The holiday season is upon us! I love this time of year, and I know I’m not alone. However, the most wonderful time of the year is also one of the most wasteful times of the year.
I hate to burst the holiday spirit bubble, but it’s true.
Think of all the extra ‘things’ we incorporate this time of year that can contribute to a whole lot of trash. Here is a quick list of what I’m talking about (I will go into detail for each item listed below and include topic-specific statistics that are pretty staggering.):
Gifts (packaging, shipping materials, poor quality items that will break)
Food (parties, gatherings, treats, festive drinks and more)
Wrapping paper (self-explanatory)
Clothes (dressing up for parties, special events, etc. often requires new outfits)
Holiday cards (again, self-explanatory)
- Gatherings (hosting parties, attending events, family, etc)
The good news is that you can still participate in your favorite holiday traditions while incorporating low-to-zero waste values. The even better news is that it’s easy to do, AND, these waste-saving tips can also be budget friendly!
So, without further ado, let’s get into it!
Zero Waste Christmas Tree/O Christmas Tree
I’m jumping in with the Christmas tree because for years there has been a debate about whether or not an artificial or real tree is more eco-friendly.
I did some research and here is what I found:
“In the most definitive study of the perennial real vs. fake question, an environmental consulting firm in Montreal found that an artificial tree would have to be reused for more than 20 years to be greener than buying a fresh-cut tree annually. The calculations included greenhouse gas emissions, use of resources and human health impacts.”
The biggest issue with artificial trees is that they are made with a petroleum-based plastic called PVC. I could do a whole post on the negative effects of petroleum, but I think you probably can guess that petroleum-based products are not good for humans or the environment. On top of all that, artificial trees can’t be recycled, and at the end of their lives, end up in the trash.
So what about real trees?
According to one source: “each year, 33 to 36 million Christmas trees are produced in America, and 50 to 60 million are produced in Europe” (produced meaning cut down). That’s a lot of trees! However, Christmas trees are usually grown in specific tree farms, and while they are growing, help offset carbon in the atmosphere.
Related post: 37 places to shop for ethical and eco-friendly gifts
Real trees can also be recycled as mulch or compost after use, used for backyard habitat, and more (see more ways you can recycle your Christmas tree here.) Many waste companies will also do a Christmas tree pick-up after the holidays are done for proper disposal. Check with your local waste company to see if they do this!
But wait! Before you send it to the compost, check out these herbal ways you can reuse your Christmas tree from The Pistachio Project.
So which one do you pick? There seem to be pros and cons to both, so the choice is up to you. For me personally, we have an artificial tree. My husband is allergic to pine, so a real tree is out of the question for us. We purchased a small artificial tree years ago and love it. If we had to get a new one, we would definitely look for an artificial tree second hand. But for now, our tree is in great condition and we plan to use it indefinitely!
Don't want to do a tree at all? Here are some really creative alternative ideas on Pinterest, or a super cute eco-friendly DIY tree from The Green Hub.
Want another option?
Potted Christmas Tree: This is such a great alternative if you're a plant lover like I am. Here is a post with tips on how to care for a potted Christmas tree. It seems pretty simple, plus you have the option of planting it outside in the spring/summer, and repotting it and bringing it back in during the cooler months.
One final option:
Rent a Christmas Tree: This is exactly as it sounds. You 'rent' a Christmas tree for the holiday season. After the season is over, the company picks the tree up, and then the tree is replanted back into a forest in order for it to do its tree thing (you know, cleaning the air, providing habitat, etc).
The one downside is it seems to be pretty location specific (makes sense though), so you'll have to do your own research for your area to see if there is a company that will rent. For example, here is one from California.
Zero Waste Decorations
While we’re on the topic of Christmas decorations, let’s dive in a little more to this topic. Decorating for Christmas is one of my favorite Christmas activities (it’s part of my family’s pay-it-forward/traditions/activity-based advent calendar). Even growing up, it was one of my favorite things to do. I loved unboxing all the items and reliving the memories with my family. I love hanging up ornaments on the tree. Over the past few years, however, we’ve really scaled back on our decorations. Storing the items and having to take down all of the decorations at the end of the season started to become a chore.
So what does this have to do with zero waste?
Basically: less stuff = less waste = saving money = less stress and anxiety
I’m not telling you how to decorate but sharing what worked for my family, which was scaling back. It has saved us time, money, and prevented waste. We have also found it has not inhibited our holiday spirits in any way!
