How to Have a Zero-Waste Christmas

It’s the most wonderful time of the year — but also the most wasteful time of the year: The amount of trash in the United States increases by an estimated 25 percent between Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to the National Environmental Education Foundation. Some of us may wonder, is it even possible to have a zero-waste Christmas?

We’re not telling you this to be a Grinch. Rather, we all have opportunities to make better choices towards a zero-waste Christmas with small changes in how we celebrate. By making deliberate choices about holiday food, gift wrapping, presents, and tree, you can aim for a zero-waste Christmas — or close — this year. 

Here’s our guide for how to do just that, one choice at a time.

How to minimize food waste during the holidays

Holidays are often centered around food, and can be a potential source of enormous food waste. You can make strides towards a zero-waste Christmas with deliberate choices about the food you purchase and eat. 

One-third of food produced worldwide is wasted or lost at some point in the global food supply chain. A 2012 report by the National Resources Defense Council found that Americans throw out $165 billion worth of food each year.  In fact, the average person in the U.S. wastes 400 pounds of food per year — and most of it ends up in landfills. Consumers often over-purchase food and throw away what has expired, spoiled or simply not been eaten. Food can be wasted in other ways, such as through contamination or not being harvested in the first place.

That might not seem like such a problem, because organic materials like food decompose, right? Yes, but decomposing organic materials produce greenhouse gases — gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. Although many greenhouse gases are released in landfills, roughly 50 percent is methane, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explains.   

Methane is problematic for the environment because it traps 86 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (another greenhouse gas), according to Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization. Landfills represented 15 percent of methane emissions in 2018. That may not sound like a lot, but to put that figure in perspective, the amount of methane was comparable to the greenhouse gas emissions from 20.6 million passenger vehicles. Reducing the amount of wasted food sent to landfills is crucial towards reducing methane emissions. 

The production and harvest of food also puts stress upon environmental resources. Agriculture leaves a considerable carbon footprint: The EPA reports that agriculture accounts for about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Our food system also requires an incredible amount of water. Approximately 80 percent of the water used in the U.S. goes towards agriculture, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. So much water is used, in part, because irrigated crops are more productive than crops that rely upon rain.    

Transporting food nationally and globally is yet another source of greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation in general was the largest source (28 percent) of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, according to the EPA. On average, food travels 1,500 miles to reach your plate. 

This all shows that the need to re-frame our global food system is urgent. A 2020 study from the journal Science found that even if all fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, the global food system would still prevent us from meeting the goal of the Paris Climate agreement to lower the global temperature.

Eating more plant-based foods is a positive step towards waste reduction, particularly as it pertains to land-use efficiency. In fact, the amount of land required to produce 4 grams of beef protein can produce 100 grams of a plant-based protein. A lot of feed production and energy are required for over 9 billion livestock in America, whereas plant-based foods tread more lightly on the environment, as they use less water and emit less greenhouse gasses than animal-based foods. 

Keep holidays about the food while wasting less. | iStock

How can you reduce food waste during the holidays?

There are lots of ways to reduce food waste in your home, and they are good ideas all year round — not just the holiday season. Here are 6 ways to help you have a zero-waste Christmas: 

  1. Clear out your freezer ahead of your holiday meal shopping. Freezing food is an excellent way to prevent waste, and you can freeze leftovers instead of throwing them in the trash. Learn more about the art of freezing here
  2. Plan your meals to “right-size” your holiday cooking. As much as we enjoy leftovers, we all know that plenty of foods end up getting trashed. The NRDC has a neat calculator called the Guest-imator that helps you estimate how much food you need per guest. 
  3. Get smart about food storage. Research in advance the best way for fruits and vegetables to be stored so they don’t spoil or go rotten. 
  4. Write detailed shopping lists. Make sure your grocery list contains the amounts required. Do you need just one zucchini or a whole bag? You can also collect recipes like soups, stocks, chilis and stir-fries to use leftover ingredients. 
  5. Shop local and in season. Shopping from your local farmers’ market, CSA or co-op can curb greenhouse gas emissions, as the distance food is required to travel is shortened. A guide like the Seasonal Food Guide (which also has a free app) can help familiarize you with which foods are in season in your area.
  6. Use sustainable home goods at your table. Avoid single-use plastics such as disposable plates and tableware. There are plenty of sustainable options available for cutlery, plates, bowls and drinkware. You can also ask guests to bring their own containers or beeswax wrap in order to bring home leftovers (this might inspire them to get on the waste-reduction train, too). 
  7. Don’t throw away edible food. Compost your food scraps (fruit and vegetable peels, etc.) And immediately donate unopened and unused food items to a food bank or to a community fridge. You can find a food bank through Feeding America. You’ll be reducing food waste — and helping eliminate hunger. 

What are zero-waste alternatives to wrapping paper?

You don’t have to give up your traditions of giving gifts to the ones you love. However, gift wrap generates an enormous amount of waste, so clearly, this is an area where our choices seriously matter.

The UK uses 227,000 miles of wrapping paper per year, while the U.S. uses 4.6 million pounds of the stuff. Earth911 estimates that half of the wrapping paper in the U.S. ends up in a landfill. And it’s not just paper that gets used: The UK goes through an estimated 40 million rolls of tape each year, and Americans discard 38,000 miles of ribbons each year, according to NEEP

You can create less waste by altering how you wrap your gifts (or deciding not to wrap them at all). One of the savviest zero-waste decisions you can make around the holidays is to save wrapping paper, tissue paper, bows, and ribbons to reuse each year. You can reuse wrapping paper if it is unwrapped carefully, or you could invest in reusable fabric gift wrap, such as from Wrappr. Save your gift boxes and gift bags as well, and reuse them throughout the year for birthdays and other holidays.  

