How to Have a Zero-Waste Christmas
It’s the most wonderful time of the year – but also the most wasteful time of the year. The amount of trash in the United States increases by an estimated 25 percent between Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to the National Environmental Educational Foundation. Some of us may wonder, is it even possible to have a zero-waste Christmas?
We’re not telling you this to be a Grinch. Rather, we all have opportunities to make better choices towards a zero-waste Christmas with small changes in how we celebrate. By making deliberate choices about holiday food, gift wrapping, presents, and tree, you can aim for a zero-waste Christmas – or close to it – this year.
Here’s our guide for how to do just that, one choice at a time.
How to minimize food waste during the holidays
Holidays are often centered around food, and can be a potential source of enormous food waste. You can make strides towards a zero-waste Christmas with deliberate choices about the food you purchase and eat.
How can you reduce food waste during the holidays?
There are lots of ways to reduce food waste in your home, and they are good ideas all year round – not just during the holiday season. Here are 7 ways to help you have a zero-waste Christmas:
- Clear out your freezer ahead of your holiday meal shopping. Freezing food is an excellent way to prevent waste, and you can freeze leftovers instead of throwing them in the trash. Learn more about the art of freezing here.
- Plan your meals to “right-size” your holiday cooking. As much as we enjoy leftovers, we all know that plenty of foods end up getting trashed. The NRDC has a neat calculator called the Guest-imator that helps you estimate how much food you need per guest.
- Get smart about food storage. Research in advance the best way for fruits and vegetables to be stored so, they don’t spoil or go rotten.
- Write detailed shopping lists. Make sure your grocery list contains the amounts required. Do you need just one zucchini or a whole bag? You can also collect recipes like soups, stocks, chilis and stir-fries to use leftover ingredients.
- Shop local and in season. Shopping from your local farmers’ market, CSA or co-op can curb greenhouse gas emissions, as the distance food is required to travel is shortened. A guide like the Seasonal Food Guide (which also has a free app) can help familiarize you with which foods are in season in your area.
- Use sustainable home goods at your table. Avoid single-use plastics such as disposable plates and tableware. There are plenty of sustainable options available for cutlery, plates, bowls and drinkware. You can also ask guests to bring their own containers or beeswax wrap in order to bring home leftovers (this might inspire them to get on the waste-reduction train, too).
- Don’t throw away edible food. Compost your food scraps (fruit and vegetable peels, etc.) And immediately donate unopened and unused food items to a food bank or to a community fridge. You can find a food bank through Feeding America. You’ll be reducing food waste — and helping eliminate hunger.
What are zero-waste alternatives to wrapping paper?
You don’t have to give up your traditions of giving gifts to the ones you love. However, gift wrap generates an enormous amount of waste, so clearly, this is an area where our choices seriously matter.
You can create less waste by altering how you wrap your gifts (or deciding not to wrap them at all). One of the savviest zero-waste decisions you can make around the holidays is to save wrapping paper, tissue paper, bows, and ribbons to reuse each year. You can reuse wrapping paper if it is unwrapped carefully, or you could invest in reusable fabric gift wrap. Save your gift boxes and gift bags as well, and reuse them throughout the year for birthdays and other holidays.
If you want to purchase new wrapping paper, opt for eco-friendly versions. The dyes and inks in most wrapping paper make it difficult to pulp during recycling. Skip glittery, foil, metallic, laminated and wax-coated wrapping papers, all of which can’t be recycled.
Skip the cellophane and tinsel, which can’t be recycled, and opt for recyclable tissue paper instead. And instead of buying gift tags, make your own by cutting shapes from holiday cards that you receive.
Want to get in touch with your crafty side? There are some creative zero-waste alternatives for wrapping paper:
- Newspaper (the comics section is most fun!)
- Pages pulled out of magazines
- Paper grocery bags
- Leftover fabrics from sewing and quilting projects
- Old T-shirts/skirts/dresses
- Cloth tote bags
- Old maps
You can also not wrap gifts at all. Wrapping presents may be a tradition, but you can make a new tradition of ‘naked’ presents. Does that gift certificate really need to be put in a box and wrapped with paper? Does that bottle of champagne really require a ribbon and tinsel? A gift — and a smile — may be all you need.
How do I shop sustainably for the holidays?
“Shop local.” You’ve heard it before and, yup, we’re about to say it again. Shopping within your community from local businesses keeps the carbon footprint low.
Despite the shipping and transport footprint, online shopping actually can potentially leave a lower carbon footprint than shopping at brick-and-mortar stores. However, our collective addiction to same-day or two-day shipping creates a larger carbon footprint, as expedited shipping means partially empty trucks are dispatched just to get you your packages quickly.
Here are six strategies for sustainable, zero-waste holiday shopping:
- Opt for fewer gifts for fewer people. Remember that giving gifts isn’t an obligation; it’s a choice. Perhaps this is the year that you suggest the adults in families stop giving gifts to each other and donate to charity instead?
- Make a list (and check it twice). Make, like Santa and shop from a list, rather than from impulse. When you are organized, you are less likely to make panicked (and non-eco-friendly) purchases.
- Skip the trends. This year’s hottest toy may be filling next year’s landfill. And the fast fashion industry (brands that pump out new items every single day) is an enormous source of greenhouse gas emissions. Opt for sustainably made and classic gifts (see some ideas in the next section) instead of trendy toys and fast fashion.
- Be conscious of packaging. If possible, avoid presents that come in single-use plastics. Consider the amount of plastic and styrofoam packaging (which is non-recyclable) in the gifts you give.
- Bring your reusable shopping bags. Using your own shopping bags will cut down on the number of paper bags and plastic bags. Ninety percent of plastics are not recycled. Plastic bags usually end up in landfills, but they can also end up in our oceans, where they are harmful to sea life.
- Remember the batteries. If your gift requires batteries, include rechargeable ones.
What are some zero-waste Christmas gift ideas?
It’s easier than ever before to shop sustainable and climate neutral products, with more eco-conscious gifts on the market.
Vegan spirits for your brother? Upcycled fashion for your sister? Sustainable undies for babe? Eco-friendly art supplies for your kids? Vegan beauty for your mom?
Need some help with other zero-waste gift ideas? Here are some ideas for holiday presents we’d love to receive:
- Gift certificates
- Homemade gifts such as candles, soap, bread and baked goods
- Thrifted or vintage jewelry
- Vegan Advent calendars
- Reusable water bottles
- Subscriptions to magazines, newspapers or podcast services
- Memberships to museums, parks or adventure centers
- Donations to charity in the name of your loved one
What is the most sustainable Christmas tree option?
It can be confusing to figure out whether real trees or artificial trees are more sustainable — the ultimate “paper or plastic” question.
Studies have shown that the vast majority of households use artificial Christmas trees. If you own an artificial tree, the best zero-waste option is to continue using it. But we don’t recommend that you purchase a new one.
Artificial trees are made out of a type of plastic called PVC, which creates hazardous waste and emissions during manufacturing, and can be hard to recycle.
Ultimately, the most sustainable Christmas tree option is a potted, living tree that can be replanted. You may choose to plant your Christmas tree in your own yard after the holiday season is over, but there are also plenty of companies that rent out living Christmas trees in December and January.
Last but not least, you can make sustainable choices with your Christmas lights. Energy Star–certified lights use 75 percent less energy, so, make sure those sparklers are LED — not incandescent.
Christmas can be a time of overindulgence and over-consumption, but it doesn’t have to be that way. And being a little bit more mindful during the festive season won’t dampen your holiday spirit. This is the time of the year where we are surrounded by the people that we hold dear in our hearts and that is the true beauty in it!