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The holidays are here. And along with the celebrating and the gift-giving comes the garbage. At our house, squeals of excitement erupt as the kids race to open presents, leaving a sea of brightly colored wrapping paper and bows strewn across the floor. Then out comes the big plastic garbage bag, followed by the task of sorting out all of the recycling – who even knows whether that shiny gold wrapping paper is recyclable anyway? – along with the guilt of knowing that much of that well-intentioned generosity will spend the next few centuries entombed in a landfill.
“It is estimated that Americans throw away about 25% more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day –
approximately one million extra tons per week,” says Mary Allen, Recycling and Education Director at the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County (SWANCC). And to answer that perennial question: Yes, wrapping paper can be recycled as long as it is “just plain paper,” says Ms. Allen, with “no glitter, flocking, foil or three-dimensional items.” As for those plastic bows and curling ribbons? “Skip the ribbon, unless you have saved it to reuse,” she advises.
Here are some tips to guide Evanstonians through this holiday season with more joy and less waste.
Choose to reuse: Rather than flooding landfills and recycling facilities with more gift wrap, it is best to aim for the Reduce and Reuse principles of the three Rs before resorting to the last one, Recycle. “The most effective way to reduce waste is to not create it in the first place,” advises the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Reusable paper gift bags, as well as more durable cloth bags, gift boxes, tins and baskets, are widely available and easy to store for reuse each holiday season. Make the packaging a part of the present by wrapping gifts in a new kitchen towel or colorful scarf. Look online to learn how to sew your own fabric gift bags or tie them through furoshiki, the Japanese art of wrapping with cloth. Vogue Fabrics, 718 Main St., carries a wide selection of festive holiday prints – or check your attic or local thrift stores for linens to salvage. Hide gifts too large to wrap elsewhere in the house, with scavenger hunt clues under the tree.
Wrap with recyclable materials from home: put your old RoundTables and Tribunes to use as wrapping paper. Sunday comics and crossword puzzles are especially entertaining. Maps, posters, magazines and catalogs also make unique and artistic gift wrap. The unprinted side of brown paper grocery bags or packing paper looks lovely tied with jute twine, ornamented with sprigs of herbs, evergreens, grasses or leaves. Get creative and have fun! Kids can add their artistic flare with stamps from ink pads or from potato cubes or sponges dipped in paint.
Those who still prefer commercial gift wrap can look for those made of recycled paper, available online from Green Field Paper Company and FishLips. Buying recycled-content paper helps close the recycling loop by creating an end market for recycled materials.
And make the break from plastic tape and ribbons. Instead, tie gifts with reusable twine or cloth ribbons and seek out degradable paper tape. “Name tags can be made from previous years’ holiday cards,” Ms. Allen adds.
Recycle what packaging is recyclable: In addition to ungarnished wrapping paper, all of those cardboard boxes, paper tags and gray paperboard backings behind form-fitted plastic packaging are recyclable. But be sure to collapse all boxes with a box-cutter to maximize space in the recycling trucks, which reduces trips needed and saves fuel. And if you carry recyclables to your alley bin in a plastic bag, be sure to dump out the recyclables into the cart, minus the bag. Not only do plastic bags clog sorting equipment at the recycling facility, they also can contaminate bales of otherwise recyclable paper, causing the whole batch to be rejected by purchasers and dumped into landfills instead.
Some UPS stores welcome packaging materials for reuse, but it varies by location. Donate clean bubble wrap, packing paper and Styrofoam blocks to the UPS Store at 1751 Howard St., but take Styrofoam peanuts to 1555 Sherman Ave. Larger Styrofoam packaging (but not peanuts) are recycled at ABT, 1200 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Glenview, and at the Winnetka Public Works Facility, 1390 Willow Rd. in Winnetka. Plastic bubble-wrap and air packs can also be compressed and recycled along with plastic shopping bags, films, and bread and produce bags at all City and retail locations with plastic bag recycling bins, including all Evanston community centers and public library branches; the Morton Civic Center, Noyes Cultural Arts Center, and the Ecology Center; and Jewel-Osco and Target stores. These are then manufactured by the Trex Company into wood-alternative decking and railing.
