10 Tips: How to recover from holiday clutter

Monday, December 29, 2008 - 07:53 AM

Listen to Meaghan O'Neill's suggestions for greening up your holiday cleanup.

Nationwide, there was a lot of focus this year on how to green up your holiday season, and with good reason: Half the country is broke, the atmosphere is falling apart, and many of us are plain done with the stress of running ourselves ragged to buy gifts that nobody really wants just so we can fulfill the tradition of giving and receiving. At TreeHugger and Planet Green, we offered dozens of solutions to Christmas-as-usual, hundreds of green holiday gifts, and even recipes to make your holiday a little brighter and lighter.

One of the main things we talk about is dematerializing the holidays; that is, choosing gifts that are small, experiential, or consumable, such as tickets to a ballet, a spa gift certificate, or donations in your giftee's name. Still, there's much to be said for the cheeriness of holiday décor and thoughtful gift-giving, but when the gifts are unwrapped and the tree comes down, the question remains: What to do with all the stuff that's literally littering our homes?

In the United States, our waste stream increases by about 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year's, bringing the total amount of stuff we toss out to more than 25 million tons. With landfills being one of the top sources of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, it pays to pay attention to how to we dispose of the extraneous stuff we gather at this time of year. With that in mind, here are 10 solutions for dealing with post-holiday clutter...

1. Mulch that tree. If you've chosen to use a live tree this year, make sure it's disposed of properly. If your city doesn't have a curbside pickup program, find out where you can deliver it so it can be mulched or used for landscaping, not landfill. For info about your area, check out Earth 911.

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2. If you fake it, make it last. Roughly 130,000 fake trees are imported to the U.S. from China each year. If you've got one, make it last. I'm not talking for five or six years, I'm talking 20 or more, and even then, you've gotta to pass it along to someone who wants it. Fake trees are made from plastic (i.e., oil), aren't recyclable and can last in the landfill for more than 500 years. So please don't toss yours in the trash before its time has come.

3. Got paper? Paper is the number one thing clogging up our landfills. Some, but not all, wrapping papers are recyclable. If it's super-shiny or glittery, it probably has to go in the trash. Simpler, plainer papers can be tossed in your curbside recycling bin. I try to reuse bags and bows endlessly and haven't bought new wrappings in years (I'm proud to say), but my gifts always look presentable (pretty, even!).

4. Have you made the switch to LEDs? If you finally swapped out your energy-sucking incandescent string lights for holiday LEDs, give yourself a pat on the back. You can recycle your old lights at HolidayLEDs.

5. If re-gifting is wrong, why does it feel so right? Got yet another candle from a cousin who doesn't know you so well? Re-gifting doesn't have the tacky rep it once it did, but it does require some decorum. Find out how and when it's OK, by following Planet Green's guide to re-gifting. It's better than filling your storage shelves with crap you'll never use.

6. Gift cards, reborn. Got a gift card to Hollister but you're so much more JCrew? You can swap or sell the gift cards that you don't want for ones you do.

7. Greetings, Earthlings. Every year, 2.65 billion holiday cards are sold in the United States. To know which holiday cards are recyclable, follow the rules of thumb outlined for wrapping paper above. You can also donate your cards to St. Jude's Ranch for Children, where old cards are recycled into brand-new ones, which are then sold to help children who were the victims of abuse, neglect and abandonment. And here's my fave new tip of the season: Keep this year's holiday cards to make into tags for next year's prezzies. You can read about these and more ways to recycle holiday greeting cards at Planet Green.

8. Don't be e-wasteful. If you received new electronics as a gift, know how to get your rid of your old ones properly. Some manufacturers have take-back programs; some municipalities also hold e-waste and toxic waste pickup days (visit Earth 911; other companies have buyback programs. (You can learn tons more about e-waste in the TreeHugger book, Ready, Set, Green: Eight Weeks to Modern Eco-Living. Buy it in The Takeaway's online store.)

9. Stop the catalogs. It takes 14 million trees to produce the mail-order books we receive annually, and the majority end up sitting in landfills, emitting harmful greenhouse gases. Don't let your holiday stack keep on coming; call to be removed from lists, or sign up with service like Catalog Choice (free) or Green Dimes, a fee-based service (about $3 per month, and totally worth it) that helps keep your name off junk mail lists on an ongoing basis.

10. Make way for the new. If you're clearing out old stuff to make space for the new, use services like craigslist, eBay, or freecycle, or donate to thrift stores to find a proper home for your now-unwanted goods that still have some life in them.

Now that you've successfully cleaned up your holiday mess, it's time to make some New Year's resolutions... right after you drink some eco-friendly pink champagne at that hot, green New Year's party, that is. Cheers!

Meaghan O'Neill is the editor of TreeHugger.com and PlanetGreen.com.

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