24 Strategies for Reducing Holiday Waste

If your situation is anything like our family’s, the upcoming week or two involves a lot of meal planning, gift wrapping and celebrating.

While the occasion will be quite fun, there’s a big drawback: it can produce a lot of waste. When I was young, I remember our family often producing several extra bags of trash during the holiday season, a practice that now seems very wasteful.

My perspective today is that if you’re throwing something away, it better be something that’s genuinely valueless. I’d rather save something that may have use than simply throw it away and then look for something I have on hand before buying anything. That way, we minimize our waste and also cut our expenses a little.

Here are some things you can do during the holiday season to cut back on expenses.

Decorate naturally and sentimentally.

If you want to cut back on the waste due to decorating your home for the holidays, I highly suggest focusing on two key principles when decorating: natural and sentimental.

Use lots of natural items to decorate your home — pine twigs, pine cones, and the like. These items are easily recycled and composted after the season is done. They don’t involve any packaging. You can gather items like this quite easily, particularly in northern climates — I can gather pine branches and pine cones by the dozens with almost no effort.

My favorite part is the aroma. If you gather natural items for holiday decoration, they’ll often fill your house with natural scents of pine and maple, which smell absolutely wonderful.

Reuse lots of decorations from previous years. Rather than repurchasing decorations and using disposable items, aim to reuse decorations from year to year as much as possible. Most people do this, of course — many homes have a few boxes of holiday decorations in the basement. However, it’s a good conscious practice to maintain, and it leads right into the next strategy.

Make new homemade decorations to add to your decoration collection. This is particularly important if you’re just starting to decorate your own place for the holidays after moving out on your own. Rather than just going to the store and buying a bunch of decorations, try making your own.

For example, it’s pretty easy to make salt dough ornaments at home. You can also make origami ornaments, too. There are infinite possibilities for wall art. Start by making a few things this year, then make a few things next year. Before you know it you’ll have an abundance of items and can even become selective.

I find that this is particularly easy to start doing when you have children. Simply start a tradition of making a new ornament together each year and add it to your collection of ornaments. When they’re older, you’ll have a ton of ornaments for your tree that they made over the years, and those will have a lot more meaning than anything else on your tree.

Donate or give away decorations if you accumulate too many. You can obviously just stop making homemade decorations, but I find it’s nice to add a new one or two each year. With old homemade items, they may not have much value to others, but most homemade ornaments have a shelf life (even the best salt dough doesn’t last forever).

If you do have nice ornaments that others might value, give them away or donate them. If you have a friend that might like a particular decoration, just pass it along to them. If not, then donate that item so someone else can use it.

Trim the waste produced by gifts with these simple techniques.

Giving gifts means boxes, bags and wrapping paper. Even if you recycle all of it, you’re still adding a burden to the system, and if you’re not recycling, you’re filling up a landfill somewhere. Plus, you likely invested money in all of that wrapping. Here are some ways to cut back.

Reuse boxes of all kinds for gift wrapping. Almost everything under our tree that’s in a box is in some kind of repurposed box. Many of these boxes originally contained items that were shipped to us throughout the year, while others are just boxes from items that we bought.

We often put smaller items and clothing items in empty cereal boxes, for example. Many items wind up in reused Amazon boxes. I’ve used the boxes from board game expansions, too (I put the pieces from expansions in the main game).

If a box is damaged during the opening, we’ll recycle it, but if a sturdy box lasts through an opening, we’ll definitely stow it away in the garage for future gifts or for shipping items.

Disguise gifts in reusable containers and bags. You don’t have to use boxes, either. Why not put a gift in a Rubbermaid container and wrap it, especially if the gift is going to someone in your own house? Why not put it in a reusable bag and tie that bag closed with a piece of ribbon?

You don’t necessarily have to even wrap a lot of these containers. Simply put a piece of tape on the top to close it and a small paper tag — or not even that much. It’s up to you.

