Holiday Waste: What Can Businesses Do to Reduce it and Move Towards Zero Waste

How much holiday waste do Americans generate each year?

A reported 1 million tons of additional materials go into landfills each week between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day! That is an estimated 25 percent more trash discarded during the holiday period.

The top holiday waste items, according to a 2021 survey conducted by OnePoll, are wrapping paper, gift bags, tissue paper, packaging from presents, and food waste. Did you know…

  • An estimated 4.6 million pounds of wrapping paper are used in the U.S. annually, with about half going to landfills. One report claims that we throw away enough wrapping paper annually to circle the world nine times!
  • An estimated 38 million miles of ribbon are discarded each year. It is enough to wrap around the earth.
  • According to the EPA, containers and packaging make up a major portion of municipal solid waste, amounting to 82.2 million tons of generation in 2018 (28.1 percent of total generation).
  • On Thanksgiving alone, nonprofit ReFED estimates that 305 million pounds of food valued at $400 million, are wasted.

If every home and business made an effort to produce just a little less waste during the holidays, the collective impact could be massive. Here are some ways to move your holiday season towards Zero Waste for a less wasteful, and more festive and sustainable season. It is a decision your employees, colleagues, and clients will take note of and appreciate.

How to Reduce Holiday Waste

1.  Anticipate and Educate

During this period, many businesses will have to deal with an increase in cardboard boxes from deliveries, hotels might see an increase in shopping bags and hangers left behind, and food service businesses will produce more food waste.

Every business, office and residential building should prepare to handle this increase in waste so that bins do not overflow, and recyclable materials are collected for recycling rather than ending up in the trash.  This could mean that adjustments need to be made to bin sizes and hauler pickup frequency, and that additional storage may have to be secured for the larger amounts of materials collected before pickup.

Businesses should also make sure their janitorial staff is trained and prepared to handle the increased waste and avoid contamination. In addition, ensure that all waste and recycling signs are clear and that bins are properly labeled. This might be a good time to educate and remind employees and tenants how to recycle right.

To capture special seasonal material like wrapping paper and gift boxes, businesses might consider a service like TerraCycle, which offers a Zero Waste box for wrapping paper, ribbon, bows, tissue paper, or party supplies such as garlands, and confetti. These materials are usually not recyclable.

After the holiday, businesses can organize an e-waste recycling drive so that employees who receive gadgets as gifts can recycle or donate their old electronics.

2. Work with Micro Haulers to Meet Specific Needs

If your building does not have an organics recycling program, look to work with micro haulers, who can provide a level of service that matches the organics generation of your office or business. For example, an office with two large pantries could divert their food waste with two or three bins serviced twice a week. Talk to your building facility manager or sustainability officer for help connecting with a micro hauler.

3. Address Food Waste!

According to the largest study of commercial building waste conducted to date, organic material consistently made up the largest portion of divertable material (36%) found in a building’s trash stream.

The lesson here is that addressing organics like food waste is the biggest opportunity to make an impact on your waste reduction efforts. This is especially true during the holiday season when food waste increases by as much as 25 percent.

So plan your menu well to avoid food waste in the first place. Then make plans to donate quality, edible food from your cafeteria or holiday party to the local food shelter. You can even send employees back with holiday party leftovers that they can share with their families.

Download our food waste toolkit to help your business reduce food waste during the holidays and beyond, and read our case study to see how we helped one business reduce food waste and do good at the same time.

4.  Make Your Holiday Party a Zero Waste Event

With some planning, businesses can make their year-end holiday parties a Zero Waste event by following our 10-step checklist. Our Zero Waste event planning guide includes quick tips on sourcing, educating event attendees, and working with vendors who understand your Zero Waste goals, and more.

5.  Set a Good Example with Gifts that Give Back

Instead of buying products, give services or experiences like memberships to a gym or tickets to an event, or make a company donation to a charity or an environmental project on behalf of your employees.  Businesses could also organize an activity for employees to give back to the community.  This can be as simple as holding a food or toy drive, or as involved as volunteering to serve dinner at a local food shelter.

6. Avoid Single-Use Items

Choose reusable, durable products over single-use recyclable or compostable items whenever possible. While recyclable and compostable products sound eco-friendly, they may end up in the landfill for a variety of reasons. For example, a recyclable item might end up in the trash bin by mistake. And compostable products will almost certainly head to the landfill if your area, like many, lacks access to industrial composting facilities.

A few ways to avoid single-use items during the holiday season?

  • Choose durable plates, mugs, utensils and other service ware for your office holiday party.
  • Go paperless!  It’s not too late to send your eco-friendly holiday greetings via email.
  • Consider renting decor instead of buying, or choose decorations that can be stored and reused. Avoid single-use festive items like paper streamers, banners, party hats and favors, and balloons. Those are often destined for the landfill.
  • Avoid wrapping paper with foil or glitter or too much ink, as well as ribbons, tags and other decorations as they are usually not recyclable. Instead, place your gift in something reusable, like a bag or tin.

7. Kick Start Change

Have everyone join in to achieve your waste reduction goals and keep it going beyond the holidays. A few simple things to consider–have employees/colleagues bring their own coffee mugs to the office, set the office printer to double-sided printing, or have a friendly inter-office recycling challenge.

Thinking bigger? Make a plan for your business to go Zero Waste during the holiday season and beyond. This should include efforts to reassess your purchasing decisions to reduce waste by, for example, buying items in bulk, or working with vendors to reach less wasteful solutions. Here are examples of how two hotels managed to reduce waste by working with their vendors:  One hotel asked their supplier to stop sending fish in styrofoam boxes, which cannot be recycled in many cases, while another requested that pineapples be delivered without heads, making them smaller so that more fruit could fit into a box with less packaging.

8.  Unplug

Consider unplugging electronics in the office before you leave for your holiday break. You will save energy and help the equipment last longer, keeping them away from the landfill. You might also want to unplug and unwind yourself to recharge for the new year.

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