It’s that time of year again – a season of joy and giving, but also a time of overconsumption and waste. Waste increases 25% between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, according to data from Stanford University’s Waste Reduction, Recycling, Composting and Solid Waste Program.  This waste comes in the form of food waste, packaging, shopping bags, and wrapping materials (paper, bows, ribbons), among other things, and it adds an EXTRA 1 million tons of garbage PER WEEK, and that’s only in the US!

It doesn’t have to be more expensive or time consuming to do things differently this holiday season. It can actually save you time AND money! Here’s an introductory list of tips and tricks to reducing holiday waste, with a focus on free and low cost options. Read to the end for a brief PSA on the benefits and importance of shopping at small local businesses. 

  1. Plan Ahead

I know this can seem difficult sometimes (it does to me!) but it’s really the most effective way to ensure you are able to make better choices for your wallet, mental health, and the planet – and that goes for any time of year!  And it doesn’t mean you have to plan out months in advance either.  Just think about your gift giving and holiday celebration plans and identify areas where you can do things a bit differently.  Low waste and affordable DIY gifts can save time in the long run (see below for some ideas), an activity with a group of friends or your family in lieu of gifts can be more memorable (see more on experiences below), and a conversation about spending caps and maybe even an ask to stick to plastic-free and/or purchases from small businesses can bring more meaning to the gift giving experience (and really make a huge impact on raising awareness!).

  1. Rethink Gift Wrap

This can be fun, easy, free, and/or an added experience to the act of gift giving.  Some alternatives include up-cycling a variety of paper options (newspaper, paper bags, magazines) and decorating/personalizing, reusing gift bags or delicately unwrapped gift wrap, or adding an additional item like a tea towel, a scarf, or a winter hat and using it to wrap the gift.

Reusable cloth gift wrap can be a really pretty way to present a gift, and is fun to pass back and forth with friends and family (look up furoshiki to see how the Japanese have been doing it for centuries).

  1. Affordable and Low Waste DIY Gifts

Do you feel pressured to exchange gifts with everyone in your office (feel free to sub in neighbors, family, friends, parents at school, etc)? Find yourself buying meaningless, impersonal tchotchkes, hopefully at a discount, just to end up receiving a collection of junk that you don’t want or need?  Look into some DIY gifts that you could put together very easily and affordably, that will produce minimal if no waste and potentially be way more appreciated by your coworkers (or other group).  Some ideas off the top of my head include baking mixes (I received a scone mix once that I still dream about) or bath salt blends in mason jars – lots of opportunity to decorate/personalize the jars, and you leave the gift recipient with a container that they can get many uses out of.

  1. Swap With Friends

You know I love a good swap!!  Swapping is great for that perfect holiday party outfit or even some gifts! If you’re lucky enough to live in CT you have access to the Reboot Eco Swap Studio (shameless plug, I know ;)). If a community swap space is not available in your area (and even if it is!), I definitely recommend planning a swap party with your friends.

For example, get together with your friends and swap those tchotchkes you’ve accumulated (Bath&Body Works gift set anyone?).  And festive ties and cocktail dresses are often items that we feel can’t be repeated too often in the same circles – while I’m all about normalizing outfit repeating and rocking the same killer dress to any formal function in our calendars, swapping is a great way to keep those minimally worn items in circulation and bringing joy to the wearer.

  1. Use What You Already Have

As mentioned above, take a look at what you already have before buying new stuff. Have a holiday party to go to and think you need a new dress?  Dig into your closet first and make sure you truly don’t have a good option (maybe get a second set of eyes to take a look with you).  Need to participate in a gift exchange with people you don’t know well? Take a look around the house and see what new items might exist and qualify – I know I’ve got a few untouched candles and ceramic mugs (a shopping weakness I’m still working on) that would make a great gift.  Or maybe that scarf that your friend is always complementing – second hand gifts aren’t for everyone, but in the right exchange it can be more meaningful and practical than guessing at what they might want (and likely don’t need).

  1. Shop Second Hand

As I said above, gifting second hand items isn’t for everyone.  But I think more and more people are realizing that shopping at second hand stores is less like dumpster diving and more like the clearance rack in the outlet of a high quality brand.  

From housewares to clothing and accessories, second hand items can be found online and in a variety of local shops – it might require knowing the gift recipient a bit better (but not necessarily), and it may take a bit more time to find the right item, but the cost savings and reduced impact on the environment are irrefutable.

  1. Experiences Over Stuff

Not a new concept but always worth mentioning – experiences can be gifted but also planned on ahead of time in lieu of gifting.  For example, if a group of people all pitch in on a group activity or getaway instead of spending money on stuff, the experience can give a lot more bang for the buck and leave you with lasting memories, and maybe even a new tradition! 

  1. Reduce Food Waste

I’ve written a lot about gifting, but another huge contributor to waste during the holidays is leftover food and food waste. Plan on leftovers and bring containers to holiday gatherings.  If you’re bringing a dish, try and avoid something that doesn’t reheat well, or don’t make too much. I was recently introduced to an awesome tool for reducing food waste – the Guest-imator is a dinner party calculator to determine how much food to prepare. Check it out here,*

And of course, do your best to compost food scraps – more and more opportunities are popping up every day making it easy to compost no matter where you live.

  1. Decorate Responsibly

I was recently honored to reappear on WNPR’s Where We Live to talk about waste around the holidays (link below if you haven’t already listened).  Miriah Kelly and I spoke with host Catherine Shen about a variety of issues and solutions and holiday decor was definitely a prominent topic.  It’s also the reason that Reboot Eco recently hosted its third annual Holiday Decor Swap Party, this year in partnership with The Rockfall Foundation. Many of the above mentioned tips apply to holiday decor: shop second hand, swap with your community or friends, or make your own (great group activity idea). Most importantly, just be mindful of whether your approach to holiday decor is bringing you joy or causing you stress.

  1. Be Kind To Yourself

This is the simplest and most important item on this list, and it goes for any time of year. Overwhelming yourself with the stress and pressure to reduce waste in every aspect of your life  all at once does no one any good. It generally just results in burnout and abandoning all efforts. So take it easy, do what you can, and remember you’re not alone, even if it feels like you’re surrounded by people who don’t share your concerns. There is a strong community of people working on making better choices personally, and improving systems so that it’s easier for more people to make better choices. Visit a local eco-friendly business, attend an event focused on an eco-friendly initiative, and sign up for emails from a local non-profit with an environmental mission – any of these acts will do wonders in reminding you that there is hope and that you are a member of a community.

I hope this list has helped you to become more aware of some of the causes of increased waste this time of year, and maybe even left you with some new practices to implement in your own life. If you need inspiration, support, or have any questions, never hesitate to reach out to the Reboot Eco team at Comment and let me know what you’re doing to reduce waste this holiday season.

PSA: When you do go out to buy something new for yourself or others, please do your best to shop at your local small businesses.  Not only are you able to reduce packaging and shipping waste, you are much more likely to get a higher quality product and more meaningful gift.  When you shop at your local small business, the staff is uniquely equipped to help you find the right item and work within your budget.  And we all know that money spent at a local small business does way more to benefit your community than any money spent at the big box stores or mega e-tailers (like Amazon).

Listen to the Where We Live episode on holiday waste here,

* Thanks to Tess Terrible, senior producer at CT Public Radio, for sharing this awesome resource.

Happy Holidays!