It is also important to remember that physical clutter can cause anxiety. I often remember after we’d take down our Christmas decorations the feeling of relief and ‘openness’. We had too much stuff.
So how can you reduce waste with holiday decorations?
Shop second hand: Decorations are one of those things that are easy to reuse year after year or buy from a thrift store or second-hand store. I constantly see a plethora of holiday decorations in second-hand shops, being sold online (freecycle.org, Buy Nothing, Nextdoor, and Facebook Marketplace are some of my favorites), and at garage sales. This option not only reduces waste and keeps things from going into the landfill, but it also is very budget-friendly!
Ask around: Another option would be to ask friends/family. It may sound weird, but seriously, you may be surprised by how many Christmas decorations people have that they want to get rid of. It’s a lot to store! Also, your family may have fun and meaningful items they are looking to get rid of. I have a couple of items from my grandma that I truly cherish.
Look for high-quality items: If you do have to purchase new (or even second hand), look for higher quality items if you can. Highly quality items will last longer, preventing you from having to buy something new in the near future.
Look for items with minimal packaging: In addition to looking for high-quality items, be sure to look for items that have minimal packaging.
‘Hygge’: Bring some hygge into your home and decorate with natural elements from outside. Maybe a grapevine wreath, some dried flowers/berries, beautiful birch branches, etc? One bonus to using natural elements is you can keep them up all winter if you desire since they’re not specifically holiday-themed!
Cozy Lighting: Another element of hygge has to do with cozy lighting - so take advantage of that! Light candles to create a beautiful, relaxing glow.
Christmas tree decorations: Decorations for the Christmas tree can fall within many of these tips, but to take it a step further, consider natural things like popcorn garland, dried citrus rings, cinnamon sticks, wooden ornaments made from cut logs, cranberry garlands, and pinecones are all great options. Plus, all those items can be composted after the season. Check out my Pinterest board with zero waste decoration ideas for more inspiration.
Christmas lights: Christmas lights can be especially festive (and also contribute to that hygge lighting). However, Christmas lights can easily contribute to a lot of waste. What can you do if they break? Some local recycling centers WILL take back broken Christmas light strings. If you have a strand that is no longer working, check around before throwing them away. This site has some great options for light recycling programs if you’re looking for more info.
Additionally, if you’re having lights outside, look into solar-powered lights, or see if your electrical company offers alternative energy to power your home (if you need to use electricity). Our company does, and our home is powered on 100% wind power for only an extra $5 a month!
Zero(ish) Waste Christmas Cards
Another activity in my family’s pay-it-forward/traditions/activity-based advent calendar is to send Christmas cards. I LOVE this tradition and look forward to sending and receiving them each year.
However, Christmas cards are not without waste. From the production, packaging for delivery, mailing them to each recipient, and then the card and envelope itself, there is a lot of opportunity for waste.
To put all that in perspective, check out this statistic:
“More than a billion Christmas cards - 17 for every man, woman, and child - will be delivered each year. That's enough to stretch around the world five times.”
So, what can you do?
Here are some of my favorite options to reduce Christmas card waste:
Shopping for cards from an eco-friendly company: I created an entire post with 30 companies that sell eco-friendly cards so you can pick and choose one that fits your needs/values! You can check it out here. The list includes physical cards and ecards.
If you're looking for a specific recommendation.....
Paper Culture: I have used Paper Culture the past few years for our holiday cards (they also have options for year-round events). Although there is some packaging waste with their card shipments, they use post-consumer waste and wood alternatives for their cards and envelopes, and also plant a tree for each order to offset their carbon footprint.
Homemade cards: Get creative and upcycle materials to create your own cards!
Zero Waste Christmas Gifts
I’m not going to go into a whole lot of detail about gifts, because I have an entire post with over 70 zero waste gift ideas you can check out if you’re looking for specific ideas. I also have a post with 37 places to shop for ethical and eco-friendly gifts that you can check out!
For now, I’ll just go into some of the basics for gift giving and keeping waste low:
-Give the gift of experiences
-Buy second hand
-Regift (the taboo against regifting is completely societal based!)
