Briefing

How to curb your holiday waste

The most wonderful time of the year doesn't have to be the most wasteful

The holidays are known for excess — lots of travel, lots of gifts, and lots of food. In fact, Americans throw away 25 percent more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year's than any other time of year, according to Stanford University. So if you're looking to curb some of that annual overindulgence, we've rounded up a few handy (and indelible) techniques below.

Food and cooking 

When it comes to holiday meals, experts recommend a few tried and true tactics to keep your trash can void of uneaten scraps. First and foremost, plan out your menu in advance, so you don't overbuy at the store. If you're unsure how much food you might need, Canada's Green Action Center recommends a portion calculator from either Love Food Hate Waste or the Natural Resource Defense Center. And if you do end up with leftovers, try to find an exciting way to repurpose them, The Food Network suggests. Craving some soup? Use that turkey carcass to make a broth. Fresh out of panko? Whip up some homemade breadcrumbs with your old dinner rolls. Freeze whatever else you can (Green Action Center recommends following this guide from Getty Stewart), and reach out to local shelters and food banks to see what they might be able to take off your hands. As for any food that's already in your fridge: maybe use those gently-wilted herbs to make a fresh and homemade pesto, or puree some softening fruit to create a sweet holiday jam, per The Food Network

But food waste itself is only half the battle — there's plenty of collateral damage from seasonal cooking and hosting, as well. If you're looking for a reduced-waste way to dole out your leftovers or pack them up for the fridge, sustainability educator and YouTuber Shelbi Orme recommends swapping single-use plastic wrap for reusable beeswax sheets, and disposable Ziploc bags for washable Tupperware. And you might also consider asking any dinner guests to just bring their own reusable containers for doggie bags (which further spares you the awkward task of hunting down your favorite plate six months later). 

Decorations 

Garlands, mistletoe, fake snowballs in a bowl on your coffee table … it doesn't feel like the holidays without a bit of decoration. Luckily, a waste-conscious mindset and a festive Christmas tree aren't mutually exclusive. If you're hoping for a real Tannenbaum, make sure to buy locally and follow proper disposal or recycling procedures when the time comes. You can otherwise opt for a fake fir so long as you try and use it for at least five years, writes The Washington Post.

Once that's taken care of, further spruce up your home (pun intended) with in-season plants like pinecones, eucalyptus, and berry branches, which can be composted when you're done, per blogger Jules Acree. Or, maybe even fashion your own holiday wreath with pieces of old fabric or fresh winter foliage. If you need more ideas, a quick TikTok or Pinterest search is worth its weight in gold. 

Gifts

From the festive presentation to the gift itself, there are plenty of eco-friendly ways to level up your presents. Skip the wrapping paper in favor of colorful pages from magazines or newspapers, or opt for reusable bags or old boxes (just turn those with text on them inside out!). If wrapping paper is a non-negotiable, choose a roll made of recycled paper and encourage careful gift opening so you can use the same sheets next year, Stanford suggests. For those feeling extra sustainable, try crafting cute cardboard gift tags out of old boxes or toilet paper rolls, or pulling out some markers to spice up those boring gift bags you already have on hand. Where possible, you might even make a reusable bag part of the gift itself.

But of course, a gift's wrapping is only a piece of its footprint — there are still its contents to think about. As you shop for friends and family, "​​look for durable and re-usable items and resist the latest 'fad' at the mall," writes Stanford. "Think of how many pet rocks, mood rings, and cabbage patch dolls ended up in the landfill!" Further, the university suggests, you might try gifting gifts with a sustainable or zero-waste message — something like a refillable water bottle, a thermos, chargeable batteries — or purchasing presents that are more experiential than physical. To that end, a visit to the museum, a gym membership, or a digital magazine subscription are all wonderful low-waste options.

Travel

The holidays might be synonymous with gas-guzzling planes, trains, and automobiles, but that doesn't mean you can't improve your low-waste travel game this December. If you're hopping on a flight or packing up the car for a long road trip, bring along some reusable cutlery and cups to save on plastic forks, knives, and straws. Opt to use public transit while gift shopping, and carpool, bike, or walk to holiday parties and office functions. If a long-distance drive is part of your celebration, use Google Maps to find more fuel-efficient and eco-friendly routes based on the topography of and weather along your journey. Avoid flying where possible — but if you must, make an effort to book with one of the more environmentally-conscious carriers. The same goes for your accommodations, per YouTuber Ashlynne Eaton: If it's an option for you, choose a green hotel — which might employ a composting program, for example, among other eco-friendly policies — over a larger, less-conscious chain. Or, reserve an Airbnb, where you can control and regulate the energy you use and waste you generate.

When it comes to packing, Orme, the sustainability YouTuber, recommends consumers try clothing rental services like Nuuly or FashionPass to avoid single-use purchases ahead of a big trip. But before you check that bag at the airport or toss it in the trunk of your car, spend a few days cleaning out your fridge and cooking your meals at home. If you're unsure what you can make, try SuperCook, a recipe generator that lets users search by ingredients they have on hand.

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