Aim to use minimal paper when you do wrap gifts. If you still want to wrap things in paper, practice using minimal paper — just enough to get the package covered.

This is pretty math-y, but I often use this calculation to determine how much paper to use. I try to use square and rectangular boxes, then I use wrapping paper that has squares on the inside as my “measure,” counting the squares rather than measuring the sheet.

So, if I have a square box that measures twenty squares to a side and is ten squares high, I simply use the formula from that page and cut out a square piece that’s 35 little squares on each side. That’s enough to wrap the present without being wasteful.

You should also learn “diagonal wrapping,” which is just a very efficient way of wrapping a present. Here’s a nice video tutorial. Again, I often use paper that has little squares and lines on the inside to aid in cutting (I just cut along the line rather than doing the tearing-with-a-ruler technique she uses). This method ends up cutting any box-sized gift just about perfectly.

Be creative with the wrapping paper you use. You don’t have to wrap gifts with wrapping paper. My preference, honestly, is to collect interesting gift paper for months before the holidays and use that as much as possible.

I’ll save paper grocery bags. I’ll save newspaper comic pages. I’ll save staple-bound comic books (we’ll often wind up with a bunch from “free comic book day” at the local comic shop). If I get a package that uses brown paper without damaging it, I’ll save that paper, too. I’ve even saved pretty magazine covers (I like covers of The New Yorker, for example). You can even wrap items with cloth, fastening it together with a pin.

All of those options make for beautiful distinctive wrapping paper that is getting a second lease on life.

Write on the wrapping paper instead of using a separate tag. Just write in clear, black marker in the corner of the paper instead of buying and using separate gift tags. If you want a “clean” look on the top of the gift, you can simply write that information on the bottom where it’s not seen and ask the person handing out gifts to check for that information.

Another approach is to color code the gifts. You can simply wrap all gifts for one person in a particular color or, even better, put a dot of a particular color somewhere on the gift based on the recipient. You can also just write a single letter somewhere rather than writing “TO: MARGE FROM: HOMER” on the gift.

Give consumable gifts with minimal packaging or “experience” gifts. Another good way to reduce holiday waste is by keeping the waste of the gift to a minimum. Try to avoid gifts that inherently have a lot of packaging involved. If you have an option, choose versions of the gifts with minimal packaging.

Even better, choose gifts that have very little packaging at all and can be wrapped nice and small, things like gift cards and tickets. Experience gifts rarely take up a lot of space. Similarly, consumable gifts can fulfill the same goal, especially if they’re packaged in something reusable or minimal.

Give homemade items. Another approach is to make holiday gifts yourself. In those situations, the value is being added by your effort and comes without a lot of packaging and shipping and other waste. Consider giving a batch of homemade cookies as a gift or some homemade ornaments.

This allows you to package them yourself in a reusable container, and since you’re making something homemade, the environmental footprint is very likely much smaller than buying something prepackaged at the store.

Reduce waste from your big holiday meals with a few simple steps.

Another area where holiday celebrations have the potential to produce a lot of waste is the big holiday meal. If you have a large meal with a lot of family and friends over the holiday season, it can be a tremendous producer of waste. Here are some tips and tricks to keep holiday meal waste at a minimum.

Save the scraps from meal preparation to use as stock. If you find yourself with lots of vegetable scraps as you’re preparing the meal, like pieces of unused onions or other such things, save all of them. Anything that isn’t actually bad can be used to make vegetable stock at a later date by simply filling up a slow cooker with the scraps, covering them with water, adding a bit of salt and pepper, and letting it simmer all day. You can then strain the stock, saving the liquid, and freezing it. It’s a wonderful liquid that works as a great soup starter and has lots of kitchen uses.

Save the bone from a holiday ham (or another centerpiece) to make additional stock. If you have a ham or turkey or another large bone-in cut of meat as the centerpiece of the holiday meal, save the carcass and the meat scraps. You can make stock with those elements, too, by simply simmering them all day and saving the liquid, as described above. For example, a ham bone can produce a ton of ham stock, which is amazing when you make bean soup with it.