If you want to purchase new wrapping paper, opt for eco-friendly versions. The dyes and inks in most wrapping paper make it difficult to pulp during recycling. Skip glittery, foil, metallic, laminated and wax-coated wrapping papers, all of which can’t be recycled. Fortunately, there are plenty of recyclable wrapping paper brands, like Curlicue (UK) and Wrappily (US), to choose from.

Skip the cellophane and tinsel, which can’t be recycled, and opt for recyclable tissue paper instead. And instead of buying gift tags, make your own by cutting shapes from holiday cards that you receive. 

Want to get in touch with your crafty side? There are some creative zero-waste alternatives for wrapping paper:

  • Newspaper (the comics section is most fun!)
  • Pages pulled out of magazines 
  • Paper grocery bags
  • Leftover fabrics from sewing and quilting projects
  • Old T-shirts/skirts/dresses
  • Linens
  • Scarves
  • Cloth tote bags  
  • Old maps

You can also not to wrap gifts at all. Wrapping presents may be a tradition, but you can make a new tradition of ‘naked’ presents. Does that gift certificate really need to be put in a box and wrapped with paper? Does that bottle of champagne really require a ribbon and tinsel? A gift — and a smile — may be all you need.

How do I shop sustainably for the holidays?

“Shop local.” You’ve heard it before and, yup, we’re about to say it again. Shopping within your community from local businesses keeps the carbon footprint low. 

Despite the shipping and transport footprint, online shopping actually can potentially leave a lower carbon footprint than shopping at brick-and-mortar stores, according to the NRDC. However, our collective addiction to same-day or two-day shipping creates a larger carbon footprint, as expedited shipping means partially empty trucks are dispatched just to get you your packages quickly. 

Here are six strategies for sustainable, zero-waste holiday shopping:

  1. Opt for fewer gifts for fewer people. Remember that giving gifts isn’t an obligation; it’s a choice. Perhaps this is the year that you suggest the adults in families stop giving gifts to each other and donate to charity instead?   
  2. Make a list (and check it twice). Make like Santa and shop from a list, rather than from impulse. When you are organized, you are less likely to make panicked (and non-eco-friendly) purchases.
  3. Skip the trends. This year’s hottest toy may be filling next year’s landfill. And the fast fashion industry (brands that pump out new items every single day) is an enormous source of greenhouse gas emissions. Opt for sustainably made and classic gifts (see some ideas in the next section) instead of trendy toys and fast fashion.  
  4. Be conscious of packaging. If possible, avoid presents that come in single-use plastics. Consider the amount of plastic and styrofoam packaging (which is non-recyclable) in the gifts you give. 
  5. Bring your reusable shopping bags. Using your own shopping bags will cut down on the number of paper bags and plastic bags. Ninety percent of plastics are not recycled, according to Greenpeace. Plastic bags usually end up in landfills, but they can also end up in our oceans, where they are harmful to sea life. 
  • Remember the batteries. If your gift requires batteries, include rechargeable ones. 

What are some zero-waste Christmas gift ideas?

It’s easier than ever before to shop sustainable and climate neutral products, with more eco-conscious gifts on the market.

Vegan spirits for your brother? Check. Upcycled fashion for your sister? Check. Sustainable undies for bae? Check. Eco-friendly art supplies for your kids? Check. Vegan beauty for your mom? Check. Scope out these climate-neutral brands (including home decor, beauty, gear, food and beverages), too.

Need some help with other zero-waste gift ideas? Here are some ideas for holiday presents we’d love to receive: 

  • Gift certificates
  • Homemade gifts such as candles, soap, bread and baked goods
  • Thrifted or vintage jewelry 
  • Vegan Advent calendars
  • Reusable water bottles 
  • Subscriptions to magazines, newspapers or podcast services
  • Memberships to museums, parks or adventure centers 
  • Donations to charity in the name of your loved one
How sustainable are Christmas trees? | iStock

What is the most sustainable Christmas tree option?

It can be confusing to figure out whether real trees or artificial trees are more sustainable — the ultimate “paper or plastic” question. 

Studies have shown that the vast majority of households use artificial Christmas trees. If you own an artificial tree, the best zero-waste option is to continue using it. But we don’t recommend that you purchase a new one.  

Artificial trees are often shipped from China, which increases their carbon footprint much more than real trees. Artificial trees are made out of a type of plastic called PVC, which creates hazardous waste and emissions during manufacturing, and can be hard to recycle. Carbon Trust says an artificial tree must be used at least 10 times for its environmental impact to be lower than a real tree. 

Shoppers bought 26.2 million real Christmas trees in 2019, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Don’t let your tree be “use-and-throw,” though. Reusing your tree after it has done its holiday duty, such as chipping, composting or burning it as firewood, will keep the carbon footprint low, says Carbon Trust.

Ultimately, the most sustainable Christmas tree option is a potted, living tree that can be replanted. You may choose to plant your Christmas tree in your own yard after the holiday season is over, but there are also plenty of companies that rent out living Christmas trees in December and January.

For example, Rental Claus in the UK rents out potted Christmas trees in parts of Gloucestershire. All the trees require is watering each day until January, when Rental Claus picks it up. Rent Xmas Tree in the Bay Area operates in a similar way, as does The Living Christmas Company in Southern California. Rent-A-Christmas, based in the New York City tri-state area, even sends an “Elf Squad” to your home to set up live or artificial trees, as well as wreaths and garlands.  

Last but not least, you can make sustainable choices with your Christmas lights. Energy Star–certified lights use 75 percent less energy, so make sure those sparklers are LED — not incandescent.