How to enjoy the holiday season without all the waste.
Our Plastic Free Challenge is poised right before what is likely the most wasteful time of year: the holiday season. This season begins with the ripples of Halloween’s plastic-wrapped candies and toys and grows with Thanksgiving’s tons of food waste into the tidal wave of Christmas’s ritualized overconsumption.
But guess what? We can apply all the Plastic Free tips and tricks we learn during the Plastic Free Challenge to reducing our waste during the holiday season. Below we give our Plastic Free tips for the Big Three, but these suggestions can easily be applied to other holidays that involve gifts, candy, and big meals, like Diwali, Hanukkah, Valentine’s Day, Easter, or Eid Al-Fitr (plus any party thrown for any reason).
Costumes: Avoid plastic-wrapped costumes by making your own, finding one in a secondhand store, or creating one from items already in your closet. I’ve made costumes for my daughter since she was an infant. Some years I go all out, but others I save time by keeping things simple.
Decorations: Keep decorations minimal or reuse decorations from last year. Remember than your pumpkins, gourds, and Jack O’Lanterns can be cooked or composted after the big night.
Treats: When choosing treats to give to neighborhood kids, skip the plastic-wrapped “fun size” candy bars and plastic toys. Instead choose candy wrapped in foil, paper, or cardboard, or small cans of soda or flavored sparkling water. For a healthier alternative, give out clementines or boxes of raisins. For nonedible treats, consider friendship bracelets, coins, seed packets, polished rocks, or pencils.
Things to consider when trick-or-treating: Talk to your kids ahead of time about your efforts to reduce waste (and why these efforts are important for their future). You might make a plan to visit just one street instead of your whole neighborhood. When they are given a choice in treats, ask your kids to choose items from the list above instead of plastic toys or plastic-wrapped candy.
Of course, your kids will still come home with plenty of plastic trash—and that’s not the end of the world!
Unload candy you don’t want by participating in a Halloween candy buy-back program at a local dentist office. And for candy you eat, recycle those plastic candy wrappers through TerraCycle at MOM’s Organic Market.
Menu planning: When sitting down to plan a Thanksgiving menu at home or to pick a dish to share at a family meal elsewhere, remember that Thanksgiving is about family, friends, and gratitude—not gluttony.
If you err on the conservative side in menu planning, you will have fewer leftovers to deal with and less overall food waste. So plan your menu for your number of guests and buy only the ingredients you need.
Last year we wrote up some tips for Plastic Free grocery shopping that will certainly be helpful for Thanksgiving shopping (and for storing leftovers after the meal). Start looking now for butchers and farms that will sell you a Thanksgiving turkey that you can bring home in your own container. Or better yet, significantly cut back the overall greenhouse gas emissions of your meal by going plant-based.
Table setting: Absolutely avoid disposable dishes, utensils, cups, and napkins. And if you’re going somewhere else, be prepared with containers for leftovers (and maybe bring your own cup and cutlery if you’re worried your host might use plasticware). Keep tabletop decorations minimal—pumpkins, gourds, pine cones, seasonal plants, paper leaves, and garlands—reuse decorations from last year, or shop secondhand.
Leftovers: I imagine many of you love Thanksgiving leftovers—and I do too—for a day or two. But after that, it’s time to get creative. Roasted veggie hash with leftover cranberry sauce. Thanksgiving veggie quesadillas. Mashed potato croquettes.
And be sure to compost anything not eaten. (If you’re in Fairfax County and you don’t compost at home, consider hiring a service like Veteran Compost.)
Oh, and in case you haven’t figured it out already, we would absolutely recommend skipping Black Friday! Go for a hike with your family instead.
Decorations: Let’s start with the tree. Our top choice for a Christmas tree is a potted tree that you can plant in your yard when the holiday is over. But we also love the idea of repurposing a patio topiary as a Christmas tree for a month every year.
If you would prefer a more traditional Christmas tree option, real trees are more eco-friendly than fake plastic trees, and Fairfax County will pick up real Christmas trees the first two weeks of January and grind them into free mulch for county residents.
Not interested in buying a tree year after year? Consider making your own, perhaps out of driftwood or wood scraps. Or skip the tree altogether and put presents around a fireplace.
For trimmings, I’m partial to the homemade ornaments I grew up with. I have ornaments on my tree that I made as a child and ornaments my husband and daughter have made. I string popcorn for garland every year, but I do also like the idea of stringing other household knickknacks, like wine corks.
For lights, reuse your light strings from previous years. And when they’ve burned out recycle them at MOM’s Organic Market. And then consider skipping the lights altogether.
Decorate the rest of the house with natural garlands and wreaths that can be chopped up for mulch after the holidays. Mason jars filled with cinnamon sticks, bowls of pine cones, tea lights, and seasonal plants are lovely tabletop décor. I love the three stockings I made for our family when our daughter was born.
Gift exchanges: First, set yourself up for success. Minimize the number of presents you need to buy by arranging a family or friend or office Secret Santa. Or arrange a homemade gift swap and bake your family and friends cookies or knit scarves. And finally, ask the people you are buying gifts for what they want. You’ll save yourself and the Earth precious resources if you purchase a present that will be well used and loved by the receiver.
Second, flex your Plastic Free shopping muscles. Last year we wrote up some tips for Plastic Free shopping that can easily be applied to gift giving. In addition to secondhand clothes, jewelry, knickknacks, and books (or ebooks!), we’d recommend giving the gift of your time or of experiences. Offer help with a big home project. Buy a gift certificate for a restaurant or movie tickets. Donate money to a favorite charity.
Last, receive gifts with grace. We know not all your friends and family will be on board with living Plastic Free—no matter how many times they’ve heard you preach the gospel. So practice kindness first. (And then maybe have another Plastic Free conversation a few days later.)
Gift wrapping: My parents have a stash of gift boxes in their basement that is pillaged every Christmas season (and then restocked—with the same boxes—on January 1). Same with their collection of gift bags and bows. I still recognize several boxes, bags, and bows from my childhood, meaning they’ve been using all this stuff for decades. Reuse, reuse, reuse!
If you don’t have your own stockpile of old gift wrap, consider making or buying fabric gift bags. Or wrap presents in silk scarves or cloth napkins and secure them with twine or a secondhand broach or bracelet.
Newsprint and butcher paper are also excellent wrapping materials. Both can be recycled. Most store-bought wrapping paper cannot be recycled.
And skip the plastic tape. Secure your gift wrap with paper tape, twine, or yarn. Cut up old Christmas cards to use as gift tags.
I have a four-year-old with a very generous father and even more generous grandparents. We, as a family, do our best to incorporate as many of these tips as we can in our holiday celebrations, but plastic has a way of creeping in despite our best efforts. We eat the occasional plastic-wrapped Halloween candy bar. We gracefully receive (brand new, overpackaged) gifts from family and friends. Our holiday meals are typically potluck, and we gratefully eat whatever our guests provide.
So instead of letting perfect become the enemy of good, we celebrate small (and sometimes large!) victories on the Plastic Free front. And we use holiday encounters with family and friends for productive, constructive conversations about waste and waste avoidance.