If you were to look at some of the most popular toys over the decades, you’d find the majority were made of plastic and wrapped in plastic — and then were probably wrapped in paper and bows. “We know we live in a consumer culture, but it goes into overdrive over the holidays,” says Anne-Marie Bonneau, the California blogger otherwise known as the Zero-Waste Chef. What happens to all that plastic and waste after the carols are done and the food is eaten?
According to the Environment Protection Agency, 8.8 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year. Holiday excess isn’t limited to plastic toys and plastic wrap, though. Every year, Americans throw out an incredible amount of food — about 200 million pounds of turkey meat over Thanksgiving alone, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy nonprofit. Disposable wrapping paper, cheap decorations, fake trees, white elephant exchanges, cards, cookie packaging — it can all seem like too much, especially to folks who try to cut down their waste year-round.
So, we asked a few zero-waste bloggers for tried-and-true advice on reining in the holiday excess. “I think the holidays can be a tricky time to navigate, between traditions and family pressure,” Celia Ristow, the Madison Wis.-based blogger at Litterless, said in an email. “I say, make changes that feel comfortable to you, without worrying too much about the ones that just won’t work for your family right now. Over time, you may be able to add in things that feel harder. . . . Luckily, too, zero waste and the need for sustainable switches are becoming more and more mainstream. It can be an honor, as well as a pain, to be the family leader in that regard.”
Calculate portions: Use the NRDC’s Guest-imator to better calculate how much food to make. Choose your number of guests and consider how much they’ll eat (small, average or big eater), then plug in how many leftover meals you’d like. Select from a “Classic Dinner Party” (meal and dessert), “Veggie Paradise” (vegetarian options) or “Smorgasbord” (a variety of options), and the calculator can help you come up with a menu — including how many servings of each to make.
Get the most out of leftovers: Before a holiday meal, try to eat out of your fridge, freezer and pantry, Bonneau says, to make room for cooking ingredients. Then, after the meal, use the leftover ingredients to make other meals, such as turkey sandwiches for lunch and turkey tetrazzini for dinner the next night. “If you’re buying celery for the stuffing, and you have more, put it out with peanut butter for snacks the next day,” Ristow says.
Both Ristow and Bonneau are fans of bringing reusable containers to family dinners. “If you bring your own containers to a holiday dinner, the host or hostess has less to do after a big meal, searching for a container to put their guests’ leftovers into,” Bonneau says. “Or, if you contribute to the meal, you can bring your food in a reusable container and then fill it up with leftovers.” If you can, compost whatever is left.
Buy useful items and experiences: Siobhan McComb, in Bothell, Wash., of the blog One Glass Jar, tries to get her two kids items they need for Christmas, such as underwear and socks — as well as one item they want. McComb’s family also chooses one excursion to do together over the holidays. One year, they went to nearby mountains for sledding and horse-drawn sleigh rides. For friends and family, McComb asks people what they really want, not minding if that ruins the surprise.
Look for secondhand gifts: McComb scours consignment, charity and thrift shops for items on loved ones’ lists. For example, “If someone wants an iPhone, find a factory-repaired and reset iPhone, and then you don’t have to buy something new,” McComb says.
Rethink stocking stuffers: Look for local soap from a holiday bazaar, McComb suggests. Or, “I bring my own little bags to the bulk departments and I buy chocolates and candies and put them into stockings.” She’ll throw in bulk nuts, oranges and even practical items such as bamboo toothbrushes from Brush With Bamboo (the toothbrushes and packaging are compostable).
Make your own wrappings: Ristow hoards used gift wrap all year to reuse it for the holidays. She also suggests using the comics section, a classic move, or even the inside of paper grocery bags. “With ribbons or tags or drawings on them with markers, there are ways to make these papers not feel make-do or depressing,” Ristow says. “They can feel cheerful or festive with a little creativity.” Many people also use reusable cloth gift bags. McComb suggests compostable tape, too. Ristow suggests keeping nice boxes with lids in the closet, ready for gifts collected throughout the year.
Make natural decorations: McComb keeps a twisted grapevine wreath that she decorates and redecorates each year. “I load it with greenery from around our neighborhood . . . little cedar clippings and fir clippings . . . and dried leaves.” For the tree inside — and for the one in their yard — her family will make garlands from dried orange slices, popcorn and cranberries. Around the rest of the house, she’ll use evergreen swag, which later can go into the compost or yard-waste bin. “Look outside for things, even a tree branch, and hang it horizontally on your wall, hanging it with strings and bells,” McComb says. “You don’t have to go to the craft store.”
When it comes to the Christmas tree, McComb and Bonneau vote for the real version over the fake. “Plastic trees ultimately are trash when they fall apart and the pre-strung lights die,” McComb says. “Some people buy a potted tree and plant it after a few years of use.”
Many cities pick up trees and grind them up for mulch, she says. Do research before the holiday to find out how to responsibly dispose of a tree in your area. Most counties have drop-off locations for trees, and sometimes Boy Scout troops will collect them for a small donation.
Go local for drinks: If you’re hosting a party, try finding local wine and beer makers, which often use bottles or growlers you can return to them. “It’s always better to reuse than recycle, because recycling requires energy — energy to haul the bottle to the recycling center, energy to run the equipment that recycles the material and energy to ship the new product,” Bonneau says. “Reusing doesn’t require any energy — just a little elbow grease to clean the glass.”
Use precious serving dishes: That china and silverware in the hutch is meant to be used and is far more festive than any printed paper plate or napkin. “Every meal has cloth napkins,” McComb says. “I have a whole bunch of fancy china, and it elevates any occasion. . . . You remember going to your grandmother’s house and using that silverware. You remember that tablecloth.” If you don’t have enough of certain pieces, Bonneau says, “borrow them from friends and neighbors. Even rent them from a company that does that. You can rent just about anything.”
Whatever idea or two you try, “don’t lose your mind,” Bonneau says. “Don’t try to be perfect. If everyone just made one change, that would make a big difference.”