Cut down on holiday waste with these recycling tips

By Brianna Steinhilber

The holidays are officially in full swing. And that means our weekends are packed with cocktail parties, wrapping presents and hosting friends and family for dinner.

But all that fun comes with a whole lot of waste.

“Typically, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day we see about a 25 percent increase in volume or about 1,000 pounds of extra waste per household,” says Jeremy Walters, sustainability ambassador for Republic Services, an industry leader in U.S. recycling and non-hazardous waste. “The good news, though, is that about 80 percent of it can actually be reused, re-purposed or recycled."

Walters recognizes that with everything going on this time of year, recycling may not be your top priority. “The holidays can be stressful. You might be hosting a party, trying to find the perfect gift, or even meeting your significant other’s family for the first time! Sustainability is likely the last thing on your mind,” he says. “But if you want to do the right thing, there are some things you can do to make your holiday season sustainable and care free.”

While you may think that separating the recycling from the trash is a no-brainer, we were surprised by some of the items that actually have no place in the recycling bin. And an errant piece of garbage can cause more harm than you may think.

“There are quite a few items we see that either shouldn’t be in the recycling bin at all or require a little extra care before being placed in your curbside bin,” said Walters. “When food and beverage containers contain food or liquid residues they can ruin perfectly good recyclables in the bin, especially paper and cardboard. Lights, tinsel and other holiday ‘tanglers’ — as we call them — will wrap around the machinery at the recycling center, creating work stoppages, equipment failure and potential harm to our employees.”

So before you commence with your holiday happy hours, decorating and gift wrapping sessions, brush up on your recycling know-how to help cut down on waste — without spending precious time Googling “Can I recycle that?”

“We call this Santa’s bad list. If you can’t reuse or donate these items, put them in a waste container, not your recycling bin,” says Walters.

  • Bubble wrap
  • Cellophane
  • Plastic bags (try recycling shopping bags at your local grocery store)
  • Christmas lights
  • Ribbons
  • Bows
  • Batteries (see recycling and disposal tips below)
  • Food packaging and waste
  • Clothing and shoes
  • Holiday lights
  • Electronics (see recycling and disposal tips below)
  • Foam packaging

Here are more specific guidelines on what you can recycle this time of year — and the best way to do it.

Holiday gift wrapping

“From mid-December to late January we see the heaviest volume coming into our 90 recycling centers across the U.S. driven by cardboard shipping boxes, gift boxes and paper (holiday cards, envelopes, wrapping paper etc.),” says Walters.

His advice when stocking up on wrapping supplies? Keep it simple: The fancier the bags or the paper, the less recyclable it becomes. “Only simple glitter-free, non-laminated paper bags and wrapping paper can go in your recycling bin. All those glitter-laden bags, cellophane wrapping paper and shiny bows are not recyclable. Save and reuse these next year. There’s a longstanding tradition in my family that we save all the undamaged bags and bows after we open our gifts. Not only does this help save natural resources, it helps save some money too!” says Walters. “Wrapping paper that has a printed design is perfectly fine to be recycled alongside simple gift bags that are 100% paper. If a paper bag has ribbon or fabric handles and it isn’t suited for another year under the tree, make sure to tear those handles off before placing the bag in your recycling bin.”

Walters has some fun wrapping tricks that will not only cut down on waste, but save you money as well: “Try wrapping gifts in brown craft paper (which is recyclable) and add a pine cone or sprig from your tree to give your gift wrap some rustic flair while being eco-friendly. For the kids, wrap their gifts in the comic section from the newspaper. As they eagerly wait to open their gifts, they can read their favorite comic strips!”

Recycling bin:

  • Cardboard and paper boxes for gifts and shoes
  • Wrapping paper that’s plain (sans glitter and embellishments)
  • Plain paper gift bags
  • Holiday cards and envelopes that don’t have embellishments like glitter and glued on decorations
  • Sticky gift tags are not recyclable by themselves, but they are acceptable if affixed to an envelope or wrapping paper

Garbage can:

  • Plastic bubble wrap, air pillows and all types of foam packaging
  • Ribbons and bows because the material and size are not suitable for recycling
  • Gift bags that are laminated, coated, dyed or glittered
  • Cellophane wrap