Greet more sweetly: Avoid sending glossy photo cards, greeting cards with glitter, foil or lamination, or foil lined envelopes, all of which must be landfilled. Go electronic to prevent waste entirely, or make your own from the front pages of old holiday cards, or opt for recycled paper photo or greeting cards, both available online.
Give the gift of experience: No boxes or bubble wrap are required for gift certificates to a local restaurant, fitness center, yoga studio or pottery class; tickets to see a concert, movie or sports game; or museum passes or memberships – “something to do together, rather than gain another item,” says Ms. Allen. Also, “You don’t have to buy a gift to give a gift,” she points out. A meaningful option that is totally free is to give a gift of time: coupons offering to cook dinner, babysit, read a story, play a game, or go for a hike or a moonlit walk in the park. Homemade gifts and edibles are other “gifts from the heart.” And remember to share the love with those in need.
Shop local: Minimize shipping waste and carbon emissions and support Evanston’s tax revenue base by supporting locally owned stores, many of which are struggling to compete with online retailers. So gather your reusable shopping bags and head downtown! Most local retailers also sell gift certificates, including Bookends & Beginnings, as one Amazon alternative.
Reduce packaging on Amazon orders: When you do buy online from Amazon, you can ask customer service to note in your account to always use minimal, plastic-free packaging; check if their 100% recyclable “frustration-free packaging” is an option; and select “Delivery in fewest possible packages” at checkout. Opting for “Free no-rush shipping” allows them to pack all trucks to capacity, decreasing trips and fuel.
Recycle those lights: Holiday string lights on the blink? Don’t throw them away: the electrical cords release lead as they decompose. Instead, drop them off for recycling until Jan. 31 at the Evanston Ecology Center, 2024 McCormick Blvd.; the Levy Senior Center, 300 Dodge Ave., or the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave.
To tree or not to tree?: That is the question, and one that garners hot debate. Though an estimated 80% of American homes now have artificial trees, it is important to consider the life cycle of these tree-like objects, which are primarily manufactured overseas out of metals and a toxin-producing plastic called PVC that has been found to release lead dust into homes.
While a tree that can be reused year after year may seem less wasteful, plastic trees can take more than 400 years to decompose in a landfill, says the Arbor Day Foundation.
Meanwhile, real Christmas trees are biodegradable, and nationwide approximately 93% are recycled. (In Evanston, they are ground into mulch that is available in James Park for residents to use in their home landscapes.) And they are grown on farms – an estimated 350 million currently planted across the U.S. – where they are replanted every year, storing carbon and providing oxygen and habitat for birds and wildlife for seven or so years until harvest. Buying real Christmas trees is a way for city dwellers to help preserve green space, particularly near urban areas, where pressure from development is intense. “Tell the kids and grandkids to keep buying real trees so we keep the local economy strong and we don’t have to sell the land to the rich people from New York City to make condos,” one North Carolina tree farmer told The New York Times recently.
If you do buy a real tree, consider using it in your yard before you decide to throw it out. Any evergreen tree, even one that has been cut, provides important shelter for birds in winter. Prop the tree against a fence, or leave it in the stand in the middle of the yard. Hang feeders and suet from the branches and watch the birds feast. Or spread the boughs over perennials as a blanket against the cold, or to enrich and acidify the soil around blueberries and other acid-loving plants. Make sachets or potpourri out of the dried needles to enjoy the fragrance year-round. If you leave it out for the City to mulch, be sure to remove all decorations and place on your parkway for pickup in January. Wreaths and garlands are not accepted unless wires are removed, but these too can be placed in flowerbeds for mulch and winter greenery.
If you choose a plastic tree, look for polyethylene instead of PVC, and hang onto it for as many years as possible before you send it to the landfill.
To skip the whole debate, buy a live tree that you can plant afterward. Windy City Garden Center on Green Bay Road is selling potted Dwarf Alberta Spruce trees this holiday season, while the Home Depot on Oakton Street has Colorado Blue Spruce and baby Arborvitae.
Finally, eat, drink and be merry the old fashioned way, with real dishes and cutlery. Freeze those leftovers before they spoil, and remember that those paper napkins and food scraps are compostable. The gift of Collective Resource’s compost service (collectiveresource.us) is a great gift for those who are not already cutting household waste significantly by composting.
Less waste, more joy to the Earth.