Reducing Holiday Waste

It’s almost that time of year…the time when bells jingle, lights twinkle…and credit cards whiz through the air. This winter holiday season is often associated with buying new things, wrapping them up, decorating and eating lots of food. Unfortunately, all those things can also bring about a significant amount of waste, too. Thanks to creative thinking and collaboration, there are many ways to enjoy the holidays and reduce the less desirable environmental impacts, too!

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If you have any ideas, tips or questions, please share them in the comments section below!



Exchanging presents during the holiday season has come to be a given in our society, but it doesn’t need to continue that way. There are many ways to show someone that you value them, aside from spending money on a New Thing. You can share an experience [go hiking, visit a museum], create something [cook a feast, paint a mural], save the money to do something together or visit someone far away…

Some of the reasons to change this tradition:

  • Environmental impact of buying new gifts:
    • manufacturing
    • packaging
    • shipping
    • wrapping
    • driving to the store
    • discarding something old to make room for the new
  • Unpredictable economy / wanting to save money
  • Sharing moments instead of supporting Faceless Business
  • There are still hungry people in the world…
  • The never-ending clutter caused by buying new Things

Communicating your desire to go gift-free for the holidays can be challenging. Join the conversation on our Facebook page to share ideas, challenges and resources.

Here are some blogs that talk about a no-gift holiday:

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An estimated 2.6 billion holiday cards are sold each year in the United States—enough to fill a football field 10 stores high. If every family reduced their mailing list by just one card, the nation would save 50,000 cubic yards of paper.

Say “Happy Holidays” over the phone or internet. If you have internet access, consider sending electronic holiday cards this year. There are many websites that send free e-cards, and even some that are conservation organizations. You can spread your love and some environmental consciousness as you go! Here are a few:

Repurpose old holiday cards. You can turn an old card into a new card by cutting off the front / image / not written side of the card and attaching it to a blank piece of paper, folded in half. Cut up cards can be used as gift tags, bookmarks, greeting cards, place mats, decorations… Used cards, especially those with large pictures to cut out, can be used as ornaments! Just put a hole at the top of the card and knot a piece of string or lace through the hole to hang on next year’s Christmas tree, door handles, etc. You can also donate your old cards to a nursery or day care center for arts and crafts projects.

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Every year, more than 1 million Christmas trees end up in California landfills. Nationwide, an estimated 15 million used Christmas trees end up in landfills.

  • Alternatives to the traditional single-use pine tree:
    • Rent a tree from Friends of the Urban Forest in SF: You get a tree to decorate in your home for Christmas, and then they’ll pick it up and plant it along the city’s streets!
    • Consider an artificial tree that you can reuse year after year.
    • Use a living tree [in a pot, with roots] that can be replanted outside after Christmas, or stay living in the pot throughout the year.
    • Decorate your house plants!

Never burn Christmas trees or holiday wrapping paper in a fireplace or wood stove, because they can spark a chimney fire.

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FAKE SNOW: Sprayed-on artificial snow can be made from environmentally harmful components that get into your lungs and your food, and hinder the ability to recycle a Christmas tree. For more Earth-friendly artificial snow, you can use salt, baking soda or paper towels! Here is a blog with some recipes for eco-friendly fake snow.

THE MEAL: Lay the foundation for an eco-friendly holiday meal by using a cloth tablecloth or a washable plastic tablecloth instead of purchasing single-use paper tablecloths. You can even repurpose cotton or cotton-blend fabric remnants into napkins.

LIGHTING: You can use LED Christmas string lights to replace your old incandescent string lights. The LEDs use less energy and last longer than incandescents, and the price of LED strings continues to drop as LEDs become more popular. Additionally, you can save more energy [and money!] by putting your lights on a timer so that they’re not on when no one is around to look at them [over night, during daylight, etc.].

  • Incandescent or LED string lights? Consumer Reports analyzed both types of bulbs and found that, on balance, LED bulbs win out:
    • LEDs are much cooler, reducing the risk of holiday tree fires.
    • LEDs last longer and use less power, and the energy savings over time will offset the slightly higher initial purchase price.
    • LED bulbs use 1 to 3 kilowatt hours of energy, while incandescent bulbs use 12 to 105 KWh, translating into annual electricity savings of $1 to $11.
    • All of the LED bulbs tested in the Consumer Reports analysis were working after 4,000 hours of use, while each string of incandescent lights had one or more bulbs burn out before 2,000 hours of use.