-Replace gift giving with another tradition
-Donate in someone’s honor
-Give the gift of time
-Zero Waste-friendly items (stainless steel straws, cloth napkins, etc - again, see link above for specific items)
-Follow the rule: ‘something you want, something you need, something you wear, and something you read’
Ordering Gifts Online
Ordering gifts online is widely popular, which I think is awesome. I’m seriously all for ordering online and not having to worry about running to different stores and standing in line with a rambunctious three-year-old.
But waste from ordering online comes from excess packaging, packing materials, and shipping materials. Here are a few of ways to reduce waste from ordering online:
-Ask for reduced packaging: If you’re buying from a small company, a shop owner on Etsy, or any place that has a comment box on the shopping cart page, request to have the items shipped with as little waste as possible
-Request items shipped together: Amazon and other websites offer the option of having all items shipped together. This helps cut down on packaging waste big time!
-Reuse packaging materials: For any packaging materials you do receive, be sure to find ways to reuse them versus just sending them straight to the trash
Finally, check out this post from Green Indy Blog about how to get near zero waste orders from Amazon. It’s super quick and easy!
Reducing Gift Wrap Waste
Gift wrap is a whole other post (literally, I have a whole separate post on it), so I’m not going to get into detail here. But I wanted to point out a statistic that shows why we need to work on reducing waste!
Did you know that “it is estimated that we produce 4 million pounds of gift wrap waste each year, which is enough to fill 5,787 football fields [source].” My jaw dropped when I first came across that statistic. That is insane.
Here are a couple of ways to reduce gift wrap waste:
- Look for 100% recycled wrapping paper
- Reuse gift bags, boxes, and tissue paper
Consider alternative packaging: baskets, tins, and cute containers work great!
For more ideas, check out my post on reducing gift wrap waste.
Fancy party dresses, ugly Christmas sweaters, costumes for themed celebrations (what? Oh, that’s just my family?), winter gear; it seems that no matter the occasion, at some point during the holidays, we are in need of some new clothes. Luckily, there are a lot of option in regards to saving money and reducing waste.
But first, take a look at this. According to one source:
“84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator.”
I know what you’re thinking, ‘well I bring my clothes to my local second hand/consignment shop!’. Trust me, I’ve had the same thoughts. And while that is great, it doesn’t always mean the clothes won’t end up in the landfill.
According to another source:
“you think you could get some money out of them, so you take them to a consignment or thrift store, or sell them via one of the new online equivalents, like ThredUp. But they’ll probably reject most of your old clothes, even the ones you paid dearly for, because of small flaws or no longer being in season. With fast fashion speeding up trends and shortening seasons, your clothing is quite likely dated if it’s more than a year old. Many secondhand stores will reject items from fast-fashion chains like Forever 21, H&M, Zara and Topshop. The inexpensive clothing is poor quality, with low resale value, and there’s just too much of it.”
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that if you donate clothes to a second-hand shop that they will be resold. Your best bet in reducing clothing waste is to use what you have at home, shop second-hand, or purchase from reputable eco-friendly clothing companies.
But for something like an ugly Christmas sweater that you’re maybe going to wear for a few hours, spending the money (or even finding) an eco-friendly ugly Christmas sweater may not be an option. Note: while my example is for an ugly Christmas sweater, the tips below are applicable for any type of clothing you may need to purchase during the holiday season: for a party, gathering, photos, etc.
So what can you do?
Use what you have at home: my brother once took an old Santa hat and an old string of lights and made a light up Santa hat. I recently saw an ugly Christmas sweater at Target which had garland sewed into it with ornaments hanging from said garland. You could easily make something like that with little effort and time (and a heck of a lot cheaper). Or maybe you can class up a cocktail dress you own with some new jewelry or clutch you borrow from a friend. Which brings me too...
Ask to borrow items from a friend or family: If you know you’re only going to wear something once, it is budget and waste friendly to simply ask around to see if there is something you can borrow from a friend. I’ve had a few friends do this and I’m always happy to loan something out!
Buy second hand: if you don’t have a lot of options for using what you have at home or borrow from someone, your best bet is to look second-hand in your local shop, online at freecycle.org, your local Buy Nothing group, Nextdoor, Craigslist, or Facebook Marketplace. ThredUP is also a great resource for buying secondhand clothes online. I have used them many times and have had a good experience. Plus, they ship in waste friendly packaging.
