Tips for Reducing Waste During the Holidays

The holiday season is a time for joy, when we meet with friends and family and celebrate being together. However, it is also often a time of overindulgence. We may not realize how much waste we create during our celebrations, ultimately harming the environment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Americans throw away about 25% more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.” Here are some tips to reduce wastefulness during the holiday season:

Tip No. 1: Recycle your Christmas tree*

If you celebrate Christmas, recycling your tree is the best option for the environment. Your recycled Christmas tree will likely become mulch. Trees that are still living won’t have to be cut down to produce mulch, therefore reducing the impact of deforestation. You can also use a potted tree and plant it after the holidays.

(*We have another blog post coming out in the next week or so for where you can recycle your tree if you live in the Triangle area.)

Tip No. 2: Reuse gift bags or use reusable items as gift wrap

This is one of the most popular tips I have seen going around. We waste a lot of paper on wrapping presents during the holiday season. If you already have gift bags from previous seasons, you can continue to reuse those for as long as possible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “If every American family wrapped just 3 presents in reused materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields.” There are many sustainable options out there for wrapping gifts. You can use something as simple and accessible as a bandana or a scarf (which is also a gift in itself) or you can buy reusable fabric gift wrap (for example, or It’s easier to use fabric gift wrap as well because it’s malleable compared to paper (which often rips)! Also, no tape needed!

Tip No. 3: When shopping, carpool or use public transportation and buy locally

Carpooling and using public transportation lessens carbon emissions. It’s also more fun to shop and spend time with family and friends! Even better, consider biking. In Durham, we have a few bike sharing programs that recently began (for example, Spin and LimeBike), so check out what Durham has to offer. Shop locally at a store that prioritizes sustainability and reusing items. When shopping online, try to determine how far your packages must travel to reach you and minimize long-distance purchases as much as possible. If you do shop online, remember that cardboard boxes should be broken down so they take up minimal space (otherwise, recycling trucks may have to make multiple trips) and recycled. Additionally, when you go shopping, use reusable bags to reduce plastic waste.

Tip No. 4: Give and receive gifts that do not have negative impacts on the environment

Let people who may buy a gift for you know that you would appreciate something environmentally friendly. Oftentimes, family and friends will ask what you would like for Christmas or what you need. If you request something that is better for the environment, you will feel better about the gift as well. It may even open a discussion about sustainable gift giving. Remember that the most personal gift you can give is your time. Following this, giving experiences, such as hiking or seeing a movie together, can be impactful gifts that do not harm the environment. Experiences are often easy to tailor to an individual’s unique interests. Another option is making donations in someone’s name to a charity or non-profit organization. If you would like to give a physical gift, consider something reusable or upcycled (such as upcycled jewelry). You can also give plants as gifts, which is beneficial for the receiver and the environment.

Tip No. 5: Turn off holiday lights during the day and/or use a timer

Having lights on during the day is mostly a waste of energy. We have beautiful natural light during the day. If you want to have your lights on from dusk until dawn, you can buy a timer with a sensor on it to conserve as much energy as possible or you can set timers to be on for only a few hours at night. In addition, if you do decorate with holiday lights, try to use LED lights because they are more energy efficient.

Tip No. 6: Send holiday cards online

First and foremost, e-cards are easier to store and save. One of the major concerns with e-cards is that they are impersonal. However, adding pictures of your family and writing personal messages to go along with each e-card may help to resolve that. If you still want to send physical cards, be selective with who you send them to and the type of card you use. You can recycle plain paper cards, but shiny, glossy, and glittery Christmas cards must go in the trash, creating more paper waste and further contributing to deforestation. According to the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage, “consumers send and dispose of 2.6 billion holiday cards . . . each year.”

Tip No. 7: Compost food to prevent avoidable waste from going to the landfill

There are many tutorials online for how to compost, and composting promotes long-term sustainability. It’s a good practice to start now (when there’s often a lot of food waste) and continue throughout the year.

Tip No. 8: Donating your leftovers that you don’t plan to eat is another way to prevent waste from going to the landfill

Consider contacting your local food pantry or food bank to see if they will accept holiday leftovers. (Here’s a website to help you find local food pantries: and local food banks: Homeless shelters or non-profit organizations may accept leftover food as well. It is encouraged that you call ahead to ensure they accept food that is not canned or packaged. You can read more about food waste and recovery in NC here:

Tip No. 9: Plan out how much food you will need in advance to avoid waste

Here’s a Thanksgiving food calculator that can be used for other holidays as well: Additionally, use reusable tableware (including cloth napkins). This will cut down on plastic waste and can be reused as much as you want.

Tip No. 10: When decorating your tree, keep it environmentally friendly

You can buy ornaments from thrift stores or make your own. DIY crafts are always a fun way to get into the holiday spirit and bond with family and friends! You could also decorate a tree in your yard, but make sure you use decorations that are safe for wildlife. Research food that is safe for animals and the environment to sustainably decorate a tree in your yard.

This holiday season, let’s enjoy spending time with our families, friends, and neighbors while also keeping the health of the environment in our minds and hearts. We all share the Earth as our home, so let’s make sure we show how grateful we are to be alive and give back through living in a sustainable manner. Happy Holidays!