Some call it the most wonderful time of the year, but it can also be one of the most wasteful. For many, December is a month of frenzied shopping, wrapping, feasting and frolicking. But while spending green, creative thinking and savvy swap-outs can also help you go green this Christmas.
According to neef.org, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Americans generate 25% more trash — about 1 million extra tons of garbage — each week. And, the site says, Americans throw away about 38,000 miles of ribbon, $11 billion of packing material and 15 million used Christmas trees annually. Karen Sullivan, director of Otsego County Planning & Solid Waste, said she sees an increase in certain aspects of waste generation around the holidays. Year-round, Sullivan said, the county has collected about 38 tons of solid waste annually for the past several years.
“We keep track of our waste and our recycling by the month, and in 2014, ‘15, ‘16 and ‘17, under solid waste, there was not a significant increase from December to January, but recycling and electronics is another story,” she said. “I saw a 6% increase in recycling between December and January and we’ve had an average 22% increase in (electronics) collection after Christmas. Our biggest change during the holiday season is electronics, because they build them to only last three to five years. That (collection) room gets swamped.”
On its “Sustainable Holidays” page, the state Department of Environmental Conservation suggests buying gifts that don’t require batteries, or giving rechargeable batteries with electronic gifts.
Area conservation experts said the holiday season has a significant environmental impact.
“In terms of trash and waste disposal, there’s a substantial amount of things being disposed of and old things being replaced and things in wrapping and packaging,” Jeff O’Handley, program director with the Otsego County Conservation Association, said. “There’s also a lot of food. We cook and feast and, unfortunately, that leads to a lot of things getting thrown away. And holiday lighting and travel at this time of year certainly impacts the broader environment, climate and fuel consumption.”
“There’s a ton of food waste with the holidays,” OCCA Director Leslie Orzetti said. “You make too much, buy too much and most people don’t compost, so that goes into the waste stream. The tonnage of waste goes up significantly over the holidays.”
Sullivan said Otsego County Planning & Solid Waste launched a food waste collection program in September.
“We’re selling kitchen-size and 5-gallon (collection) containers at the transfer station,” she said. “They make a great Christmas gift, because you can encourage people to compost.”
While it may take some extra thought, Sullivan, O’Handley and Orzetti said, there’s nothing Grinch-y about going greener at Christmas. Doing so, they said, can be easy and often fosters more meaningful merry-making.
“One of the fun things about the holidays is the packages and presents, but look for paper that is old or recycled or made with recycled content,” O’Handley said. “Then try to save it to reuse it or make sure that it gets recycled properly.
“Generally most types of wrapping paper are (recyclable),” he said, “but not the metallic type; that ends up as garbage.”
“My simple personal objectives have been, instead of wrapping paper, to buy reusable gift bags,” Sullivan said. “Focus on paper-based products and do not buy shiny bows or wrapping paper, because that’s not recyclable. Or use different things (such as) newspaper comics, paper, twine or cloth, and if you’re going to use (foil) bows, recycle them to use again next year.”
The DEC suggests “giving old materials new life,” by using magazines, newspapers, maps, posters, calendars and children’s artwork to wrap gifts.
Orzetti said that, if ordering gifts, it’s good to choose low-impact packaging options when available and search for sustainable sellers.
“Go find companies that are environmentally minded,” she said. “The Audubon Society sells bird-friendly coffee. If you know someone who loves coffee, get them a reusable mug and some Delaware Otsego Audubon Society coffee; it’s really good.
“One of my favorite gifts to give is reusable straws,” she said. “It’s an affordable gift and it’s great because you can just shove it in your purse. Onepercentfortheplanet.org is a great website, (with) vendors that are green or organic and donate a portion of proceeds to earth-friendly things. Just try to think of how you can give to a person with the least impact possible.”
When it comes to ditching spent Christmas trees, experts said, try branching out.
“(From noon to 5 p.m.) on Jan. 4, Ommegang has a Christmas tree bonfire event where you bring your (real) tree and they give you a free beer ticket,” Sullivan said. “And we do accept Christmas trees, real ones, at the transfer station and we will dispose of them as yard waste.”
“Fake trees of course you can use from year to year, but the energy required to make those trees is quite high and what do you do with all that plastic when you decide to get rid of it? That’s a problem,” Orzetti said. “In some areas, you can give old trees to zoos, and around here … some goat farms are willing to take them for the goats to munch on,” Orzetti said. “You can also compost your tree.”
The DEC suggests “buying a potted tree with a root ball native to your area,” as such trees “can be replanted after the holidays and reused for years to come.”
Strings of spent Christmas lights, experts said, should not be thrown away and the kind of bulbs setting your tree aglow matters, too.
“LED bulbs use much less power, they look good and they last for quite a long time,” O’Handley said. “As old strings of lights fail, look to replace them with something more efficient, but also don’t leave them on for six weeks straight.”
According to the New York League of Conservation Voters article “Green Tips: Holiday Gatherings,” LED bulbs use 75 percent less energy and last 25 longer than traditional bulbs.
“You can recycle Christmas lights at Lowe’s and Home Depot,” Orzetti said. “They’ll usually have a bin out to do that.” Old-fashioned strings of cranberry and popcorn, she noted, make a great alternative.
The Otsego ReUse Center at 23 Duane St. in Oneonta, Sullivan said, also sells and accepts holiday items.
While the trash pile has statistically rivaled the pile of presents, experts said, Christmastime trends are shifting.
“There are definitely trends out there suggesting don’t give gifts, give experiences,” Orzetti said. “Give the gift of time — go on a date or go for a walk or hang out as a family.”
“I feel like people in general are becoming much more aware,” O’Handley said. “And in terms of gift-giving, the new thing is the gift of time.”
“I think at Christmas, it’s all just thinking about things differently,” Sullivan said. “When you start people with a habit of doing something, it becomes nature. So, give tickets to a concert, museum or aquarium. Go to those things and reduce your waste by giving an experience, instead of something they’re going to forget.”