How to have a more environmentally friendly holiday

Christmas presents
Sustainably wrapped presents under the tree
Frank V. via Flickr

The holidays are filled with beautifully wrapped gifts, colorful string lights and delicious food. But what happens to these items when the holiday season is over?

Most of them will end up in the trash and head straight for a landfill. Christmas in particular is a notoriously wasteful holiday.

“There’s just a lot of stuff,” said Recycling Association of Minnesota operations manager Courtney Selstad. “That’s what makes Christmas fun, but it’s also what makes us a little indulgent.”

Recycling experts estimate Americans create 25 percent more waste during the holidays. All of the packaging, wrapping, eating and gifting really adds up. A study from Stanford University found that if every household reused two feet of ribbon, the ribbon saved could tie a bow around the planet.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

If you want to help combat holiday waste, here’s a guide on how you can have a more sustainable holiday.

Lights and electronics

Old or broken string lights get thrown away in your trash or recycling every holiday season even though they shouldn’t end up in either. 

“They actually do a lot of damage at the recycling centers, because they get tangled in all the machinery,” said Selstad.

Instead, you can drop off your unwanted or broken lights at any of the participating locations in the state with their own lights recycling program. You can also purchase a light repair kit from a home improvement store to fix the lights instead of throwing them out.

You should also avoid throwing batteries in your regular trash or recycling, and not just in electronics and toys, but also light up ornaments, singing greeting cards and flameless tea-light candles. 

“A lot of them are very small, but they can cause really bad fires if thrown in the curbside recycling or trash,” said Selstad. 

You can bring them to your county household hazardous waste facility to dispose of them properly. 

Wrapping paper

Despite its name, you actually can’t recycle most wrapping paper. 

“It’s mostly foil, and there’s a lot of glitter. That doesn’t do well at the paper mills,” said Selstad. 

The only types of wrapping paper that are recyclable are the ones that are one hundred percent made out of paper. This will most likely be the plain brown paper you’ve seen packages wrapped in. You can get creative and decorate the paper with drawings to spruce up the present.

You can get even more creative by using materials that you already have to wrap your presents. You could use old newspapers and compost them or cloth bags and ribbon and reuse them next year. 


You can give gifts to your friends, family and the environment all at once. You could give to a cause the person is passionate about, or plan a clothing swap all while creating zero waste.  

You also may want to consider supporting small businesses this year by shopping locally rather than getting things delivered. 

“You should do this so you’re not generating as much cardboard waste,” said Selstad.


No matter real, fake, small, or large, you can make your tree more sustainable. Many people choose to reuse the same artificial tree each holiday while others buy a real tree. 

When it comes time to get rid of your tree, don’t throw it out in the trash or recycling. If it’s still in good shape, consider giving it to someone else or donating it. If you have a real tree that is still potted, you could replant it in your yard.

If there is no saving your tree for the next holiday, there is an eco-friendly way you can dispose of it. Depending on your county, you can either leave it on your curb next to the trash for pick-up or bring it to a designated drop-off location. Remember to remove all lights and ornaments before getting rid of your tree.


Instead of attending and throwing large holiday parties this year, many of us will attend smaller gatherings within our immediate households. Don’t let all your hard work in the kitchen go to waste and throw away your leftovers. 

“There’s a lot of food waste during holidays,” said Selstad.

There are a ton of recipes out there for holiday leftovers. For example, you could use your leftover latkes to make twice-baked potatoes or leftover ham to make sandwiches. 

Many of your loved ones may not be able to make their own holiday meal this year, because they are socially distancing or are quarantining. To spread some holiday cheer and combat your food waste, make them a plate and safely deliver it to them. 

New year's resolutions

A lot of us are ready to put 2020 behind us. Consider leaving wasteful practices there too. 

The new year is the perfect time to start living a low-waste lifestyle. You can make a New Year's resolution to be more conscious of how your actions are affecting the planet.