Wasting away

Why going green for the holidays matters

A cactus Christmas tree
Hayley Proctor | Boulder Weekly

It’s no secret that with the holidays comes mass consumption of everything from gifts to food to greeting cards, which also means 1 million extra tons of waste every week between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

That is 25 percent more waste created during the holidays than any other time of the year, and with the global population expected to double by the year 2050, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, reducing waste is more important than ever.

“All of the extra waste that we create can actually be effectively reduced, and it’s an opportunity to start habits that we can use year-round,” says Marti Matsch, communications director for Eco-Cycle. “Celebrating the holidays can include celebrating the earth and being more conscious of our impact on the environment.”

Being conscious includes finding new ways to have a greener holiday, and a cheaper one at that. Matsch says the holidays are a great time to get creative, and she offers several ideas on how to reduce waste during the season.

One idea is using calendar pages from the current year to wrap your gifts, so as to maintain a colorful and festive look. Blueprints and maps also make great-looking wrapping paper, Matsch says. If you want to make it a bit simpler and go against the traditional wrapping of gifts, she also suggests wrapping a gift within a gift, such as wrapping a new coffee mug in a scarf. More ideas as well as recycling tips are available on Eco-Cycle’s website and in its annual Holiday Recycling Guide.

In its Simplify the Holidays campaign, the Center for a New American Dream offers a guide that also lists some ideas for consumers to reduce waste during the holidays.

For wrapping gifts, use newspaper comics or paper bags decorated with markers, potato stamps (made by cutting shapes out of potatoes and dipping them in paint), or drawings. Another recommendation from the Simplify the Holidays guide is to repurpose boxes from around the house, such as cereal boxes. If you have kids, you can create a scavenger hunt with clues instead of wrapping the gifts. For packing materials, reach for crumpled newspaper, folded cardboard or even real (unbuttered) popcorn instead of packing peanuts. Finally, using gummed tape can reduce the amount of plastic tape that is sent to the landfill.

“If you feel like you want to go the traditional route, reusable gift bags are a good idea –– one thing I would say about that is don’t recycle them, reuse them,” Matsch says.

For greeting cards, go with post-consumer and 100 percent recyclable materials. Most of the greeting cards that are heavily decorated or have ribbons or bows attached to them aren’t recyclable, according to Matsch. She suggests using cards from previous years and either cut them into a smaller size to use as a gift tag or combine material from various greeting cards to create a new one.

Aside from the wrapping paper and greeting cards, there are also some very simple ways to reduce waste during your holiday shopping as well.

In 2012, holiday shoppers plan to spend an average of $750 on gifts, décor, greeting cards and other items, according to the National Retail Federation. Holiday sales are expected to reach a total of $586 billion, an increase of 4.1 percent over last year.

“When it comes to reducing the waste that you have in the holidays, it’s a simple one but an important one, bring your own bag. This is the time of year where you can start collecting a lot of them,” Matsch says.

A new ordinance passed by the city of Boulder in October may help encourage this. The ordinance will require shoppers to pay a 10-cent fee for each paper and plastic bag they use in Boulder grocery stores, convenience stores and even Target. According to Eco-Cycle, this could reduce the use of plastic bags — of which there are 46 million distributed in Boulder annually — by as much as 50 percent, judging by the success in other communities with similar requirements.

So we know that bringing your own bags to the store is a good way to reduce waste, but what about what goes in those bags? After all, many gifts already have an armory of packaging before you even take them home. Instead of dealing with all that plastic, Styrofoam, and cardboard as well as the often chaotic crowds in retail stores, why not just create your own gift at home?

Consider making something like a family calendar that includes birthdays, anniversaries and family gatherings, as suggested by the Simplify the Holidays guide by the Center for a New American Dream. The calendar can be decorated with family photos. More examples include recording interviews with relatives and asking them to share memories of the person you are giving the recording to.

Some other gift ideas don’t require any materials at all. For example, maybe there is a relative that you only see or speak to once or twice a year. Making a commitment to contact them throughout the year can be a great gift. You can also teach someone a skill you have, such as swing dancing, knitting or doing the butterfly stroke. These are all just a few of the ideas listed in the Simplify the Holidays guide. It also offers ideas for giving greener gifts to charity as well as gifts that are specific to children, such as setting up a scavenger hunt around your home.

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