When it comes to holiday waste, things usually aren’t very jolly.
Waste expert and researcher Robert Lilienfeld, who has developed recycling programs across the country and helps businesses create more-sustainable practices, estimates that Americans throw away 25 percent more trash during the Thanksgiving-to-New-Year period than at any other time of the year. That could be anything from delivery boxes to excess packaging to one-time decorations.
And this year it’s likely to get even worse.
"My number one priority is reducing chances of exposure to COVID, so that means most of my shopping happens online,” says Stephanie Africk, a mom of four from Boston. In fact, a consumer report by Pitney Bowes Inc. found that since the pandemic began, about 45 percent of consumers say they do more than half of their shopping online; before the pandemic, only 16 percent of consumers answered the same. And this holiday season, online sales are surging: According to Adobe Analytics, which scans online transactions from a selection of the top American web retailers, Black Friday online shopping was up almost 22 percent from 2019. (Here’s why Black Friday shopping harms the environment.)
Although paper and cardboard are relatively easy to recycle, Lilienfeld says the change in how people shop has affected how much is actually recycled. When consumers were doing most of their shopping inside of stores, “cardboard cartons were collected, compressed, and baled at the back of stores, then purchased by recyclers,” he says. “But now, much of this cardboard never makes it back into the waste system.” Delivery boxes and other packaging often wind up in a landfill due to a lack of local recycling services, confusion on how to recycle properly, and because many people simply don’t participate.
And even if consumers are recycling right, some recycling centers are dealing with fewer staff—due to pandemic safety concerns—and more restrictions on the quality of recycled material that buyers will purchase. Says Lilienfeld: “It’s better to not create waste than have to figure out what to do with it.”
Holiday magic without the waste
So how can your family resist the rubbish? Start with those online orders. To reduce packaging waste, save up items in your online shopping cart and order them all at once. Before you click “Buy,” deselect expedited shipping—superfast delivery generates a larger carbon footprint because it creates a less efficient system: Items are often shipped separately, and trucks leave the facility only half full in order to quickly get items to people.
But it’s not only the packaging that creates the waste—it’s often the impulse-purchase decorations and not-quite-right gifts we buy that eventually end up in landfills. “The key to making more environmentally friendly decisions is to plan ahead,” Lilienfeld says. “Last-minute shopping is panic shopping, so work off of gift lists.”
Of course, you won’t be able to DIY that flossing sloth or pooping flamingo that your kid’s been begging for. But you can cut down on holiday waste by making other things you’d normally purchase. Try these crafts with your kids to create family holiday experiences—without generating as much trash.