Recycle old and defective holiday lights, and help kids with cancer at the same time. Recycle old and broken holiday light strings at ACE Hardware stores in Northern California, which have partnered with the Loveland, Colorado-based Lights for Life. The program recycles the old lights and donates proceeds to families of children with cancer to help offset their expenses. In three years, donations to the program have grown from 3 tons of lights to more than 23 tons.

You can also recycle broken or burned-out holiday lights by mailing them to Christmas Light Source Recycling Program in Ft. Worth, Texas. The bulbs will be recycled, and proceeds will be used to purchase books for the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation in the Dallas / Ft. Worth area.

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Tracy Hepler shares some ideas for reducing food waste on IntentBlog: Make To-Go Boxes For the Needy: I recently participated in a Thanksgiving food volunteer program where we got into cars and drove a bunch of meals we’d prepared to people on the street. If you have lots of edible leftovers and don’t want to eat them your self consider packing em up and donating them to people in need. Also inquire at your local Food Banks and Soup Kitchens to see if they take these types of donations.



Packing Peanuts: Styrofoam peanuts can be dropped off at many shipping/mail houses (UPS and Mail Boxes, etc.) for reuse. Call first to confirm their take-back policy.

Styrofoam: Larger, clean pieces of styrofoam can be dropped off for free recycling at Recology San Francisco transfer station, 501 Tunnel Avenue, SF. [There, a densifier converts styrofoam into ingots, which can be re-manufactured into door and crown moldings, picture frames, and side and deck board.]

Gift Wrap: Save and reuse gift wrapping paper from previous years, or make some from butcher paper, reused brown paper bags, newspapers, old calendars and fabric. Shop for recycled-content holiday wrapping paper, or wrapping paper sold by charity groups that raise funds to preserve rainforests. Thrift shops often have good prices on leftover holiday wrapping paper, too.

Here are some DIY gift-wrapping ideas from

Never burn holiday wrapping paper in a fireplace or wood stove because it can spark a chimney fire.

Think Outside the [Gift] Box: Reuse already-gifted bags and boxes, make origami ones from newspapers and old calendars, paint product boxes…or give a package-less gift!

Or, forgo the physical gift altogether and donate to a charity in the gift recipient’s name. For example, each dollar sent to will pay to plant a tree in regions where they are needed most, and to support the group’s mission to protect and restore rural and urban forests.

Leave packaging feedback for each shipment you get through Amazon.

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If you’re not going gift-free for the holidays, there are still ways to reduce the environmental impact of getting new Things.

Buy from local environmentally-responsible businesses: In the SF Bay Area, there are a multitude of local artisans at farmers’ markets, street fairs, and store-fronts sprinkled throughout the cities. You can also support artists through online shops like Etsy. Supporting these artists, organizations and businesses encourages them to operate with the environment in mind!

Making room for new gadgets and toys: Outgrown toys, clothes and furniture may be donated to charitable groups like Goodwill Industries, The Salvation Army, American Cancer Society, or Volunteers of America. Many local charities operate thrift stores and are always looking for donated items. Feeling more creative? Host a White Elephant Gift Exchange, where it’s a requirement to re-gift something!

Getting rid of electronics: Almost anything considered electronic is banned from landfills. These items include computers, monitors, peripherals, phones, TVs, VCRs, DVD players, stereos, microwave ovens, PDAs, and iPods. When they are disposed of, these types of items are called “e-waste.” Drop off to transfer station. Check whether your local thrift store will accept them.

Cellphone upgrade? Americans tend to upgrade their cell phones every 18 to 24 months, and the U.S. EPA estimates Americans discard 125 million old cell phones annually, creating 65,000 tons of waste. What’s more, the old phones contain hazardous materials—including mercury, cadmium, and arsenic—that cannot be accepted at landfills. California was one of the first states to adopt a law requiring retailers to offer cell phone recycling. The website Call2recycle has a database of locations where consumers can drop off their old cell phones. In addition, some websites offer cash for premium model phones.

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Here is a great infographic breaking down some of the statistics of holiday waste:

holidaywaste infographic

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