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The Most Wasteful Time of the Year

Updated: Feb 9

I love the holidays. It is a time to visit with friends and family, indulge in festivities, and create wonderful, lasting memories with loved ones. There are a few things that I can always count on: lots of shopping, gift wrapping, cleaning, making an insane number of trips to the grocery store, putting up decorations, spending more money than planned, and eating, lots and lots of eating. Many of the traditions that make this season of giving wonderful also make it the most wasteful time of the year.

According to research cited by Stanford University, from the period of Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, American households throw out 25% more waste than any other time of year. Hearing this, some of you may be left feeling like you must choose between celebration and sustainability, but thankfully, with a little more mindfulness in our shopping and gift giving, we can have both. Here are four of the biggest areas that impact holiday waste and how we can do our part to cut back:

The Most Wasteful Holiday Items

When people think about the holiday shopping, they are likely not considering the excessive amount of waste that comes with each extra purchase, but that is exactly what I am hoping you will do after reading this. Check out 8 of the Biggest Contributors of Holiday Waste along with some facts that I hope will help persuade you to consider how you celebrate this year and years to come.

Biggest Contributors of Holiday Waste_Plastic Detox

During the Christmas season, 507,063,203 lbs of food waste will end up in the trash [1]. Ideas for reducing food waste this holiday season:

  • Plan out your meals

  • Store leftovers properly - freezing food for later is always a great option

  • Shop with a list to avoid impulse buying

  • Reduce portion sizes

  • Compost food scraps from fruits & veggies

Shipping boxes are another major source of holiday waste; in 2020, the United States Postal Services reported that 1.1 billion packages were delivered during the holidays [5]. Locations brought in extra staff just to help break down boxes accumulated from the holiday season. A large amount of shipping boxes contain gifts. Now let’s think about that classic pullover or sweater you get that is just not quite your style. While some of us have a weird relationship with returns, most people will return unwanted items. In 2020, The National Retail Federation estimated $428 billion in returns for unwanted products [3]. While some of these items may be resold, many won’t be sold and will end up in landfills. This doesn’t account for the additional CO2 emissions caused by shipping or driving returns back to retailers.

12 Environmentally Friendly Gift Ideas

Check out some of our favorite ideas for environmentally friendly gifts. It’s a great idea to consider if the gift you’re buying is a durable good; this means that it can last for three or more years. Plastic typically is cheap AND cheaply made, so focus on quality over quantity.

  • Plastic-free personal care products – These are great for stocking stuffers

  • Sustainable Toys - Select those made from wood or bamboo

  • Bee's Wax Wraps - Check out these holiday themed wraps

  • Homemade gifts - baked goods, candles, soaps, a favorite recipe, holiday bouquets, or a home video

  • Book an Outing - museums, movie tickets, sporting events, spa days, or a family photo shoot

  • Books - Give the gift of knowledge with books made from paper, and consider purchasing from secondhand bookstores or libraries.

  • Reusable Containers & Baskets - Gift wrapped in reusable items, the gift that keeps on giving

  • Sustainable Clothing - Look for items made with cotton or other natural fibers & avoid synthetic fabrics like polyester, acrylic, and nylon which are made with plastic

  • Reusable mug or water bottle

  • Rechargeable batteries - they always come in handy

  • Money - Either email gift cards, college fund donation, or cash, who doesn't want that?

  • Ask for specifics - Include & ask for direct links for with list items – this will avoid the number of unwanted items that will inevitably get returned

Low-Waste Gift Wrapping

Here are some of the best low-waste ideas to wrap up those thoughtful gifts. A few of these ideas can also save you some cash! Who doesn’t love that?

  • Try twine or yarn for bows

  • Reuse old gift wrap – try a reusable box or repurpose some newspaper (I like to collect and reuse gift bags)

  • Wrap gifts with a festive dish towel – not only is this eco-friendly, but useful too (and my personal favorite from this list)

  • Use craft paper – it is 100% recyclable

  • No glitter – glitter is made from PET plastic and over time releases harmful chemicals that enter our environment

  • Choose non-laminated and glitter-free cards, or better yet, make your own!

How to Handle Holiday Waste

Recycling Numbers and Meanings_Plastic Detox

Handling holiday waste responsibly is essential for reducing the environmental impact of the festive season. When the festivities end, waste begins.

Tips for holiday recycling:

  • Flatten all boxes

  • Remove handles, ribbon, and tape from gift wrap

  • Rinse and air dry all recyclable food containers

The following items are not accepted curbside [5]:

  • Cards with a glossy finish or glitter

  • Bubble wrap

  • Plastic bags & plastic film/wrap – take these to your local grocery store for recycling

  • Laminated gift bags

  • Cellophane

  • Containers that are dirty or wet

  • Ribbons, bows, and gift bag handles

  • Cooking oil and containers

  • Holiday lights

  • Styrofoam

For more information on how to reduce plastic waste, check out this blog all about the basics of recycling.

Consciously reducing our waste during the holiday season not only helps our local communities, but it teaches those around us to care for our earth and be responsible consumers. This year, you don’t have to choose between celebration and sustainability. You can do your part by cutting back on wasteful holiday items, choosing environmentally friendly gifts, using low-waste wrapping, and mindfully handling any trash created. Remember the real reason why we celebrate this holiday, and be glad for the friends and family you are sharing it with.

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[1] Jessop, A. (Nov. 17th, 2022). Christmas Pollution: Why is it important to have an eco-friendly Christmas? Retrieved from:

[2] Melore, C. (Nov. 10, 2021). Americans pile up nearly 30 pounds of extra trash per week during the holidays. Retrieved from:

[3] National Retail Federation (Jan. 11th, 2021). $428 Billion in Merchandise Returned in 2020. Retrieved from: 2020?ref=affiliatesection

[4]Stanford University (n.d.) Frequently Asked Questions: Holiday Waste Prevention. Retrieved from:


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