The Holiday Season: An Opportunity to Be More Sustainable


Pedro and Caitlin teaming up again. This time to discuss sustainability during the holidays. 

The holiday season is a time of celebration, and with that comes many family dinners, festive decorations and fancy wrapped packages. As delightful as all this is, the holiday season is also when the majority of our waste is produced. In fact, an average of 25 million additional tons of garbage is usually produced between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day in the United States – which breaks down to 157 pounds of garbage per person! 

As high as this number is, there is good news – reducing it is certainly possible. For instance, according to tips offered on Stanford University’s Recycling Frequently Asked Questions for Holiday Waste webpage, if every family wrapped only three presents in repurposed materials instead of holiday wrapping paper, enough paper would be saved to cover 45,000 football fields. And this is just an example, there are many other things that we can do to reduce the amount of waste throughout the holidays just by reusing, repurposing and rethinking.


Although there is a lot of waste that is generated throughout the holidays, much of it can be reused for different purposes! For instance food that is left after Thanksgiving can be refrigerated or frozen and be a delicious meal for another day. And if you don’t want to eat leftovers, use them to make new dishes you have not had before, such as:

Leftover Stuffing Waffles

Leftover Cheese Dip

Turkey Waldorf Salad

And that’s not all! There are some great recipes in the November/December/January issue of Live Green! Monthly, some of them even allow you to use your holiday leftover casserole. Furthermore, if you want to explore even more recipes, offers  60+ recipes for Thanksgiving leftovers.

Why are leftovers a big deal? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation estimates that in the United States, 40% of food prepared for Thanksgiving dinner is wasted each year. That includes 172 million pounds of turkey, 14 million dinner rolls and 40 million pounds of potatoes. That is a lot of food, considering the average person consumes 3-4 pounds of food each day! 

Freezing is a common way to preserve leftovers, and allows you to safely store some things for months before you need to use them. Not all leftovers are created equal for freezing, however. No problem!  Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, through their “Spend Smart. Eat Smart.” website, offers an informative video and helpful guide on how to freeze a variety of leftovers, as well as a lot of other helpful tips and resources about food. 

Although food waste makes up a high portion of the waste throughout the holidays, there are many other sources of waste that can be reduced if we reuse items we already have. A good example is wrapping paper. Oftentimes people just tear through gift wrap, so why not use pieces of paper that you already have in your house to wrap your gifts? Old calendars, posters, magazines, maps and even empty toilet paper rolls can be festive, creative and unique. Explore other eco-friendly wrapping alternatives on


While some holiday materials can be reused, there are also opportunities to repurpose and upcycle items commonly consumed for the holidays. According to the National Environmental Education Foundation, about 2.65 billion Christmas cards are sold in the United States each year. That is enough to fill a football field, 10 stories high! Once read, most cards end up in garbage cans. This holiday season, rather than throwing away your holiday cards, consider repurposing them. Old greeting cards – holiday or any occasion, can be made into some pretty awesome things. Check out 10 Creative Ways to Repurpose Greeting Cards on for some inspiration. 

If you aren’t so crafty, you can help others be crafty.  St. Jude’s Recycled Card Program accepts donations of card fronts to be repurposed into new cards which are then sold to help support the work of St. Jude’s Ranch for Children. At Iowa State University, the Office of Sustainability and Recycling Services are teaming up to offer all students, faculty and staff the opportunity to recycle greeting cards this holiday season. From December 14 through January 25, card fronts (backs are not able to be utilized) can be sent to  Merry Rankin, 108 General Services or dropped off in a collection boxe located in the General Services Building.  There is no per person limit.  Although holiday cards are specifically being targeted, other occasion cards may also be included (birthday, thank you, etc.).  **Please note, Hallmark, Disney and American Greeting cards are not included in this collection effort as St. Jude’s is not able to use them in their recycled card program. These cards, and any recyclable paper products, can be recycled through home recycling or can be dropped off free of charge at the Ames Golden Kiwanis’ paper recycling collection trailer, located at the CENEX station, 919 East Lincoln Way in Ames.

Another way to repurpose (and not add waste) during the holiday season is by donating unneeded usable items. Before you toss out old items to replace with new or updated versions received as holiday gifts, consider donation outlets such as Goodwill, Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity.  These organizations accept a variety of items including gently used clothing, books, movies, kitchenware, furniture and appliances. 

Additionally, your own gently used items could make some really great gifts. Though some might frown at the thought of regifting items, it is an easy way to keep things out of the landfill, it supports your own economic sustainability and can create meaningful gifts that people will appreciate! As part of our Live Green! Team Secret Santa Gift Exchange this year, I (Caitlin) received some gently used art supplies as a gift from a teammate who no longer needed them. I had been wanting to explore more art projects, but the supplies are pretty expensive. I am looking forward to putting them to use this holiday season and also really appreciate the repurposed impact they are making. 

And I (Pedro) received a wonderful new plant, from my Secret Santa, that was in a repurposed pot that had been repainted a fun color that matched my style perfectly.