Rent: For fancy occasions, check out sites like Rent the Runway. I’ve never used it personally, but know people who have and have had a good experience. This is a great option if you’re trying to keep clutter down too!
The best part about these tips? They can be used year round - not just for the holiday season!
Last but certainly not least, food. The holidays are all about food. I personally am a big fan of food. ESPECIALLY holiday foods such as treats, big meals, party appetizers, and festive drinks, which are constantly surrounding us this time of the year.
Whether you are hosting or attending a party, gathering, or event, there are a lot of ways you can reduce food waste this holiday season. Where applicable, I break up the information with information if you are hosting, and information if you are attending.
But first, let's get back to food.
Have a plan for food
Food waste is a big problem. Surprisingly, I had a lot of trouble finding statistics applicable to the United States where I am from, so I pulled together some stats from the UK, figuring they were likely similar if not a little less than what the United States would be.
- 83 million dollars worth of food was wasted during Christmas in 2004 (source)
- Christmas dinner components wasted (source)
- 263,000 turkeys
- 17.2 million Brussels sprouts
- 11.9 million carrots
11.3 million roast potatoes
That’s a lot of food.
That’s a lot of money.
A common misconception about food going to the landfill is that it will just ‘compost away’. But it doesn’t. Not like in a compost bin. Food sitting in a landfill is not exposed to the chemical reaction that occurs in a compost bin, and therefore, food in a landfill just rots and produces a lot of greenhouse gasses.
So what to do? Here are some options:
Have a plan to use up those leftovers BEFORE you even start cooking (there are so many options on Pinterest)
Use the leftover food in other dishes
Freezing the food for later
Meal plan so you don’t overbuy, and stick to your grocery list when at the store. You can check out my meal planner that is specifically for reducing food waste while also saving money.
Giving the leftovers away (ask guests to bring their own reusable container!)
For more food waste reduction tips, check out my posts:
How to Reduce Food Waste at Home (and bonus: save money)
Buy food/food items in bulk
If you’re new to zero waste, I will preface by saying approach with caution. Zero waste shopping can easily get overwhelming (at least it was for me). But as you are shopping, whether you are hosting or just bringing a dish, take a look around and see if there are certain products that you can buy in bulk. I have found that certain products are the same price or even cheaper buying it in bulk versus buying in packaging from the store shelves.
I do realize that not everyone has access to buying things in bulk, and that is OK. If you don’t have access to bulk, whether that’s via location or budget-wise, do what you can.
If you’re interested, here is a great bulk finding guide from Litterless.
Additionally, here is a guide for finding online bulk stores, also from Litterless.
Pay attention to packaging when shopping
Food packaging has been one of the hardest things to reduce as my family and I are going on our zero waste journey. We are fortunate to have a number of stores with bulk options nearby, so location isn’t an issue like it is for some. However, budget-wise we are not able to go completely package free.
That being said, there are a few ways you can reduce your food packaging waste, even if you can’t buy everything in bulk:
Use reusable produce bags (I like using these)
Try to avoid single serve items and most convenience foods
Price match some dry good items you buy packaged to bulk options (if you have some nearby). We have found that some of the items we buy packaged were the same price or cheaper than the packaged items
Buy the largest packaged item as possible. Buying smaller packaged items creates more waste than the biggest package
Similar to buying in bulk, I realize that buying local may not be an option for everyone this time of the year. Please, I live in Minnesota...finding fresh, local produce in November/December is not really an option.
If you’re in a similar situation, there are probably still items you can buy locally such as meats, jams, honey, etc. But why is buying local so important?
Did you know that on average our food travels over 1500 miles to get to our plate? Buying local greatly reduces the number of miles our food travels which in turn reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and also helps support local farmers in our community.
I hope by now you realize I’m not going to stop and tell you that you must go vegan in order to save the earth. That's not my style. But I am going to present you with facts that tell us that going vegan or incorporating vegan dishes more often can have a pretty big impact on greenhouse gas emissions; in fact, this can probably make one of the biggest impacts.
This article from Time has some pretty impressive statistics backing up that claim. Here are a couple:
“ Livestock alone account for more than 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions...and a vegan or vegetarian diet could cut those emissions by 70% and 63%, respectively”
“Changing dietary patterns could save $1 trillion annually by preventing health care costs and lost productivity. That figure balloons to as much as $30 trillion annually when also considering the economic value of lost life”
“...adoption of the vegan diet—could help avoid more than 8 million deaths by 2050. A vegetarian diet would save 7.3 million lives.”
