Amanda, our shared Zero-Waste intern with West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), shares her experience with the City of Grand Rapids’ Feet on the Street Campaign and how contamination affects the rest of the recycling process, including the sorting, baling, and value of recyclable bales at Kent County Recycling Center. You can read her other blogs by clicking here!

The rest of this year may have looked different than years past but at least one thing will remain the same unless we think and act through a more sustainable lens– the impressive amount of waste we generate around the holiday season. In the time between Thanksgiving and New Years Eve the average household produces 25 percent more waste than the other 10 months of the year. From the landfill perspective that’s an additional 1 million tons of waste a week! The season of consuming renders us piled high with food waste, discarded packaging, abandoned decorations, new stuff to replace old stuff, and unwanted gifts leaving little for the earth to celebrate. 

After observing some of our community’s recycling habits via the City of Grand Rapids’ Feet on the Street program and seeing the staggering mountain of items that we all toss into the Kent County landfill, I was determined to assess the waste in my household this holiday season with a critical eye. With Kent County’s goal to reduce 90% of the waste in landfills by 2030, it’s important that we not only try to recycle as much as possible during this time of year, but realize the even greater impact we have by reducing and reusing first. Here are some of the seasonal aspects I’ve been focused on and ones that we can all be aware of to help keep our waste in check, divert it more sustainably, and reduce our impact throughout the holidays: 

{1} Plan & Prep to Avoid Food Waste: The United States wastes 40% of its total food every year. While this is problematic enough as it is, it’s not just the food that is wasted. Wasting that amount implies that we’re also wasting the land, water, and energy used to create that food and with agriculture accounting for nearly 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, that’s a significant amount of waste. For the US alone, wasted food generates as much greenhouse gas emissions as 37 million cars’ worth every year. 

For many, the holidays are for spending time celebrating with loved ones in the best way we know how–copious amounts of food. Food is a crucial part of traditions for families across the country this time of year, from warm home cooked meals to festive treats, but it’s also a heavy contributor to the increased waste coming out of every household. One of the easiest ways to reduce food waste this season is to reduce the amount of food being brought into your home first by purchasing and cooking only the amount of food that is necessary. It can be easy to overbuy and over prepare for a big meal, but if a small amount of extra time is taken to portion out the meal before it’s made, tons of food waste can be saved from landfills over the next few weeks (one of Kent county’s Waste Diversion Specialists, Katelyn, loves using this resource for planning big meals and the “guest-imator” feature which helps to determine how much food to purchase and make for the number of people you’re hosting).

If there are leftovers, rather than throw them away, send them home with your loved ones or freeze what you think you won’t eat in days following to be sure that it doesn’t go to waste at the back of your refrigerator. If you find that you did over buy ingredients for your holiday meals, you can also look into donating the unused food items to your local food pantry which can potentially save you from throwing something out later in addition to making someone else’s holiday season a little brighter. 

{2} Think it Through When it Comes to Decorating: Stores are packed with plastic decorations that aim to give your home holiday cheer and promise to stick around for hundreds of years when you decide to swap them out for something new and send them to your garbage bin. One of the most unsettling decorations?  “Fake snow” which is made from expanded polystyrene foam which shows no sign of breakdown over time appearing to last literally forever (not to mention it presents a public health concern as a possible human carcinogen). Instead, leave the snow for the outdoors and try decorating with organic materials that can be composted (my favorite is dehydrating oranges for a natural and beautiful garland). Buying your decorations used from a nearby thrift store is also a great way to give new life to discarded decor and saves the impact of the production of new materials.  

The age old debate of real tree vs fake tree is also important to consider during the season. The conclusion: it really just depends. The Nature Conservancy estimates that in the U.S. ten million fake trees are purchased every year, a large majority of which are shipped from China. Not only then does the manufacturing of plastic Christmas trees use up natural resources and generate harmful greenhouse gas emissions, a significant contribution of emissions is added into the sustainability cost as a result of international sourcing. Of course, another important consideration is that most artificial trees are made from nonrecyclable materials and end up indefinitely in landfills once disposed of. 

