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9 Ways to Reduce Waste During The Holidays

I am not a holiday minimalist by nature.  I embrace many of the traditions of Christmas:  the lights, the decorations, the cards, the events and let’s not forget the gifts. But I can intentionally reduce my waste by making some simple changes in these nine areas during the holidays:


Bring your own bags when shopping.  If you forget your bags, which I often do, use the bag from your first purchase to hold everything you buy that day.  I also decline all the store boxes for wrapping gifts as I usually don’t end up using them.

Choosing Gifts

Have you found toys to be packaged in a considerable amount of plastic and cardboard?  Consider buying gifts with little to no packaging like gift cards, charity donations or ‘experience’ gifts such as a day at the water park, concert tickets or a trip to the spa.  These gifts last long past the holiday.

For children, a few high quality items will last a lot longer than many dollar store gifts.  You’ll not only get more use out of those items, but you can then sell or donate them when you are finished using them for continued use.   To get a really great bang for your buck, think long-term like an annual zoo membership or donation to a child’s college savings account. 

Another way to reduce packaging waste is to make your own gifts.  It’s also a great way to get your children involved in gift giving.  The past several years, I have made an edible gift for friends and neighbors and asked my daughter to accompany me for deliveries.

Keeper of the Home has many great ideas for homemade gifts like tea or candles but my favorite is the gift of time.  I will definitely be doing my own version of the ‘basket of date nights’ for my husband this year.

Wrapping Gifts

Wrap gifts in something the recipient can use again like canvas bags, a piece of fabric or cloth napkin with a pretty bow, or a decorative bag or box (reused from previous holidays). My daughter creates colored and painted paper every day and I’m planning to use some of her creations as wrapping paper.

You can save a lot of wrapping paper by not wrapping oversized gifts.  I love the idea of creating a treasure hunt to find the gift, hidden under a bed or in the garage.  For more great eco-friendly gift wrapping ideas, read Simple Mom contributor, Maya Bisineer’s post here.

Shipping Gifts

If you are buying gifts for long distance relatives, try one of these options to save on unnecessary shipping resources and costs:

  1. Have the gift shipped directly to the recipient.  No use in shipping first to yourself and then shipping again.
  2. Purchase the gift online and choose to have the recipient pick it up at their local store.  Many online retailers now have this option such as Toy’s R Us, Best Buy and Walmart.
  3. Buy a gift card and allow the recipient to pick up the gift.

If you do ship gifts yourself, use the smallest envelope or box that fits the items and reuse items you already have at home for cushioning the contents such as Styrofoam packing peanuts, air filled bags or plastic grocery bags.

Christmas Lights

Put your Christmas lights on a timer to come on at dusk and go off when you go to bed to reduce energy use.   If you need to replace or buy new lights, choose LED lights as they are up to 90% more efficient. Each year, Home Depot has a program allowing you to take in broken or used incandescent light strings for a discount on LED lights.   If you don’t have a Home Depot near you, Holiday LEDS has a similar program.

Christmas Cards

I personally love to receive Christmas cards and have saved them for years, looking through previous year’s cards to see how families have changed.  I used to send over 100 cards but realized that being selective about who I send cards to is a better use of both paper and financial resources.

If Christmas cards aren’t your thing, try sending an email newsletter, a link to your family blog or an online card. It’s free, saves you a lot of time and reduces your paper use.

For the Christmas cards you do get, donate them to St. Jude’s Ranch for Children once the holiday is over. The organization recycles used cards (for any occasion) into new cards and sells them, benefiting the abused, abandoned and neglected children at the ranch.

Holiday Parties

Party invitations are another easy place to save resources by using a free online invitation service, such as Evite.  It manages the invite and responses.

If you or your company have a holiday party, there is bound to be leftover food. Call a local agency that will pick up the food and deliver to people who really need it or package it up and have your guests take it home. Compost fruit and veggie scraps, egg shells and coffee grounds and recycle all glass, cans and bottles.  During the party, use reusable dishes, utensils and cloth napkins – you can rent them from a party rental company if you need more than you own.

Opening Gifts

Before you open gifts, make sure to have 3 bags on hand:

  1. recyclable packaging and wrapping
  2. ribbons and bags that can be reused
  3. true trash

Remember that a lot of things are recyclable, even if it can’t be taken curbside. It may be an extra trip, but you can take Styrofoam and hard plastic packaging to local facilities to be recycled.  If new electronics are replacing an old or broken model, they can be taken to electronics recyclers or try selling them on Craigslist.  I recently sold a broken, older model LCD television to an electronics refurbisher for a small amount.

Tree Recycling

Contact your waste management company to see if they will take your Christmas tree and wreath for recycling.  Many companies will ask you to remove all lights, ornaments and tinsel, cut into smaller lengths and put in a cart or on the curb on your regular pick up day.  I also have found that the Boy Scouts and other local organizations will pick up your tree for recycling for a small fee. 

Can you share your creative ideas for reducing waste this holiday season? Do you have a favorite homemade gift? Please share your ideas or links in the comments.

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  1. Adriel

    Great ideas – thank you! My favorite is the treasure hunt to find the big gift. That is so fun! I don’t have any “big” gifts to do that with this year… but I think I’ll do it anyway with something smaller. 🙂 Love that idea. I also love the St Jude’s suggestion. I’ve never heard of that before but what a great idea!!

  2. Bernadette

    Quote: “I used to send over 100 cards but realized that being selective about who I send cards to is a better use of both paper and financial resources.”

    You realize anyone that doesn’t get a card from you this year will feel like doo-doo.

    • Kathryn

      This idea worked really well for us, too. We found that we could shrink our list considerably by just cutting out people who hadn’t reciprocated in a while. In years when we’ve had to be really lean, we’ve just sent cards to overseas/out-of-state friends and family. We had a couple of friends who asked why they stopped getting our cards, but they responded well to an honest response (“Our list got too long for our budget, and we had to focus on out-of-town folks” or “We hadn’t received a card from you in a few years, so we assumed you wanted to stop exchanging”).

  3. Heather :) :) :)

    Those are great tips. I really like the one about bringing your own bag when shopping, and using things like fabric or canvas bags to wrap a present 🙂 Love and hugs from the ocean shores of California, Heather 🙂

  4. Shauna

    We usually wrap large gifts in a blanket. Wrapping gifts in newspaper is another great way to re-use before you recycle. You can also re-use old cards by cutting out the picture on the front of the card, and using it as “to/from” name tags on gifts.

    Cedar boughs (or other natural vegetation) can make festive natural decorations with some creativity and can be returned to the forest afterward. If you live on the west coast you may have english holly (an invasive species) growing nearby, which makes pretty decorations, and by removing it from the forest helps to slow the spread of this invasive.

  5. Caitlind Gauthier

    Very nice post, my favorite is the treasure hunt to find the big gift, that is so fun! I don’t have any “big” gifts to do that with this year… but I think I’ll do it anyway with something smaller, thanks for the post.

  6. Caroline

    Wow, this post is awesome. I totally didn’t know about the recycled card program at St. Jude’s. Thank you.

  7. Kathryn

    We also like to recycle the previous year’s Christmas cards as gift tags.

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