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Americans produce 25% more trash during the holidays. These tips might help.

Christmas 2019

When people think of the holidays, they often recall images of Santa’s red velvet bag stuffed to the brim with gifts, but a black plastic bag crammed with trash might provide a more accurate depiction.

The holidays are a particularly trashy time of year. In fact, Americans produce about 25% more trash than usual between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

That extra waste amounts to about 1 million additional tons of garbage going into landfills each week during that time.

For a visual of just how much that is, the number of Christmas cards sold in the U.S. each year could fill a football field 10 stories high. The amount of ribbon that would be saved if each family used two fewer feet would be enough to tie a giant bow around the entire planet.

This might go without saying, but all that waste does not bode well for our environment — whether we’re cutting down more trees for wrapping paper or dumping it into landfills to break down into potentially harmful chemicals or microplastics.

So in the holiday spirit of giving, give your dumpsters and landfills a break, and follow these tips on how to cut back on waste this holiday season.

Gift giving

“A lot of times when we think about Christmas, we think about kids because they get the most excited about the holidays,” said Mary Lyn Stoll, an associate philosophy professor who teaches environmental ethics at the University of Southern Indiana. “The best gift any child can get this Christmas is a livable future.”

That’s why she said people should think outside of the box, literally, when it comes to buying presents.

Gifting experiences is a good way to cut down on waste, she said. Stoll likes the idea of taking kids out in nature, but other options include concert tickets or a membership at a zoo or museum.

And if you do decide to put presents under your tree this year, you can be kinder to the environment by asking yourself a few questions.

“How’s it packaged?” said Mary Allen, who owns Sixth and Zero, a store in Newburgh that specializes in sustainable goods. “Is it in a bunch of plastic that’s going to have to be trashed?”

You should also try to buy local, said Mark Doss, a geology professor at USI.

“If one can avoid production at distance and transportation from afar, the positive impacts on the environment are just instantaneous,” he said.

And find out whether the gifts you’re buying were produced sustainably, Doss said. That can be difficult and requires a fair amount of research into products, industries and accreditation standards, but there’s one rule that’s clear to follow: Avoid single-use plastics.

“It’s the star on the unsustainable Christmas tree,” he said. “We’ve learned in the last decade or two that plastic waste is just insidious.”

Stoll said eco-friendly gifts provide an avenue to get other friends more aware of environmental issues. She likes to give friends insulated coffee mugs. Not only do they keep drinks warm, they can also be reused, cutting down on waste from single-use Styrofoam cups.

You can tailor those gifts to your friends interests, too. If you have a friend who enjoys cooking, Stoll suggests buying them a vegan cookbook.

Gift wrapping

Now that you’ve bought your sustainable gift, you have to think about how to present it. Wrapping paper is generally used once, as are bows and ribbons, before being shoved in trash bags.

The handy mantra taught to elementary school students — reduce, reuse, recycle — works well here.

“Reduction and reuse are so important, especially nowadays that we’ve learned that much of our recycling is not being recycled,” Doss said.

Try to save and reuse ribbons and bows where possible, and this newspaper makes a great gift wrap.

“Essentially, every gift I’ve given for the past 20 years has been wrapped in Courier Sunday comics,” Doss said.

Better yet, forgo the wrapping paper altogether and use decorative boxes, tins and baskets that can be reused year after year. Stoll said scarves and other fabrics also work well.

And when it comes to all those holiday cards that are purchased each year — more than 2 billion — look for ones made of recycled paper, and that can be recycled yet again. In other words, avoid ones with foil coatings or a glossy finish.

Festive feasting

Food waste is a problem year round, and the holidays are no different. Americans threw out the equivalent of 6 million turkeys — worth about $293 million — over Thanksgiving in 2017, according to environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council.

So when preparing for holiday feasts, make sure to get an accurate count of who will be coming, what they’re craving and how big of eaters they usually are. Also make sure to shop your fridge and pantry first so you are not buying more of something you already have.

If you want to err on the side of having too much, rather than too little, be prepared with enough containers to send guests home with leftovers, or ask them in advance to bring their own.

There’s also a benefit to thinking more about the types of food you eat. Stoll suggests preparing more vegan or vegetarian dishes.

“The lower you eat down the food chain, there’s just less resources that go into you food,” she said.

And Doss’s advice to shop local applies here, too. He recommends eating foods that are in season to avoid the environmental costs of long-distance transportation.

“When we make our pastries…we do it from the black raspberries that we pick,” Doss said. “The pecans that I get from under my pecan tree, that’s the origin of the pecans in the pecan pies that we give to our friends or take to our holiday gatherings and pot-luck dinners.”

Deck the halls

When it comes to trees, the question is always to go fake or real, cut or live.

Stoll said to buy a real one because the plastic of an artificial tree will stick around for a long time. Allen also recommends real trees, even though she doesn’t have one.

“I still have an artificial tree because I’ve had it for years and it still works,” she said. “I’m still using it.”

She calls being environmentally conscious a journey, adding that the type of tree she should buy wasn’t something she thought about years ago.

If you choose a real tree, you can try to find a live one for replanting in your yard. Feel free to ask a local nursery which trees are best in your area.

Why does it matter?

You can’t save the planet by shopping, Stoll said.

“Even if I make sure every chemical additive in my food is 100 percent vegan and local and organic somehow, and I never buy any Christmas presents ever again, and I only ride my bike everywhere, climate change is still going to happen,” she said. “We’re talking about harms that were created by so many more people than just one.”

Nevertheless, she said there’s a benefit to doing little things like eating less meat at your Christmas dinner or wrapping your gifts with newspaper.

“There a sociological studies that suggest…when you have habits in you day-to-day life that reflect your values, you’re better able to maintain the wherewithal to fight those bigger social justice fights and sustainability fights,” she said.

And even if these personal fixes won’t prevent climate change, Doss said we can’t afford not to do them.

“If everybody’s doing it, there’s nothing else we can do. Is it enough? Come back and ask the question 50 years from now.” he said.

He compares it to buckling a seat belt even though most people are never in a head-on collision, or paying for insurance on a house that likely won’t burn down.

“Most people probably like the idea of having their home insured,” he said. “I don’t understand why we don’t do the same damn thing for the planet.”


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