Living Green 365: Holiday waste

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Holiday waste

The presents have been opened and the festivities are over. What’s to be done with all the stuff and waste that’s left? Are there eco-friendly ways to keep it out of the trash?

A lot, and you bet!

The EPA reports that garbage increases 25% between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and it’s not hard to see why. Drive down any street or alley in late December or early January and you’re likely to see trash bins and bags overflowing with holiday waste. Some of these materials have potential value, which can be lost when they hit the waste stream.

Even if your holidays weren't  the "greenest" on the block, there's still time afterwards to engage the 5 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle, and Rethink.


Options for “wrapaging”

When he was little, my youngest son invented a term for the piles of used gift wrap, bows and ribbons, boxes, and packaging left after the holidays: “wrap-aging.” Too often, wrapaging ends up in the trash when it could be reused, recycled, or repurposed.

Packing materials. Things like packing peanuts, bubble wrap, and air pillows can be saved and used again. You can also drop them off at shipping stores like UPS, which I’ve done multiple times over the years. For Minnesota drop-off locations, see The Peanut Hotline.

Gift wrap, bows, ribbons, tissue. The best option is to save these for next year’s use. By reusing, you’ll save money on new materials and help keep existing materials out of the garbage. Gift bags are a particularly good candidate for reuse as are bows, ribbons and the like, but even wrap is reusable if handled carefully.

Helpful hint: You’ll have more savable gift wrap if you forgo tape. In its place, try using a tapeless wrapping technique. Or, if your gifts aren’t wrapped yet, forget the paper and try Furoshiki, a traditional Japanese method that uses a single piece of cloth.

Although some recycling collection programs accept gift wrap, most do not. A lot of gift wrap contains heavy metals, dyes, plastics, and other non-recyclable components. Check with your city or recycling service provider for information or guidance on what is and isn’t recyclable.  

Boxes. Another good item to save and reuse. Alternatively, your curbside recycling program may accept gift boxes (tissue removed) along with cardboard ones.

Cards. Save and reuse next year as gift tags. Click here some other creative and crafty ways to reuse cards. You can also send them to St. Jude’s Ranch for Children for their Recycled Card Program (note that some restrictions and requirements apply)

Packaging. There aren’t facilities in Minnesota that recycle protective foam packaging. Residents of Anoka County can drop off the material at the Recycling Center in Coon Rapids. For others,  it should go in the trash.

Food waste

Holiday leftovers

Leftovers can come in handy after the holidays. Keep them out of the trash by following a few practical steps. These include:

  • Refrigerating leftovers promptly. The U.S.D.A. recommends within 2 hours after cooking.
  • Composting food scraps. Take advantage of your community or waste hauler's organics collection program, if one exists. Or, If it's too cold for outdoor composting, try indoor vermicomposting.
  • Creating new meals. Take advantage of the growing number of recipes for leftovers on the internet. Check out Love Food, Hate Waste for some ideas.
  • Donating extras. You can donate many canned and dried foods to food shelters.

For more ideas on this topic, see Reducing Your Food Waste During the Holidays.



Holiday castoffs

Holidays can mean lots of new toys, electronics, clothes, and other assorted gadgets and whatnots. You may be tempted to quickly purge the old stuff  to make room for the new. This can lead to hasty decisions that see perfectly good items unnecessarily thrown in the trash. Before the purge, make a plan for what to do with castoffs.

  • Host a post-holiday swap party. Invite friends to bring  residual or unwanted belongings and gift items to exchange.  

  • Recycle old Christmas lights. New LED holiday lights are much more energy efficient than previous versions. Keep old or broken light strings out of the waste stream, where they can create problems, by properly recycling them. Light strings and extension cords can be dropped off for recycling at a variety of locations throughout Minnesota. For a list, visit

  • Donate usable toys, clothing ,and other items in good condition to a charity, thrift store, or organization like Minneapolis Toy Library, a toy lending library. For tax deduction purposes, make sure to record a fair market value for each item, using this or a similar guide. You may be surprised at how much the values add up!

  • By law, electronics can't go in the trash. For information on where to recycle them in the Twin Cities, see Rethink Recycling. If you live outside of the metro area, check with your county solid waste office for guidance.

Before you toss, ask yourself these questions:

  • If broken, can it be fixed?
  • Is it reusable or recyclable?
  • Can it be upcycled into something of value?

ReUSE Minnesota is a good resource for answers to these questions and more.


Resolve to make your 2017 holidays greener

Use the new year as an opportunity to do things differently!  There are action steps you can take throughout the year that will contribute to a greener holiday season. For inspiration and ideas, see:

Community Events and Resources


Built for the Future: How Minnesota can use high performance buildings to create healthy and great communities.

Friday, January 27, 2017, 7:00-8:30 AM. Join Fresh Energy for a conversation with Susan Haigh of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity and Jacob Corvidae of Rocky Mountain Institute as they discuss communities of the future, new and improved buildings, and the opportunities that are within reach right now. $30 Fresh Energy members/Government employees/Students, $45 General admission. $10 Early Bird discount is available till January 6, 2017. Register at Built for the Future.

Send questions or comments about living green to the address below. 


Erin Barnes-Driscoll and the Living Green Team