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  • Michelle Gopaul

Tis' The Season To Be Wasteful: Rethinking Our Holiday Habits

The Christmas season may be considered the most wonderful time of the year, but it’s also the most wasteful. If you celebrate the holiday, you may be familiar with the giant pile of wrapping paper, gift bags, and empty boxes leftover after everyone’s torn through their presents, or perhaps you can picture the leftovers from a holiday dinner that never get finished on time. We’ve fallen into the habit of attaching the notion of holiday spirit to material things, which leads to shopping more, spending more, and, inevitably, wasting more. Zero Waste Canada estimates that every Canadian produces 25% more waste during the holidays, or around 50 more kilograms. It’s time to become more mindful of the environmental impact that our traditions have and reflect on how we can change our holiday habits accordingly.

The bulk of the 25% increase in waste during the holidays can be attributed to the 3,000 tonnes of foil, six million tape rolls, 2.6 billion Christmas Cards, and of course all of the wrapping paper and gift bags purchased during this time of the year. All in all, 540 000 tonnes of gift wrapping materials are thrown away annually in Canada — around the same weight as 100 000 elephants, or 4.5 CN Towers! While some of these materials can be recycled, the majority won’t make it through the process. Rules differ from city to city, but in Toronto, gift bags, tape, and anything with glitter, foil, or velvet in it can’t be recycled.

Of course, it’s impractical to expect every household in Canada to ditch wrapping presents altogether. But small changes add up; you don’t need to abandon the fun of wrapping and unwrapping gifts to make a difference. The Recycling Council of BC found if every Canadian wrapped at least three gifts using reused wrapping paper or gift bags, the saved materials would cover every hockey rink in Canada! The simplest way to meet that benchmark? Reuse, reduce, and recycle. It’s a phrase everyone has been familiar with since elementary school, but gets overlooked incredibly often. Here are some ways you can apply it next holiday season, or any time you have gifts to wrap:

  • Reuse the materials that you can — instead of throwing away the paper/plastic gift bags and gift boxes, use them for next year's gifts (saves money too!). If the aesthetic of the gift isn’t too important to you, use newspaper to wrap it! Since it would’ve already been thrown out, no extra waste is produced.

  • Reduce the amount of wrapping required in the first place. With hopes of a much safer world next holiday season, gifting experiences rather than objects can be really meaningful and also cut back on materials that would just go to waste.

  • Look for recyclable wrapping paper and make sure it matches with your city’s recycling rules, and avoid foils and glitters altogether. If you don’t mind a plain look, most craft supply stores sell rolls of craft paper that work great for wrapping and are always recyclable.

Wrapping paper isn’t the only thing thrown out in excess this time of year, though. Food waste is a year-round crisis, and it only worsens during the holiday season. Americans already throw out around 40% of the food they purchase, and between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, 5 million extra pounds are discarded. Not only is the leftover food contributing to the problem, but also the wasted resources that go into producing it, such as the water, food, and labour that goes to raising turkeys: the preferred holiday dish. The simplest way to go about avoiding extra food waste to be aware of it and know how to use the leftovers. Here are some tips to help:

  • Don’t prepare more food than you can realistically eat. Holiday meals are something to get excited about, but especially with lockdowns coming back into place in many areas, fewer people will be at the dinner table, and fewer people will be there to consume all of the leftover food.

  • Freeze leftovers so there is more time to eat them.

  • Compost if you are able to. Instead of throwing away your food, you may find it useful later in the year if you have a garden.

  • Find recipes by searching “holiday leftover recipes” online if you get bored of the same foods.

We don’t just create waste by physically throwing things away either. From travelling to see family (in any year other than 2020) to using the oven more often for your holiday baking, individual energy consumption increases around this time of the year for a variety of reasons. The greatest source of consumption, however, are the grand light displays. Holiday decorations add 20% to 30% more brightness to the sky compared to other times of the year, and this increase is big enough to see clearly from a satellite in space. In their early stages LED lights helped to reduce this number, but BC Hydro found that despite more households using LED decorations, overall electricity usage has increased by 15%.

A satellite image of southeastern America displaying holiday lights as green spots. (Universities Space Research Association)

It’s unrealistic to expect a Christmas with no wrapping paper, mediocre dinners, and minimalistic yard displays, but you don’t need to sacrifice the things that bring holiday cheer to be able to say you’re living sustainably. What is important is that you are mindful of the impact which these simple traditions have. The biggest changes that can be made toward a more eco-friendly holiday system will have to come from the corporations and companies. The first step to get there is you, the consumer, knowing the effect of the things you choose to consume. Most importantly, try not to look for holiday spirit in gifts, wrapping, or things that can be thrown away, but rather in showing gratitude and spending time with those who care for you.


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