Zero-Waste Holidays, or Closer to It

Trash production increases by 25% during the holidays. Give the planet a gift too, with this expert advice to make your celebrations a bit more mindful.

As we move into the rush of the holiday season, it can be tough to find time to slow down and care for yourself—let alone measure the impact of your ho-ho-ho’ing on our planet. This time of year, it can feel like everything is moving too fast, and that to-do list is ever-growing. The last thing you’re thinking about is how much trash you’re creating.

But Americans create a staggering amount of trash—particularly during the holidays. On average, we produce 4.4 pounds of trash every day, and according to the EPA this increases 25 percent between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Why is this a big deal? Isn’t it just trash?

Trash is kind of like an iceberg. What we throw out is only 30 percent of the picture. There’s another 70 percent that’s thrown out in manufacturing. Trash, if you think about it, is really resources that could otherwise be valuable. We’re currently consuming more resources than the Earth can sustainably produce—we even have a day to mark it called Earth Overshoot Day. It came on August 1, and every year it moves earlier and earlier in the calendar.

Thankfully, there are so many ways to celebrate the holidays without creating a lot of trash. Here are some ways to make your holiday a bit closer to zero-waste… Because a healthy planet is a gift we can all celebrate.


Presents can be really wasteful, but they don’t have to be! If you don’t know immediately what someone wants, then opt for an experience gift or a consumable gift! Experience gifts tend to conjure ideas of draining bank accounts, but they don’t have to. Simply giving someone a gift card to get a cup of coffee or two will do the trick. Consumable gifts are my favorite gifts! Think bottle of wine, fresh baked loaf of bread, olive oil etc.

Here are 50 experience gift ideas and 75 consumable gift ideas.

When it comes to gift wrapping, think simple. Save the newspaper from the recycling bin and wrap your presents with twine. Go for a double present, where the wrapping is a separate present, like a tote bag or a silk scarf. You can pick up some gorgeous and cheap silk scarves from the thrift store making a beautiful edition under any tree. Add a broach, evergreen branch, or dried oranges for an extra festive touch.

Get the complete guide to eco-friendly gift wrapping.

Reduce Food Waste

Food waste gets especially bad this time of year. Probably because we all get sick of eating the same holiday meal for the thousandth time. The National Resources Defense Council estimated that 200 million pounds of edible turkey is thrown out every holiday season—that’s A LOT of turkey.

The first thing to do is buy less food than you think you need! Mentally cut your guest list by 20 percent. So, if you have 10 people coming over, shop like you’re only having over 8. Trust me, you will still have leftovers. Take notes while you’re shopping and keep them on hand for the next year of how many leftovers you had vs. how much you bought.

After the meal, make sure you’re storing your leftovers properly, you have enough room in the fridge, and plenty of containers to store the leftovers. And then, think of a few creative ways to use up your leftovers, so you’re not stuck eating the same meal for weeks at a time!

If you feel like some of your food is starting to turn, make sure that you freeze it. Try and freeze it in smaller portions, and plan meals around it for the coming weeks, such as turkey enchiladas or casseroles. And, don’t forget to use the bones to make bone broth!

Get the complete guide for freezing in mason jars and utilizing your freezer to prevent food waste.

Decking the Halls, Mindfully

Decorating for the holidays can be relatively simple. Rather than buying new decorations, stick with what you have. Christmas trees are great, of course—and artificial trees can be used over and over again. If you’re used to buying a real Christmas tree, consider buying it from a local farm and make sure that you compost it! Don’t put it in the landfill.

Reducing Your Carbon Footprint

Travel is one of the most polluting aspects of the holiday season. I don’t think anyone shouldn’t see their family for the holidays, but if you’re going somewhere around five hours with more than one person, it would be better for the environment if you drive together. Try to make trips more meaningful and consolidate your travel instead of hopping to and fro, and of course purchase offsets! It’s so cheap and the planet will thank you. Think of it as your present to mama earth.

You can calculate your travel footprint with, and then plant trees accordingly. Every tree once it reaches maturity will absorb 1 ton of carbon—it’s good to plant a few more than that because it takes 40 years for a tree to reach maturity. You can plant trees with the US Forest Service, American Forests, or go the double gift and buy a pack of holiday cards from the Arbor Day Foundation. Each card plants a tree so you now have cards to give out during the holidays and your carbon footprint offset.

Happy holidays!

the author headshotKathryn Kellogg is the founder of Going Zero Waste, a lifestyle website which helps individuals and small businesses reduce their waste through personal action and activism. She’s the spokesperson for plastic-free living for National Geographic, and forth coming author of 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste. Her zero waste living experiment for two years resulted in all of her trash fitting into a 16oz mason jar, but she stresses that’s not the goal! Curious in reducing your waste and living a more eco-friendly lifestyle? Take the challenge!