I’m realistic. I know that going completely vegan is not for everyone. However, there are tons of amazing food bloggers out there who have created delicious vegan masterpieces, and who make it super easy to implement some vegan dishes into your diet. Not only is it good for the planet, but it is also good for you and your wallet!
Some of my favorites are:
- Minimalist Baker
- Oh She Glows
- Budget Bytes (not 100% vegan, but has many vegan recipes)
Nora Cooks Vegan
Try some out. I guarantee you'll find some you enjoy!
One more thing about food: if you're a seafood lover like I am, I recently found plant-based seafood options (which I'm super pumped for). My husband has a severe shellfish allergy, so we don't ever have any of that in the house. If seafood is a big part of your holiday celebrations, check out these options from Sophie's Kitchen.
Ok! Now that we’ve gotten food out of the way, let’s compile that information with hosting and/or attending a gathering or an event and finish up this post.
Hosting/attending a zero waste event or gathering
If you are hosting and planning on distributing leftovers:
-Check to see if you have plastic takeout containers that you don’t need.
-Buy reusable containers from a thrift store
-Ask people to bring their own containers
-See if people have any extra they are willing to ‘donate’ to you for leftovers. People often have so many sitting around, they would be happy to make some room
For your own leftovers, pyrex glass containers and mason jars are great for storing leftovers (mason jars can go in the freezer). Finally, plan ahead for leftovers by making room in the freezer, planning which recipes to use leftovers for - meal planning can really assist with this!
If you aren’t hosting and you’re comfortable talking to the host/hostess, offer to bring your own. You could also offer to donate some containers for the host/hostess to distribute the leftovers in so they don’t have to use their own. Additionally, if you end up with some leftovers to take home (lucky you!) make a plan to do something with the food right away. Maybe that is put it in your ‘eat me now’ section of your fridge, freeze it, or think of a recipe to use the food.
Make it a low/zero waste-themed event!
If you are hosting, suggest to the guests that you want to have a zero-waste gathering/event, and ask them to follow suit by paying attention to packaging at the store when buying food, bringing their own leftover containers, bringing their own utensils and/or plates, etc. Or, you could show them this post – hint-hint - for tips. During the event, be sure to tell guests where your recycling and compost waste is (if you have one) so they know where to properly dispose of waste.
If you are attending and know the host well enough to make a suggestion, suggest doing a zero-waste themed event! Offer to help out wherever you can! Ask the host where their recycling and compost waste go (if they have either), and make sure the proper waste ends up in the right bins.
If you are hosting, opt to use cloth napkins. You will be able to use them over and over again. Have a bin in an easy to notice area where guests can put their used napkins. That way, you can just dump them all in the washer after the event is over!
If you are not hosting, cloth napkins would make a GREAT host/hostess gift! I love these from Tiny Yellow Bungalow!
If you are hosting, have a dishwashing party and get as many people as possible to help out with doing dishes to make the job go by super fast! Plus, by having a number of people join in, you’re not missing out on any of the conversations. This way you can feel comfortable using non-disposable dishes knowing they’ll get clean in a flash! For tasks such as wiping down tables, counters, and stoves, opt to use cloth towels you already have, or try bamboo towels in place of paper towels. You will be able to reuse them many times. We LOVE these.
If you are a guest, initiate a dishwashing party right away to let the host relax. Use cloth towels to clean as much as possible (and for drying). Offer to throw them in the washing machine when done.
Bringing a dish
If you are attending and bringing a dish, be sure to make note of all the ‘food’ tips I listed above. Also, opt for a reusable dish and utensils to take back home, or buy a cute one at a thrift store that you can gift to the hostess afterward.
If you are hosting and don’t have the necessary pots, pans, or baking dish that you need, instead of buying a disposable one, ask friends and family if they have one you could borrow! Save money and waste. Additionally, you could try to find one at a thrift store.
Going zero waste or adhering to your zero waste values does not have to be complicated during the holiday season. Use your post as your guide while you navigate through, and you'll be sure to come out on the other side of the season feeling good about your efforts.
What is your favorite way to keep waste low during the holidays?
Want to learn how to adopt a reduction based lifestyle (through mindfulness, minimalism, anxiety management, and zero waste living but not sure where to start?
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