How to Create Less Waste During the Holidays

There are so many ways you can cut back on waste during the holidays. yevgeniy11/Shutterstock

From Thanksgiving to New Year's Day, household waste increases by more than 25 percent, and this extra trash — mostly food, shopping bags, product packaging and wrapping paper — adds up to an additional 1 million tons of waste a week that's sent to U.S. landfills, according to the EPA. Luckily, there are many steps you can take that will help you reduce your holiday trash — and even save some cash.

Where to shop

The easiest way to cut back on what you're throwing away is to reduce the amount of stuff you bring home in the first place, and a good place to start is with product packaging. After all, packaging makes up 30 percent of America's trash — the largest portion of municipal solid waste generated.

It might seem overwhelming (perhaps even downright impossible) to do package-free Christmas shopping, but there are ways to cut back on unnecessary packaging. Look for retailers that offer package-free products, such as Lush, which sells handmade vegetarian soaps and cosmetics that come wrapped in paper instead of bottled in plastic. Shop at local stores where you can buy unpackaged goods, purchase used items from thrift shops, or check out listings on sites like craigslist and Freecycle.

Jen Rustemeyer of The Clean Bin Project, a self-taught expert when it comes to less-wasteful shopping, says avoiding excessive packaging just takes practice. "I tend to shop at local shops and craft fairs, and I keep an eye out in secondhand shops for new condition items. There are some great eco shops like Life Without Plastic that sell cool eco-alternatives, and you can get like-new secondhand books from Amazon. I also look for items that I can get just wrapped in paper — and I always shop with a cloth bag."

Prefer to do all your shopping online? Before placing an order with a company, find out what kind of packaging it uses. If the website doesn't provide that information, contact the retailer — the company might be willing to ship your items in a more eco-friendly way if you ask. Buying online might even be the greener choice. For example, offers frustration-free packaging on some of its products, which means the item is sent to you in a recyclable box that's free of materials like plastic clamshells and wire ties.

"Online retailers offer an interesting sustainability opportunity because they do not need to rely on packaging to market a product, and therefore they may be able to forgo some packaging without any loss of benefit," says Adam K. Gendell, project associate at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

The packaging dilemma

It can be difficult to assess the sustainability of packaging. If you see two similar products, it's easy to assume the one with the least amount of packaging is the more eco-friendly choice, but what if the more heavily packaged item comes wrapped in mostly recyclable materials?

Gendell explains it this way: "Take the banana, for instance. Most folks agree that it already has some pretty effective packaging in its peel, yet a small amount of plastic can keep it ripe for twice as long, doubling its shelf life. In many instances, the banana with plastic packaging will offer a bigger sustainability advantage because the banana — which incurred social, environmental and economic impacts when it was grown, harvested and transported — won't go to waste."

So, which banana do you choose? Gendell advises sustainably minded customers to simply use their best judgment. Don't just look at the amount of packaging — see what it's made of and check if the material can be recycled in your area. And if you come across an item that's excessively packaged, don't hesitate to tell the company. "When consumers send the message that sustainability matters, companies listen," Gendell says.

What to give

kneading bread dough
Head to the kitchen and make some homemade bread for a made-with-love holiday gift.

megscapturedtreasures / Shutterstock

Gift giving is an essential part of the holiday season, but that doesn't mean you have to stuff stockings with store-bought products. Get a little crafty and make some presents yourself — we've got some great DIY gift ideas to get your started. Or head into the kitchen and whip up one of these scrumptious holiday treats.

Remember that presents don't have to be material goods. Have a friend that loves your homemade bread? Invite her over and teach her how to make it herself. Has your son always wanted to go horseback riding? Sign him up for a trail ride. Gifts like classes, museum memberships, charity donations and movie or concert tickets are great ways to show someone you care without adding to the landfill.

"Gifts of time and experience don't have any packaging and can be really meaningful, but if you want to give material gifts, think about choosing quality, locally made or fair trade items that will last a long time," Rustemeyer says. Check out some of her other ideas for waste-free giving.

Gift-wrap alternatives

hands hold christmas present wrapped in old recycled map with twine

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Annual waste from gift-wrap and shopping bags totals 4 million tons in the U.S., according to the Use Less Stuff Report, and half of the paper America consumes is used to wrap and decorate consumer products, according to The Recycler's Handbook.

"It would take quite a Scrooge to say that we should forgo wrapping our gifts and eliminate the surprise and joy of unwrapping presents," Gendell says, but just because you want to eliminate unnecessary waste doesn't mean you're going to have a bunch of unwrapped gifts sitting underneath that organically grown Christmas tree. There are a variety of wrapping options out there that are both festive and sustainable — you just have to get a little creative.

If you have newspapers, paper bags, magazines or old maps, you've got gift-wrap that's not only green, but will also going to save you a lot of green. You can also think outside the realm of paper wrapping and use scarves or scrap material — better yet, put those old tablecloths and fabric swatches to good use and create gift bags you can use year after year.

"My family uses reusable Christmas-themed cloth bags when wrapping gifts. They close with drawstrings or fabric ribbons, and we pass them back and forth among the family each year," Rustemeyer says. "I skip plastic bows and aim for biodegradable raffia or twine or reusable cloth ribbons."

You may not have the same Santa-and-snowflake-print gifts as everyone else, but with a little bit of creativity, your gift-wrap can be just as festive — and not nearly as wasteful.

Food waste

compost pile
There are so many things, like fruits and vegetables, that can gain a second life in a compost pile.

Annette Shaff / Shutterstock

This is an ideal time for the family to gather around the dinner table and indulge in some holiday treats, but too often our food goes to waste. Americans waste 96 billion pounds of food each year, according to the USDA, and all that waste really adds up — in fact, the EPA says that food waste losses account for about $100 billion annually.

Luckily, you can reduce your family's food waste this season — and always — by following a few simple rules.

  • Plan your menu and figure out exactly how much food you need. Then make a shopping list and stick to it.
  • Store leftovers safely and get creative with the odds and ends of a meal. For example, store leftover vegetables, rice and beans in the freezer and use them later for soup.
  • Keep a bread bag in the freezer and defrost slices later to make breadcrumbs.
  • Start a compost pile so that uneaten food can nourish the soil to grow more food. Here's how to start a compost pile in four easy steps.
  • Donate excess food. Some charities will accept food donations, so check with your local food bank or use Feeding America's food bank locator to find one in your area.

Learn other great tips on reducing food waste, or visit Love Food Hate Waste's website for more information.

Christmas trees

old Christmas tree lies on its side next to suburban driveway for recycling pickup

Pgiam / Getty Images

About 25-30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year, and regardless of where you stand on the real tree vs. fake tree debate, if you're going the real-tree route, be sure to recycle it when the holidays are over. Recycled Christmas trees are used for everything from generating electricity to preventing beachfront erosion, and preparing your tree for its afterlife is as simple as removing the ornaments and checking the collection or drop-off dates in your area. To locate Christmas tree recycling centers and services in your neighborhood, type in your ZIPcode at Earth 911.