshiki wraps), or brown paper. Try to keep wrapping paper and gift bags as nice as possible when you're opening a present and save for reuse. Note that wrapping paper is always non-recyclable.
  7. Consider not wrapping presents, or just wrapping the kids' presents. Create a new gift-giving model where the giver presents an unwrapped gift to the recipient. It's no less meaningful, there's just less lead-up to the big reveal.
  8. Use non-salvageable paper and cardboard as fire starter.
  9. Talk to the family and friends with whom you spend the holidays and ask if that gigantic pile of wrapping paper waste that dominates so many living rooms on Christmas morning can be eliminated or, at the very least, shrunk considerably.

It's not going to solve the recycling crisis overnight, but neither will improving our recycling infrastructure. What's needed more than that is a dramatic shift in the way we shop and handle our goods, always moving toward less packaging.