“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is just one of the many classic holiday tunes on a seemingly endless rotation as our ears turn toward the holidays.
The ubiquitous mantra of “‘tis the season” is a compelling excuse for us to set aside worries and indulge in family gatherings, delicious meals among friends, the allure of twinkling lights, and for many, the exchange of gifts as a tangible means to express love and affection. These joyful celebrations can be incredibly taxing financially and emotionally, and yet, there is another aspect of our extravagant traditions that has impacts in ways we do not often consider: the environmental toll of holiday waste.
10,000 Boeing 757s
Fast forward to the first week of January. If you are among the many folks who participate in these traditions, you are likely all too familiar with the phrase, “holiday post-mortem.” The depressing scene of streets lined with dry, skeletal fir trees, mountains of electronics boxes and bins of empty celebratory wine bottles crammed next to bundles of plastic film packaging material, and the lightweight tissue gift wrap floating about like aerial tumbleweeds, haunting us of holidays past. The trash may be out of our homes, but it doesn’t magically disappear into thin air. The immense waste produced from our festivities finds a final resting place in landfills, often polluting our water and endangering wildlife. According to a Stanford report, the extra holiday waste produced in the U.S. between Thanksgiving and New Year’s amounts to 25 million tons of garbage, or about one million extra tons per week. Picture 10,000 Boeing 757s being discarded each week.
“…but I recycle!” is a common response. While recycling is encouraged, the optimal and more ecofriendly approach would be to “go upstream” and adopt the Five R’s. These are: Refuse what you don’t need, Reduce the need for something new, Re-use what you already have, Re-purpose items to give them a second life, and Recycle the rest. We might even be so bold as to encourage a sixth R for Responsibility, because making responsible choices as a consumer is something we can all try. By going upstream, you avoid the potential for contaminants — in this case, landfill waste and carbon emissions.
Here are some tips and ideas to go upstream this holiday season so we can keep the earth as vibrant as our celebrations, for generations to come.
While it may be more convenient to use disposable plates and utensils at family gatherings, it takes one plastic fork 200 years to decay. As an alternative, opt for real dishes and flatware, and use cloth napkins instead of paper. A trip to your local thrift store is an easy solution to ensure you have enough supplies to accommodate your guests. Mix and match your dining set for a personal flair, and the dishes can be offered to guests to take home as a keepsake. Second-hand tablecloths can serve as an alternative for paper napkins — simply cut one into squares for guests. And they can be reused later as cleaning rags.
According to Charlotte Pitt from Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency, “organic material, specifically food waste, is one of the greatest contributors to holiday waste production.”
It is common for hosts of a dinner party to over-prepare to make sure there is enough for everyone, but then end up with way too much. Pitt recommends using the Save the Food Guest-Imator to appropriately prepare meals for large groups and prevent excess waste. For an effective zero-waste meal this season, calculate sensibly, bring or provide containers for take-home leftovers, freeze meals to enjoy at a later date, make soups with meat scraps and freeze veggie remnants for homemade vegetable broth.
Decorating, gift wrap and more
That mulch looks familiar
If decorating a tree suits your fancy, take heart. While the options are many, they are typically divided into two camps: live or fake trees. According to The Nature Conservancy, surprisingly, it is the real trees that are the more environmentally friendly choice. At the season’s end, donate your tree to Denver’s TreeCycle program, which takes place Jan. 4-15, so it can be made into mulch and “live again” next spring in someone’s garden.
If the low maintenance of an artificial tree is more your style, check out Facebook marketplace, Craigslist and/or local thrift stores for pre-owned or used plastic trees before buying new.
Repair, don’t replace
We’ve all been there — unraveling the jumbled mess of last year’s lights only to discover they mysteriously refuse to work again. Yes, they are inexpensive and our first instinct may be to toss them out and replace with new ones, but as it turns out, these can usually be repaired. Ace Hardware has a useful YouTube tutorial. Repairing your lights not only saves money, but also reduces the carbon footprint of driving to the store to purchase new ones.
If you must discard them, take advantage of free and local string lights recycling initiatives, because if they end up in the landfill, they will have 200 years to get friendly with that plastic fork.
Strands of lights cannot be recycled if placed in city recycling bins, but special recycling programs for these lights are offered through Blue Star Recyclers, and the city at the Cherry Creek Recycling Drop Off.
Last year, 5,966 pounds of holiday lights were recycled in Denver. For perspective, one 20-foot strand of lights weighs less than a pound.
Show off your unique, eco-friendly style
If you’re in the mood to spruce up your holiday décor, go upstream and check out used ornaments and other decorations before heading to the retail markets. Think ARC Thrift, Goodwill, Facebook marketplace, Craigslist, Flea Markets, etc. You might even find a box of rare collectible ornaments, suitable for Antiques Roadshow.
The tradition of gift giving can be stressful and challenging, but you can make it fun and environmentally friendly. Consider offering experiences that create memories, versus tangible items that may eventually end up in landfill, regardless of our endeavors.
Select recycleable items
“There is often a surge in recycling incorrect items such as greeting cards with glitter or photo paper and gift wrap,” Pitt said.
She suggests to take care when selecting and sorting greeting cards.
Traditional gift wrap is too thin and flimsy to be recycled, so as an alternative, try using a cloth that can live on, like a t-shirt, towel or pillowcase. Think of it as a gift within a gift. Loose ends can be tied up with rustic twine or fancy fabric ribbon, rather than defaulting to sticky tape.
Inevitably, you will end up with some plastic film wrap. Thankfully, King Soopers participates in the TerraCycle recycling program and will accept clean and dry plastic films for recycling. Simply drop it off in the bin at the front entrance labeled “Plastic Film Only” as you head in for the weekly grocery run.
There is no such thing as away
These ideas are just the tip of the proverbial — and unfortunately, melting — iceberg that address how even small, simple changes can benefit the environment.
Annie Leonard, co-executive director of Greenpeace USA, once said, “there is no such thing as `away.’ When you throw something away, it must go somewhere.”
So, as you prepare for the fun and cheer of the upcoming festivities, keep Mother Earth in mind and consider how your decisions this holiday season can make a lasting impact on her survival for all seasons to come.
Elicia Hesselgrave is a Denver-based writer with a passion for wildlife conservation, environmental protection and social justice.