While real trees are excellent agents to combat greenhouse gases as they consume carbon dioxide in the environment, their maximum trade off and carbon storage potential increases with age. Because Christmas trees are cut down in their teenage years, the debate stands whether a carbon storing benefit is at all reached. Additionally the nature of chopping down a “single use” tree isn’t exactly the most sustainable concept, even when it’s composted or turned into mulch, but especially not if it ends up in a landfill. From a financial standpoint, too, this isn’t always a feasible option year after year.

At the end of the day, whichever decision you make has the potential to be done in a sustainable way while still allowing you to keep holiday traditions alive. A real tree is overall less impactful from an emissions standpoint if disposed of properly, but if an artificial tree is reused over several years (at least eight, but ideally more than twenty) this may no longer be the case. If you prefer the scent of pine to plastic be sure to source it locally and dispose of it responsibly. If the hassle free, lesser cost-over-time promise of an artificial tree appeals to you, try to buy one that’s preloved and one that you can continue to love for years to come. 

{3} Find a Gift that Keeps on Giving:  The biggest gift giving season of the year also means considerable amounts of single use plastic and packaging materials sent to landfills after the unboxing. A great way to reduce waste in this area is to give the gift of an experience, a service, or a donation to the gift receiver’s favorite cause. Giving an “anti-matter” gift saves waste from manufacturing, shipping, wrapping, and in the event that the gift you give isn’t in someone’s liking, saves an unwanted item from the landfill. If you want to give a tangible item, try sourcing it locally. Supporting smaller, local brands is important now more than ever and it also helps reduce waste from shipping and packaging that would come from purchasing products from companies with larger operations. Where shopping locally is not an option, seek out eco-conscious brands and recycled products which help cut back on the overall impact of the gift. 

If you’re one to send your season’s greetings in an envelope, choose cards that are made from recycled materials, or at least be sure that they can be recycled. Many cards add to the festive season with glitter, ribbons, glossy photos, battery powered tunes, and colorful foil all of which will eventually secure the cards fate in a landfill. Only the cards that you send and receive that are paper-only greetings can be disposed of with the rest of your recycling. The best option? Send an e-cardThe 2.65 billion Christmas cards sold each year in the U.S. are enough to fill a football field ten times. Considering the transient nature of a physical card, this is a great way to save money and resources from going to waste. 

{4} Get Creative with Your Gift Wrapping: 

While a gift wrapped in shiny paper and embellishing bows might look nice for you or I to receive, it’s far less pretty decorating a landfill. Most traditional wrapping papers have non paper additives such as clay, plastic, and glitter which leave them unable to be recycled. It’s also estimated that Americans throw away nearly 38,000 miles of ribbon every year, enough to wrap around the entire globe and have some left over to secure a bow

If you’ve found the perfect gift for someone, instead try wrapping it in newspaper or other materials you can find around your house. Comic books, magazines, newspaper, unwanted fabric, children’s art work– any of these can make for a fun creative way to conceal your gift without the added strain of wrapping paper and ribbon on the environment and the extra weight on your conscience. When I don’t have enough material to reuse, I love wrapping my gifts in brown kraft paper, reused ribbon or twine, and small sprigs of pine to add a decorative touch. Kraft paper can often be found made from recycled material and can be recycled after the fact and reusing last year’s ribbon gives the made-to-be-disposed item another chance at life (hopefully one that can last through the next year as well!). Not only is the minimal look aesthetically pleasing and festive, it’s a great sustainable alternative to traditional wrappings. For something with the intended purpose of being ripped off and thrown away (preferably in a recycling bin) choose the path of least impact. 

I hope you keep these tips in mind to make this season, and each one to come, a little greener. You can find additional holiday waste tips and our holiday recycling guide by clicking here! Happy Holidays!