As the old-timers say, "if you fail to plan, you can plan to fail." Organizing an environmentally-friendly holiday gathering is no exception to the rule: it's easier to reduce waste if you start thinking green well before the holidays hit -- making sure you don't overbuy, over-cook, over-package, and so forth. But there are also lots of ways to reduce, reuse and recycle in the days following your holiday extravaganza. Here are a handful to get you started:

Garbage dissection

Before you trudge out to the curb in your PJs to put the trash and recycling cans out, take a closer look at your wrapping refuse. Maybe it's not all trash after all -- do you have nice gift bags worth saving for reuse next year? Cardboard boxes you could break down and store for reuse? Wrapping paper that's still intact? A few sturdy ribbons? The same handful of gift bags and cloth ribbons have appeared under my family's Christmas tree every year for as long as I can remember, and we’re not sick of them yet. Here's a Grinch stat for you: according to a study by Robert Lilienfeld, co-author of Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are, if every family in the United States reused just two feet of holiday ribbon, the 38,000 miles of material saved could tie a bow around the entire world.

Count cards

Salvage the front sides of greeting cards you've received. Chances are, the giver only wrote on the inside right half, so cut the card down the middle and use the front as a flat card or gift tag next year. Be sure to recycle the back of the card.


Kudos to you for saving all your leftovers. Waste not, want not, as they say. But storing the remains of your holiday feast can produce a fair bit of waste in itself -- all those baggies, aluminum sheets and plastic wrap really add up. Reduce the amount of trash you generate by storing extra food in glassware (which you can microwave without worrying about toxins leaching into your food) and Tupperware. Pyrex makes great glassware with plastic lids that seal on airtight, as does Crate & Barrel.


No one likes taking down the Christmas tree, but there's an easy way to do something good with your tree when the season's over: mulch it. Mulch is that great, crunchy, wood-chip stuff you see on hiking trails and around green spaces in towns and cities. It can even be used to prevent erosion at watersheds. Check your local paper or call your street department to find out where and when you should leave your tree for mulch pickup. Most towns and cities have designated drop-off spots, or will collect your tree right from your doorstep. Or, look online at Earth 911's website -- just enter your zipcode, and they'll search their database of more than 3,800 drop-off spots nationwide to find the one nearest you.

Paper of record

Don't leave a paper trail. If you're taking a post-holiday vacation or trip, make sure to cancel your newspaper subscription, so they don't pile up needlessly while you're away.


Gather up any gifts you want to return or exchange, and try to take care of the lot in one big trip, rather than lots of little (fuel-wasting) trips. Make an event of it -- carpool to the mall or downtown shops with neighbors and friends who also have gifts to return or exchange. Enjoy a nice meal together afterwards.


If you received any gifts you don't want or don't plan to keep, give them to charity rather than letting them rot in your basement, or worse, throwing them away.


Do your holiday lights look a little worse for the wear as you pack them back up? Instead of waiting until next year and scrambling to buy a new set, put LED (light-emitting diode) Christmas lights on your post-holiday to-do list, and buy a set when you head to the stores to make gift returns and exchanges. LEDs are 80 percent more energy efficient than traditional Christmas lights; according to the U.S. Department of Energy, if every household replaced conventional holiday light strings with LEDs, at least two billion kilowatt-hours of electricity could be saved in a month. The savings would be enough to power 200,000 homes for a year.

Auld lang syne

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never blah blah blah! Wrap up the holiday season and wave in the New Year with a big, fat, eco resolution.

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2007. The story was added to

Copyright Environ Press 2007