It is estimated that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Americans throw away 25% more trash than any other time of the year. The Chesapeake Bay Program offers ways to make your holidays more sustainable. (Photo Illustration by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Strands of colorful lights strung up around homes, illuminating a grand holiday meal shared by family and friends. Wine bottles ready to be opened to toast to the holiday season and welcome in a new year. Dozens of smartly wrapped packages under a freshly trimmed—or pre-lit—tree. And what’s in those packages? The latest and greatest in electronics, clothing and battery-operated toys.

But what happens now to last year’s new electronics and clothing? How many batteries will you have to go through to keep those toys powered? Where will that tree end up come early January? And what about all that discarded wrapping paper, bows and packaging? Stanford University estimates that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Americans throw away 25% more trash than any other time of the year, resulting in about 25 million extra tons of garbage. Here’s some tips to help reduce waste when you are un-decking those halls.

Christmas Tree Disposal

Artificial Trees

An artificial tree can be recycled, but only if it does not contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC), as some recycling systems simply are not built to process it. Contact your local recycling center to see if they accept all rigid plastics. If so, they will most likely take the base and trunk of the tree, without the branches and lights. But some communities may have recycling programs that dispose of your entire artificial tree, so make sure to ask! Balsam Hill will accept your old tree in the mail for recycling. If your fake tree is still in decent shape, consider donating it. Many local charities will accept them for needy families, churches, schools or hospitals throughout the region.

Real Trees

Many cities, counties and municipalities offer their own curbside tree pick-up. Contact your local public works department for information. But make sure you remove the lights, tinsel and ornaments before you put it out on the curb! If you’d rather not see your tree turned into mulch, consider turning it over to the wildlife in your back yard. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends putting your tree outside and decorating it with edible ornaments or popcorn strings that will feed the birds and small animals during the winter. Don’t feel like re-decorating the tree? Simply put it outside and create a brush pile. This heap of leaves and twigs will provide food and protection to wildlife throughout the winter, allowing the tree to naturally decompose.

In some areas in the Chesapeake region, Christmas trees are used in restoration projects. On Poplar Island in Maryland, discarded trees are turned into habitat for black ducks. In Virginia Beach, Virginia, Christmas trees are collected to become natural fences that help control erosion and provide beneficial nutrients for beach grasses. In parts of Pennsylvania, donated Christmas trees are used as fish habitat.

Holiday Lights and Ornaments

Unfortunately, most ornaments can’t be recycled as they are typically made of mixed materials. The only exception is paper ornaments, but even then, they can’t contain any glitter or glue. However, most strands of holiday lights can be recycled. You can drop yours off at local Home Depot, Lowe’s or MOM’s Organic Market for recycling. Don’t have either near you? Check out HolidayLEDS and Christmas Light Source, which allows you to mail your lights and they will recycle them.

Holiday Cards

The National Environmental Education Foundation estimates that 2.6 billion holiday cards are sold in the United States each year—enough to fill a football field 10 stories high. Similar to other holiday products, if your cards contain glitter or foil, they can’t be recycled and must go directly into the trash. That includes envelopes with foil as well. Otherwise, remove any ribbon, metal, plastic or electronic elements from the cards and feel free to recycle them. If your local recycling center participates in electronics recycling, those small electronic elements that play music in cards can also be recycled.

Gift Wrapping

Jeremy Walters, sustainability ambassador for Republic Services, notes that a good rule to follow when considering whether or not gift wrapping can be recycled, “is the fancier the bag or paper, the less recyclable it becomes.” Simple, glitter-free bags, non-laminated paper bags and wrapping paper can go straight into your recycling bin. Cellophane wrapping paper, tissue paper, bows, ribbons and bags covered in glitter should be saved and reused next year. Tissue paper, bows and ribbons cannot be recycled—tissue paper is too thin and ribbons and bows jam up the machinery. Walters also reminds us to “tear off those handles before placing the bag in your recycling bin.” Popular Science notes that an estimated 38,000 miles of ribbon are sold each year in the weeks leading up to the holidays. And what about all of those cardboard boxes that your gifts arrive in when you order them online? They absolutely can be recycled—but make sure to remove any extras, like bubble wrap, plastic windows, etc. before doing so.

Toys and Electronics

What to do with your old electronics, toys and clothing once you receive new ones for the holidays? In the case of electronics, many of them—TVs, computers—can be recycled. Unsure if your local recycling center takes electronics, but live near a Best Buy? They will recycle many different types of used electronics or provide guidance on how to properly dispose of them. Essentially, if something has a battery or power cord, don’t throw it in the trash. You can also consider donating these items to local charities if they are still in working order. If your new toys include batteries, remember that they need to be disposed properly, due to the chemicals that they contain. If your batteries are rechargeable, they can be recycled at certain retailers, like Lowe’s. You can recycle many different types of batteries at MOM’s Organic Markets, along with cell phones and tablets.

Baytech Plastics notes that 90% of all children’s toys on the market are made of plastic and most of them are a mix that are not accepted by your local recycling center. If your toys are in good condition, first and foremost, they should be donated to childcare centers, homeless shelters, thrift stores or hospitals. But if they are past their prime, consider recycling through the Hasbro Toy Recycling Program, Mattel PlayBack or Lego’s Replay Program. Similar to wrapping paper and greeting cards, only the cardboard and paper portions of board games can be recycled.

If you were gifted clothes and want to make room in your closet, consider donating your old items to national chains such as The Salvation Army or Goodwill. Several stores, such as Patagonia, Nike or H&M have clothing take-back programs. Hangers can’t be recycled, but your local dry cleaners would be more than happy to take them off your hands.

Food Waste

Cooking that holiday dinner? Remember that most glass, tin and plastic jars can be recycled. But make sure they are thoroughly cleaned of any food or drink residue before you toss them in your bin. Burned dinner and ordered a pizza instead? Sadly, pizza boxes are NOT recyclable due to the grease from the pizza. Instead of buying plastic cutlery or paper plates, use regular plates, glasses and cutlery that can be washed and reused. Plastic silverware and cups can’t be recycled. And if you’re stuck with leftovers that you can’t finish, learn more about how to donate or turn them into compost.

To sum up, consider donating decorations, toys and electronics to charities or people in your community. Cut back on your glitter use. Before recycling any holiday items, be sure to check with your local recycling center to make sure they take them. And most of all, have a happy holiday season with your family and friends!

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