December 6, 2006 | By: Terri McLean

It’s the holiday season, that time of year when, along with all the gift giving and merry making, Americans produce an extra one million tons of trash per week.

That’s right. During the five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, more garbage is generated in the United States than at any other time of year. It may well be the season to be jolly, but it’s also the season to be wasteful.

“As we welcome the holiday season, we also welcome the high-waste season,” said Ashley Osborne, Extension associate for environmental and natural resource issues at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

For example, Osborne said, the amount of Christmas cards bought each year – about 1.9 billion – would fill a football field 10 stories high. And holiday ribbon? There is enough of that thrown out each year – 38,000 miles worth – to wrap around the Earth and tie a bow. Add to that gift wrapping, packaging materials and shopping bags, plus all the cans, bottles and plastic containers tossed out after holiday celebrations, and you’ve got a whole lot of extra garbage.

“It’s a very wasteful season,” she said. “I think people are becoming more aware (of the waste problem). … Then again you have other people that maybe aren’t as aware, and I think that’s why we still have this large amount of trash being produced in the holiday season.”

Osborne is one of many waste-watchers who are dedicated to spreading the word about Americans’ holiday wastefulness. She’s joining other Cooperative Extension Service personnel across the state in educating people about ways to reduce the amount of garbage produced during this time of year.

One of the first things she does to get people in the reduce-the-waste spirit is to help them realize just how much they, as individuals, are contributing to the holiday waste problem. Then she encourages them to make an effort to adopt more earth-friendly habits, including giving gifts that are not harmful to the environment and recycling waste instead of trashing it. 

“Simple changes can make big differences,” she said.

When it comes to gift giving, for example, Osborne recommends buying gifts that are not overly packaged, without unnecessary plastic or cardboard. She also suggests buying gifts that are made at least partially from recycled content. This is called “closing the loop” on the recycling process. Items made from recycled content have gone full circle, from recycling bin to manufacturer to the marketplace and back. 

In addition, Osborne said, “Think durable. Consider how long an item will last before you make a purchase. Often, a cheaper item will wear out – and end up in the landfill – before its more durable equivalent.” And don’t overlook the value of giving “practical” gifts such as gift certificates that do not require excessive packaging or wrapping, she said.

Because a large amount of holiday waste comes from paper, bows and ribbon each year, Osborne suggests that people pay particular attention to reducing waste when wrapping gifts. She offers several alternatives to traditional holiday wrapping, including creating wrapping paper out of shopping bags, and wrapping gifts in something useful. 

“I think my favorite idea is wrapping a gift in something that can be reused, for instance a kitchen gift wrapped in a tea towel,” Osborne said. “Or wrapping a toy for a child in a backpack or lunch box.”

For holiday gatherings, there are several things that can be done to keep them environmentally safe. For instance, use reusable dishes and cloth napkins, buy food in bulk to reduce packaging, and recycle cans, bottles, paper and plastic.

“It’s all a mindset,” Osborne said. “It’s really thinking about what you’re purchasing, how you’re going to use it, things like that. The holiday gift-giving season should also be a waste-reduction season.”

For more information about ways to reduce holiday waste, contact your county Extension office.


Ashley Osborne, 859-257-2505