How To Enjoy The Holidays Without Creating Excess Waste

It's officially time to deck the halls—mindfully, that is! Between decorations, packaging, gifts, and food, we tend to produce a lot more waste during the holiday season than the rest of the year. Even if you’ve stayed conscious of reducing your waste up until now, it’s easy to forget to translate these tips to your holiday habits.

“Americans produce, on average, 43 percent more waste during the holidays.”

Here’s a daunting example: OnePoll study last holiday season found that Americans produce, on average, 43 percent more waste during the holidays than any other time of year, coming out to an extra 29 pounds of waste per person. Not surprisingly, the biggest culprit is wrapping paper, followed by gift bags, tissue paper, and food.

But for many people, it wouldn’t quite feel like the holidays without stringing the house with lights and garland—you don’t have to give up these joys in the name of sustainability if you don’t want to! Notably, 56 percent of the poll respondents said they had to choose between being sustainable and enjoying the holidays at all. We’re here to try and prove otherwise!

Below are some of our top tips for reducing waste this holiday season. With just a little more intentionality, you can keep pounds of trash out of landfills and create habits that’ll decrease your waste production for the rest of your year—and for holidays to come!


How to Reduce Waste on Decorations/Cards

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  • You don’t have to give up Christmas lights to reduce your impact this holiday season. Look for qualified Energy Star LED string lights—they use 75 percent less energy than conventional incandescent string lights and are warranty-backed for at less three years.

  • As a lifelong real tree enthusiast, here’s one of my favorite tips: get a real Christmas tree! Real trees pull carbon from the atmosphere and typically travel much shorter distances to get to the consumer than artificial plastic trees do. When December is over, ensure your real tree is composted or chipped into mulch (like this). And if you go the artificial tree route, try to use it for many years to come. After about 20 years, the carbon footprint of an artificial tree tends to balance out with that of a real one.

  • Use decorations made of natural materials, and make them yourself if you feel so inclined! Strings of popcorn, dried cranberries, or garland made of fresh cedar or fir to give your space a cozy feel. Check out more DIY holiday decor here, like dried citrus garlands or cinnamon stick snowflakes. Treat your decor well, and you can use it for years and years.

  • Consider making phone calls this season instead of sending out traditional holiday cards. But if you love the festivity of physical greeting cards (and we don’t blame you), look for cards that are made of recycled paper and are uncoated, so a glossy finish doesn’t come between your cards and the recycling bin.


How to Reduce Waste While Holiday Shopping

  • Head to the store in person this holiday season when you can. Shopping online means more wasted packaging and energy transporting the gifts straight to your house, so try to make one or two in-person shopping trips this year to finish as much of your list as possible. And remember your reusable shopping bags!

“Consider gifting experiences rather than physical gifts.”
  • Whether you’re online or in-person shopping, try to patronize local businesses; this way, you’ll have fewer products shipping overseas. Here are a few of our favorite small businesses. See if there is one located in your city!

  • Consider gifting experiences rather than physical gifts. Concert tickets, an Airbnb for a weekend, restaurant gift cards, museum memberships, cooking classes, magazine subscriptions, and massage or facial gift certificates all make for thoughtful gifts. And they require little or no wrapping! Here are a few more experiential gift ideas.

  • When in doubt, homemade baked goods like cookies or muffins always go over well—and they’ll be gone without a trace in a couple of days. Promise.


How to Reduce Waste While Wrapping

  • Use reusable gift bags instead of wrapping paper, and stuff the bags with newspaper or reused tissue paper from last year. And try to save any gift bags or tissue paper you receive this year!

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  • If you want to wrap some gifts with paper, use newspapers or magazines that might be lying around for a zero-waste wrapping option. Better yet, upcycle your Trader Joe’s bags like this! You can decorate your packages with twine, reusable bows, dried flowers, and sprigs of your Christmas tree.

  • If buying new wrapping paper, look for paper made from recycled materials or paper that can be recycled after it’s used. Most wrapping paper, as long as it has no foil or other non-paper components, is recyclable.

  • Consider packaging gifts in colorful reusable tote bags—like a Baggu bag! Not only will your wrapping job be low waste, but you’ll also gift the recipient a little something extra.


How to Reduce Waste During Dinner

  • Food waste tends to increase around the holidays as folks host parties with lots of leftovers. Online resources like Save the Food’s Guestimator helps hosts determine how much food to prepare—and remember to send your party guests home with leftovers!

  • If possible, use cloth tablecloths and real silverware and plates when serving food rather than disposable plastic utensils and paper plates. Bonus points if you use cloth napkins, too.

  • As always, shop local and/or from the bulk section when you’re grocery shopping for a holiday party. Don’t forget your reusable totes and produce bags!


Bonus Tip: Recycle Properly

To further minimize your waste this holiday season, stay mindful of your recycling habits. Many holiday staples, like tinsel, ribbons, styrofoam, and plastic bags, can’t be recycled, so keep them out of the recycling stream. Some items can be recycled with a little extra effort, like broken string lights, which you can recycle through a special program like this one. Dirty paper plates and plastic utensils also cannot be recycled.

Additionally, make the waste you do create a little more eco-friendly with compostable trash bags, like these ones from HoldOn. They are 13-gallon and 100 percent compostable.


Natalie Gale is a Boston-based freelance journalist. When she’s not writing about art, food, or sustainability, you can find her biking to the farmers’ market, baking, sewing, or planning her next Halloween costume. Say hi on Instagram!