The holidays are the most wonderful time of year, unless you are the planet. To get to actual holiday joy, you’ve got to tear through several layers of waste: disposable wrapping, frilly ribbons, packing tape, wads of plastic shopping bags, mountains of clamshell packaging, and crappy lights that didn’t even make it to Christmas eve.
Estimates say Americans throw out 25 percent more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s than they do during the rest of the year, equal to about 25 million tons of additional garbage. That’s everything from wrapping paper and packaging to all the leftover Christmas pudding no one wanted; plus delivery packages and crappy dollar store decorations. That figure doesn’t even count the carbon (and moral) footprint of all your last-minute overnight deliveries and toys from China.
“We don’t like to think of the environmental impact during the jolly season for a very simple reason: it’s a killjoy,” says Shia Su, author of Zero Waste: Simple Life Hacks to Drastically Reduce Your Trash. “And we feel it’s an exception so it’s okay.”
I needn’t remind you by now that the planet is dying, and in some cases actively being murdered by a bunch of Ebeneezers in bad suits who would actually be happy to get coal in their stockings. But I do need to remind you that some of your holiday traditions are to blame. The key to all this is just to do—and buy—less. Alert cable news, we’re declaring the official start of the War on Christmas… waste.
Shop local (or at least order online earlier)
Less is less: Buy fewer things (many of which gobble up lots of fossil fuels and resources on their way from China to a warehouse to a diesel delivery truck to a store to your home), get fewer but more lasting decorations, travel to the store by car less, use less packaging, and reuse as much as possible.
Let’s start with shopping: buying local is always the better option whenever possible. It helps to strengthen local businesses, and to stave off the Wall-E future where we’re all buying from one giant planet-gobbling mega corporation named after something comically ironic, like, idk, a rainforest or something.
When it comes to ordering online, a good rule of thumb to remember is that faster = more wasteful. Air shipping typically uses more climate change-causing fuel, so choose ground shipping if you have the option. Avoid rush overnight and two-day options (yes, even when they’re “free”), which often have a higher environmental impact. Keep in mind that online retailers will be as wasteful as possible in the spirit of getting your order to you fast.
“Two-day shipping can put some constraints on a delivery provider in identifying the lowest-carbon, lowest-fuel cost pathways,” per Grist’s Ask Umbra column. The column notes that longer shipping windows allow delivery companies more time to hold back a delivery truck until it’s full instead of half empty, and design a more efficient delivery route around your neighborhood. That’s not even to mention that rapid-fulfillment centers are actually killing people.
Kathryn Kellogg, a blogger and author of the forthcoming book 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste, recommends looking for so-called “frustration-free” packaging options from big online retailers like Amazon. Those orders come with less packaging or packaging made of recyclable materials. And it’s easier to open too, so Grandma will thank you. If you’re shopping from a smaller retailer online, just email them asking if they can offer no-plastic packaging. It helps to take the excess packaging out of the equation before it reaches your gift recipient.
“I find that most [sellers] are really really receptive to that idea,” Kellogg said.
If all else fails, at least try to batch your orders together. One shipment containing all your purchases has less of an environmental impact than several purchases spread over a bunch of delivery trucks.
Don’t wrap it up
Here’s something you’ve probably suspected your entire life: wrapping paper is a scam! It’s one of the only products you buy specifically to destroy, and once it’s gone, you will never think of those cute holiday patterns you shelled out too much money for ever again. The United States produces about 4.6 million pounds of wrapping paper each year; 2.3 million pounds of which end up in landfills. We also spend $7 billion on wrapping paper every year.
Some wrapping paper is recyclable—but it has to be not metallic, textured or have glitter or ribbon on it. Do you know if your wrapping paper meets those standards? Do you know how to check? Will everyone you’re gifting go through the hassle of checking? Any non-recyclable item wrongly put in a bag of recyclables can taint the whole load. Also, remember that waste is produced mostly from where a product comes from (i.e. tearing down trees) not where it ends up. Skip it!
Experts recommend sticking to plain, recyclable paper—like butcher paper, for instance—for wrapping, but repurposing newspapers or old magazines, with some personal craft flair, is even better.
“It really doesn’t look garbage-y, when you really wrap it in a nice newspaper, tuck a bit of pine tree in there,” Madeleine Somerville, author of the book All You Need Is Less: The Eco-friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity tells us. “It actually looks super cute and minimalist, nature-y and simple.”
Su suggests wrapping with funny magazine pictures or newspaper headlines for an added hit of joy, and adding dried orange slices or cinnamon sticks to give presents a “sophisticated and nostalgic” look.
She also suggests getting creative about wrapping gifts inside each other. Kitchen goods can be wrapped in a tea towel, for instance, or personal gifts can be tied up in a scarf. Reusable gift bags and other items that can be repurposed—cookie tins, mason jars—make high-end gift containers that are much better than just fancy, paper garbage with snowpeople printed on it.
Skip the white elephant (and maybe the Secret Santa, too)
The problem with the White Elephant gift exchange you do at a party or at your office is that most people buy crap. The perils of attempting to buy a gift that a vague acquaintance will enjoy mean you will either end up buying something they won’t use, or some gag gift that they will laugh at precisely twice and then trash. The category of “joke gifts” is just smart rebranding because “slightly humorous garbage” didn’t test well.
“It’s so complicated to shop for gifts people do want, I don’t want to complicate things further by getting people gifts they don’t want,” Somerville said.
These kinds of gift exchanges can be a little half-assed or rushed, which inevitably leads to more waste. But if you’re stuck in one of these gift exchanges, at least give the right kind of gift (more on that below), one that’s somewhat less likely to wind up in the trash within 12 hours of receipt.
