For many of us, the first snow is on the ground, night skies are star-studded and a holiday spirit is in the air.
Holidays, as much fun as they are, tend to bring out some of our most entrenched bad habits. The holidays shouldn’t be a burden on the environment, but they are. Most Americans, for example, produce about 25 percent more trash during the holidays (from Thanksgiving to New Year’s) resulting in around 25 million extra tons of waste.
There has to be a better way to celebrate.
Re-users unite, fight the good fight!
Here are some simple ideas for reducing holiday trash that, if adopted by enough of us, could create more earth-friendly, sustainable holidays. With a little effort and imagination, perhaps we can reduce the environmental impact of the holiday season:
Parties: Party hosts can set an example of sustainability by refusing to serve food and drinks on disposable plates and cups. If you don’t have enough reusable plates, have everyone bring their own. This is actually becoming quite vogue in many cosmopolitan areas. People show up with their own little picnic basket or trimmed box, complete with plates, cups, utensils and linen napkins. Europeans have been doing this for decades.
In the bag: Around 125,000 tons of plastic packaging is thrown away over the holiday season. Take your own reusable shopping bags when you shop. These can either be cloth eco-bags or simply reused paper bags or boxes. Families with children can have fun with reused paper bags by letting children color on them. This gets kids involved in the conversation about conservation, while creating bags that are so artsy that nobody wants to throw them away.
Reuse opportunities: When you’ve finished eating all your chocolates and biscuits, keep the tins and reuse them as storage containers. They’re great for stuff that needs to be kept dry –a sewing kit, next year’s seeds, spices, flour, first aid kits/emergency kits, or spare nuts & bolts in the garage. I use them in the kitchen as attractive containers for our summer wildcrafted herbal teas. I love sitting an assortment of them on the breakfast table in the morning, full of summer’s memories just waiting to be brewed into a steaming cup of tea.
Drink it in…again: Recycle your beverage containers, including bottles from wine and egg nog. In the US today, beverage containers are designed for a single use. Once used, two-thirds are landfilled. Only the remaining one-third are reprocessed and recycled into new products. We can do way better than this!
Vegging out: Buy loose rather than pre-packed vegetables – it will help cut down on packaging that gets thrown away. Americans threw away 76 million tons of packaging in 1999 – 37.2 percent of the nation’s municipal waste stream. Since packaging materials account for so much of the trash we generate, changing our habits about packaging provides a good opportunity for reducing waste. Recognize and support store managers when they stock products with no packaging or reduced packaging. Let clerks know when it’s not necessary to double wrap a purchase. And use resuable produce bags when shopping in groceries or farmers markets.
Paper trail: Buy (or use) recycled wrapping paper and holiday cards. You can find these new, or simply choose ones from thrift stores or your own stash. Around 744 million holiday cards are sent each holiday season. If all these were made from recycled paper, it would help to save the equivalent of 248,000 trees. Or, better yet, consider sending an e-card. These have become really popular in recent years and not only save paper, but also save postage.
Don’t throw your wrapping paper in the garbage or fireplace. More than 8,000 ton of wrapping paper will be used on presents, using the equivalent of 50,000 trees. Most wrapping paper can’t be recycled because of the metallic and toxic inks used on the paper. Every year, enormous quantities of this paper enters the land fill or release toxic fumes in fireplaces, harming the environment. Consider using something other than commercial wrapping paper for your gifts. I, for example, save comics all year long to use for my holiday gift wrap. They are colorful and fun to reread after opening the gift. This not only cuts down on trash and toxicity, but also reduces consumerism since I don’t buy any commercially made papers.
Zero waste holidays
Getting into the Zero Waste holiday spirit doesn’t mean turning into an obsessive recycler or going out of your way to locate special products at environmentally friendly stores. The sum of individual actions such as using cloth instead of paper napkins, refusing to buy over-packaged goods, or limiting what you spend can keep thousands of pounds of garbage from our landfills.
Being aware of what you buy is the most important thing that you can do to reduce waste and your impact on the planet this holiday season. Recycling is one way to divert the amount of garbage going to our landfill but the real key to making a dent in our holiday waste generation is moving beyond recycling to reuse and reduction.
Reducing spending and devoting less time to buying things doesn’t mean losing out on the spirit of the Holidays. If anything you will feel better for being able to spend more time with friends and loved ones and knowing you’re helping to protect the Earth.
After all, holidays are about good wishes for the future—and we are not going to have a very rosy future if waste chokes our landfills and oceans.
–Sherry L. Ackerman PhD., Transition Voice