 The really fun (and initially challenging) part about our Secret Santa Gift Exchange is that we weren’t allowed to go over $10. While to some that may sound like a tiny gift, for us it brought out our best in creating, reusing and repurposing. For example, I (Caitlin) got out my knitting needles and had fun knitting a scarf as one of my gifts. We encourage you to try a repurposed gift exchange with friends and family. It’s a lot more fun than you might think.

If crafting is not your thing, there are still gifts you can give through other talents. Think of those things you are good at, you enjoy doing and seem like no big deal to do. Things like finding and installing apps on your phone, updating your computer software, baking, painting or gardening. While these things are easy and fun for you, for others they aren’t fun and a lot of work. So, make these things into a gift. Make a book of gift certificates (digitally or from reused paper). The certificates could also be for experiences shared together. Like a hike in a favorite park, cooking a meal together, going to the zoo or enjoying a picnic. Sometimes the best gifts aren’t things at all!

Gifts can also contribute to organizations that your gift recipient really values and wants to support. By making a donation (of money or supplies or even volunteering), you are helping someone give a gift, which results in bringing joy at least twice as much than if you just bought a gift. If you need help finding a non-profit to honor your gift recipient, ‘ offers gift cards (digital, printable at home or biodegradable plastic) for over 300 non-profits, representing 17 different areas of focus. Alternative Gifts International offers the opportunity to provide tangible daily essential items (supporting food security, clean water, literacy, job skills training, etc.) to communities in the U.S. and around the world, on behalf of your gift recipient.

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If you want to buy a gift for your gift recipient, there are still ways to make a sustainable difference. For example if you are shopping online, the search engines you use can let you give an extra gift to non-profit organizations. Amazon Smile, for instance, donates 0.5% of your purchase to a charity of your choice. 

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Another way to make a sustainable difference when gift shopping (no matter what time of the year) is to shop local. Supporting local businesses supports your community, as well as families in your community. Small Business Saturday, takes place each year the Saturday after Thanksgiving Day and is focused on supporting local producers and economies. To learn more and find small businesses in your communities, visit the American Express Small Business Saturday website.


In general, the best approach to take in considering how to reduce waste throughout the holidays is to just to rethink the way we approach each aspect of the holiday experience. 

We  have already talked about gifts and food.  What about decorations? Who doesn’t enjoy fun and festive decorations for the holiday? Truly, we are not saying don’t have decorations, just rethink how and what you use to decorate. Unless you plan to pack away your decorations every year and move them from apartment to apartment, maybe consider some other options. For example, decorations that you can enjoy, but use up by the end of the season, such as candles? Or decorations that are festive for the holidays, but you also find useful other times during the year, like lights and garland (maybe from paper or cloth, not the gold plasticky stuff that you find EVERYWHERE after the holidays).  

Then there is the holiday tree. It’s definitely a tradition to have a tree at our houses and it’s so fun to decorate them with our families. Again, just rethink it. If you like real trees, think local and seek out a local tree farm or an organization that is selling trees that are sustainably grown and harvested. A great resource for that at Iowa State University is the ISU Forestry Club’s annual holiday tree sale

This year’s sale will take place on weekends, starting November 28 through December 13 at Reiman Gardens. For more information about trees for sale and sale hours, visit Reiman Gardens Upcoming Events website. You can also buy a smaller potted tree to decorate and have as a permanent natural feature of your apartment or room or gift it to someone who can plant it in their backyard. And maybe you just want to “dress-up” one of your current houseplants for the holidays. Afterall, “festive” is in the eyes of the beholder.

If you prefer an artificial tree, consider options that might offer you a fun, celebratory alternative that allows you to use items you already have (and are using for other purposes) so you don’t end up with additional “stuff” to deal with after the holidays. There are some pretty fun ideas out there – like using books or a ladder or just creating a “wall tree”. Check out’s Upcycled: 13 Alternative Christmas Trees DIY Project  to help kick-start your creative brainstorming. 

Rethinking during the holidays is definitely made easier thanks to all the digital opportunities we now have. So much waste can be easily avoided.

For example, holiday greetings can all be done digitally. No need to buy paper cards and consider how to keep them from being trash after the holidays. Digitally, you have no waste to consider! And how about all the solutions digital opportunities help us find, like recipes for leftovers, and options for non-traditional gifts.

Going digital also has special significance this year in this time of COVID-19 precautions. Not being able to gather and travel as we normally would, connecting digitally allows us to still have time and experiences with friends and family through virtual meals, games and shared streaming of favorite movies. Supporting social sustainability – the health and safety of us and our communities.

Happy Sustainable Holidays

We hope that this blog offered you some interesting ideas, new tips and helpful resources to add reuse, repurpose and rethink opportunities to your holiday season. Stay tuned to ISULiveGreen on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more resources and ideas throughout the month of December, as we focus all month on different ways to ensure a lighter holiday footprint.

From the entire Live Green! Team, Happy Holidays!!

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