Shop for zero-waste gifts
Yes, the simple solution to cutting down waste is to not buy anything from a store, ever, and just bask in the warm hearth of being alive together and maybe a streaming baking show. That doesn’t always work, but there’s an easy way around this problem: Give gifts that aren’t things.
You’ve surely heard by now that millennials are killing the “things” industry, mostly because we don’t have a lot of money or space to collect junk and are vaguely aware that spending money on crap seems silly when we might have to pack it all into a rusted school bus to travel the baked-out wasteland of earth in our increasingly likely Mad Max future. Plus, research shows that spending money on experiences, not things, will make you happier in the long run. Extrapolate that to your gift giving, says Somerville.
“Change from giving something tangential to something experiential,” she said.
So ditch the kitchen appliance of dubious necessity or the clothing of questionable fashion status and instead go for something like concert tickets, passes to a museum, a brewery tour or a membership to a subscription service like Audible or Marvel Unlimited. The internet is full of lists of ideas like this. Sites like Etsy also let you search by zero-waste gifts. Sommerville encourages family members to forgo gifts for her daughter and instead to help pay for a dance class or other expense she wants to take on in the coming year.
She said it’s all about switching your mindset: think of the gift as a burden you’re giving to someone to take care of. Is it something they’re going to use often? Or is it something that’s going to sit around taking up space for years? Will it spark joy, as they say, or are you just saying to the other person, “Here, you throw this away?”
Give Santa a talkin’ to
You’ve covered your bases on reducing waste, now what about the people who so rudely insist on showing their love for you and giving YOU presents? Have a talk with your loved ones (or send them this article!) before they buy you something and let them know what you really want for the holidays is a planet that isn’t covered in more plastic than trees. Sommerville says she will tell family members to invest in fewer but better gifts— a sturdy wood toy over several breakable plastic ones, for instance.
Su recommends just saying specifically what gifts you’d enjoy.
“Choosing the right present can be very stressful, so this reduces the stress for them and you know it’s going to be something useful,” she said.
But it’s the holidays, so be reasonable. The ability to factor in the environmental impact of your holidays is a definitely a privilege (and one you should take advantage of if you have it). You can always donate gifts you don’t like to the less fortunate rather than sending them to the recycling bin.
“I don’t think this is necessarily the time to die on this mound,” Sommerville says. “The goal is to remember that it’s the thought that counts.” Bottom line, if you’re able to encourage your loved ones to hold off on gifts—or opt for lower-waste options—you definitely should, but your mileage here may vary, and that’s ok, too.
Fake tree or real tree?
Experts are sort of still split on this one! A 2010 study cited by the New York Times found that a plastic tree would have to be used for 20 years to mitigate the environmental impact; but most people use them for just six. Real trees need to be cared for and transported on fuel-guzzling trucks, but they also help suck some carbon out of the air, and can be turned into mulch and compost come January.
Live trees actually have one third the carbon footprint of artificial trees, which are produced with sometimes harmful PVC plastics, according to that study. So if you’ve got a plastic tree, use it forever and ever; if you’re going real, buy local—or take one of the ones the lot was planning to throw away—and make sure to put it back into the earth when you’re done.
Buy some decent decorations already—or make your own
Dollar-store lights get you dollar store trash. Invest in an energy saving set of LED lights that will last many many seasons. More generally, never buy decorations that won’t last multiple years. Or just get more creative and use stuff around the house, like popcorn and cranberry strings to decorate the tree, a traditional classic that’s somehow been replaced by plastic over the years. Kellogg recently collected a bunch of bright red leaves from outside of her house in the Bay Area and she’s using them for holiday decor.
“I feel like it looks very beautiful and at the end I’m going to put them in the compost bin and it’s going to turn back to soil,” she says.
Decrease your feast, skip the roast beast
Food waste is one of those glistening muscles of privilege that we like to flex in America, and it gets an extra workout during the holidays. During Thanksgiving, for instance, the National Resources Defense Council found that 6 million turkeys ended up in the trash. Those birds required more than 100 billion gallons of water, which is enough to supply New York City for 100 days. It’s a sign of how careless our food consumption is, and how ethically dubious or food system has become.
“Lavish feasts also mean food waste,” Su said. She recommends reducing the overall carbon footprint of your dinner by doing the thing experts keep recommending as the easiest action you can take to personally fight climate change — break your dang meat addiction already and eat more plant-based foods.
To cut down on physical waste at your holiday gatherings, Kellogg recommends culling your guest list by 20 percent — figuratively. Invite the same amount of people but act like you’ve invited 20 percent fewer. You’ll make less food, end up with fewer leftovers (you make too much food already and you know it) and throw less single-use packaging in the trash.
Whatever food waste you do have, compost it. Food waste in landfills emits methane, a gas that’s 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, according to the EPA. You can’t compost meat btw; noticing a pattern?
New Year, same planet
If your party decor has got a “2019” on it, the full lifespan of that object is from about 8pm Dec. 31 until you pass out tired and underwhelmed by another lackluster New Year’s Eve party a few hours later. As a general rule, never buy things that only have one use, for one day. Plastic confetti and glitter are just more microplastics that end up in the ocean that will end up in the belly of a sea creature, which will be cut open to be shared in a viral photo in a few years. Starting the year off by dumping a bunch of plastic 2019 glasses and noisemakers in the trash is like a hangover for the planet.
Buy some decorations and party favors you can use over and over again, and use real glasses—or mason jars, Mets souvenir helmets, whatever—instead of single-use plastic champagne flutes. Or just celebrate the correct way: drinking champagne alone in the dark, which also saves on energy costs!
The holidays beg for overindulgence and opulence, but you’ve just got to break the habit and do less. It’s impossible to recycle our way out of waste, because recycling just doesn’t work like we think it does. Santa and Rudolph are fictional of course, but if we don’t take action, Frosty might be, too.
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