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Being thoughtful about holiday consumption, without being a Scrooge

David Beach  |  12/06/13 @ 12:00pm  |  Posted in Zero waste, Stuff

The holidays can be a wonderful time of the year with family, friends and spiritual contemplation. But they are also a time that has become overwhelmed — from Black Friday to Cyber Monday and beyond — with shopping, consumption, and waste. According to Use Less Stuff, average household waste increases more than 25% between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, contributing an additional 1 million tons of waste per week to the nation’s landfills.

Fortunately, there are lots of great ideas for rethinking holiday consumption. Here is a quick guide for reducing, reusing, recycling and buying local — not to be a Scrooge, but to help us focus on practices that really contribute to quality of life in our homes and communities.

Thanks to GCBL volunteer Nico Boyd for helping to research and write this post.

Lure of shopping<br />Sign in the shopping area of Cleveland Hopkins Airport.


  • Call a truce in the competition for ever-more gift giving. See if you can get your family and friends to agree on fewer, but more meaningful, gifts this year. A good guide for how to negotiate this change is Bill McKibben’s Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas. The book suggests that establishing a limit on spending, such as a $100 per family, can be a real spur to creativity—and a real anchor against the relentless onslaught of commercials and catalogs that try to say the holidays have to come from a store.
  • Shop for quality, not quantity. Sometimes the most appreciated gifts are high-quality items that are simple, durable, timeless, and useful.
  • Give experiences. Gifts don’t necessarily need to be material things in a box. You can cook a meal for someone. Or you can give the gift of an activity by signing friends or family members up for things like music lessons or a massage (or a visit to The Cleveland Museum of Natural History!). Perhaps the greatest gift you can give during the holidays is the gift of quality time with those you love.
  • Avoid excessive packaging. By favoring minimally packaged products, you can reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. And, of course, you won’t need plastic shopping bags if you bring your own reusable bag.
  • Conserve energy with efficient lighting. Holiday lighting now comes with LED bulbs that are very long-lasting and use about 80% less energy than conventional bulbs. Make sure to get light strands wired in parallel, so you won’t have to throw out a whole strand if one bulb goes bad. And use an automatic timer to turn off your lights when no one is around to admire them. See more energy-saving tips here.
  • Reduce food waste. Americans produce more than 36 million tons of food waste each year. So plan holiday menus to avoid over-buying, and be conscientious about using leftovers in soups and stews. Leftover food in unopened containers can be donated to local food banks.
  • Stop junk mail. Who can really use all those catalogs? Here are tips for stopping them.
  • Give donations to worthy causes. Some of the most rewarding gifts enable the recipient to help others.


  • Buy second-hand gifts. Not everything has to be new. Sometimes gently used or refurbished products work just fine, while extending the life of resources and being less expensive. So check out local thrift stores, antique stores, flea markets, and second-hand book stores. Vintage is cool!
  • Plant the tree. Instead of a cut tree, you can buy one with a root ball and plant it in your yard after the holidays.
  • Reuse wrapping. The Use Less Stuff Report states that yearly waste from gift wrap and shopping bags is almost 4 million tons in the U.S. So reuse wrapping paper and bows whenever possible. Or have a contest to see who can be the most creative wrapping gifts in newspapers or magazines.
  • Get creative with decorations. Some of the most creative holiday decorations for home or office can be made from surplus materials. You can start a holiday tradition by hosting a party to make things.


  • Have zero-waste events. Hosting a holiday party? Make sure you use recyclable products, have clearly marked recycling and composting bins, and have a maintenance procedure to make sure all the recyclables actually get recycled. (Here are more tips on how to have green events.)
  • Upcycle! The Upcycle Project in the St. Clair neighborhood is a great example of how to produce imaginative gifts made from reused and recycled materials.
  • Recycle the tree. More than 30 million live Christmas trees are sold in North America each year. If you dispose of a tree after the holidays, find out if your community’s service department collects and mulches it for beneficial uses.
  • Seek out recyclable packaging. If you’re shopping online, find out how products will be packaged for shipping. For instance, Amazon.com offers “Frustration-Free Packaging,” which features a recyclable box minus the irritating wire ties and plastic clamshells.
  • Compost. A compost pile is a good solution for all those food scraps that can’t be reused. You can return your food waste to the soil.

Buy local

  • Keep your dollars local. Buying something from a local producer or a locally-owned business helps the local economy, and locally sourced goods also may have less environmental impacts from transportation. For ideas, check out Cool Cleveland’s shop local ideas.

Finally, realize that, by shopping differently alone, you can only do a small amount to reduce the ecological and social impacts of our consumer society. The transition to a more sustainable economy will require many people working together for large-scale policy changes that affect how economic success is defined.

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