Save your leftovers for additional meals in a day or two. There’s no need to ever discard leftovers from a big meal. Just package up all of the leftovers into separate reusable storage containers and pop them in the fridge. Use them to make meals for yourself and your family for the next few days, then freeze anything else that might have future use. We’ll often have a “leftovers smorgasbord” multiple times in the days after a big meal.

For example, you might save corn kernels or green beans for a few days after the meal to enjoy with plates of leftovers, then use those corn kernels directly in vegetable stock or other soup later on. You can easily freeze the corn kernels, too.

With mashed potatoes, you can eat them as leftovers a time or two, then save them. A cup of mashed potatoes works incredibly well as a soup thickener, for example.

Try to cultivate other instincts with your leftovers besides just throwing them away.

Stop by a secondhand store and get some inexpensive extra silverware that you can continually reuse rather than buying plastic silverware, and do the same with plates. Many large holiday gatherings will see the number of guests exceeding the silverware and dinnerware capacity of the hosts. In that situation, it can be tempting to turn to disposable items, but it’s actually far more cost-effective (if you’re going to host in the future) to simply hit a secondhand store and buy lots of extra silverware and plates and cups and so on. If there aren’t any good options near you, you can even just buy some inexpensive silverware and plates and cups to put aside for just this purpose.

Yes, this means a lot of dishes, but there’s nothing saying you can’t quickly scrape them, fill up a box, and put them aside for a while to wash later if necessary. Meal cleanup is also a great task to assign to younger attendees of the event — teenagers can scrape dishes and fill up a dishwasher and then hand wash the rest.

Use cloth napkins and tablecloths. Avoid using paper here, too. Washing a cloth napkin has way less negative environmental impact than throwing away a dirty paper napkin, plus you don’t have the expense of always having to buy more.

If you must use disposable plates, choose paper ones that are compostable. If you’re still insistent on using disposable plates and forks and so on, try to choose ones that are made of compostable material rather than plastic ones. Compostable material can (obviously) be turned into compost for yourself or if not, they can easily be rinsed and then recycled.

Plastic items have a very long landfill life, while compostable materials biodegrade quickly. These days, the cost really isn’t that different.

If you absolutely must use plastic items, try to get as many uses out of them as possible. Avoid having them be single-use items if you can.

There are other sources of holiday waste you can cut back on, too.

The holiday waste goes beyond the meal and the gifts and into other areas, too. Here are some additional waste-saving strategies that didn’t fit into the above categories.

Reduce paper waste by minimizing use of paper cards. Rather than giving people paper greeting cards for the holidays, consider instead sending a personal email to each person on your list with a digital photograph or two of your family attached. You don’t have to do a full “holiday newsletter;” rather, just take some time to personalize a message to each recipient and ask them questions about themselves, too.

You can always send a few handwritten cards to people, but if you’re going that way, take the time to hand-write a nice message to them so it’s more meaningful than an ordinary card that’ll just be forgotten in a few days. If you’re going to use paper, add meaning to make it worthwhile.

Reduce energy waste by using LED lights and a timer. Holiday decoration can gobble down a lot of energy. One great way to reduce that energy is to use all LED holiday lights, which use far less energy than incandescent holiday lights, and to put them on a timer so that they turn off automatically and aren’t reliant on you remembering to turn them off.

Opt out of catalogs. Almost every company that has you on their catalog list will send you one during the holiday season. Keep track of them and then opt out of their catalog list, or request an electronic catalog to be sent to you instead.

Reducing waste keeps trash out of the landfills and saves you money over the long haul.

Whenever you find a way to use a little less wrapping paper or produce a little less trash during the holiday meal, you’re finding a way to keep items out of the landfill and you’re probably spending a little less money on disposable items to boot. The less waste you produce, the less money you’ve spent on stuff that’s just going out in the trash, and you’re helping the environment, too.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.