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Hannah Jones

How-to wrap up the festivities sustainably

Christmas trees can be turned into mulch. (Photo by sajephotography, Canva.)

By Hannah E. Jones

From Thanksgiving to the New Year, Americans throw away about 25 percent more trash than any other time of year, according to the EPA. But the holiday season doesn’t have to be wasteful. For folks looking to sustainably close out the festivities, Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM) Founder and Executive Director Peggy Ratcliffe has a few recommendations. 

CHaRM is a permanent drop-off facility in Peoplestown, managed by nonprofit Live Thrive, that diverts household hazardous waste and other difficult-to-recycle items from metro’s landfills and water systems. To help local residents dispose of unwanted items in an eco-friendly manner, the nonprofit is hosting a holiday cleanup event from now until Jan. 21. 

Ratcliffe also has some tips for sifting through and managing holiday waste: 

  • Christmas trees. Rather than bagging your old tree and leaving it on the curb, Ratcliffe encourages folks to use a local recycling service that converts the evergreens into mulch. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 25 to 30 million Christmas trees are sold each year nationwide, and CHaRM has partnered with the Keep Georgia Beautiful Foundation for its Bring One for the Chipper program. Through this initiative, folks can visit the recycling center to turn their tree into mulch. If you’re not able to use a recycling service, Ratcliffe recommends putting the tree into a body of water. “It’s a natural fish habitat,” she said. “There’s a way to [have a] full circle with these trees.”
  • String lights. Broken indoor and outdoor lights are recyclable, but you can also purchase bulb replacements to repair ones that have gone out. If the lights still work but you’re looking to get rid of them, Ratcliffe suggests going to a local secondhand store.
  • Gift wrap materials. When it comes to sustainably disposing of packaging, the first step is to find the materials that can be salvaged and reused. “If you can save it, do,” Ratcliffe said. “Gift bags, tissue paper, all of those things — save them for the next year.” These efforts could make a big dent in the country’s holiday waste. In fact, if each family in America wrapped three presents in reused materials, the saved paper would span roughly 45,000 football fields.

If you don’t have the space or desire to hang onto the materials for the year, local thrift stores will welcome these items. In addition, some wrapping materials can be recycled or even composted. For example, wrapping paper that is 100 percent paper can be recycled, while metallic or glitter paper can only go to the landfill.

A guide for managing gift wrap materials. (Courtesy of CHaRM.)

  • Clothing. New clothes are popular gifts but there’s also a large margin for error — like giving someone the wrong size or picking an unflattering color. Rather than collecting dust in your closet, consider donating the new or gently used clothes to a local homeless shelter or thrift store. Organizations like CHaRM will also take unwearable clothing and turn the materials into new items like rags, dog beds and insulation. 

If the holiday waste felt overwhelming this year, Ratcliffe has additional suggestions for managing it. Next gift-giving season, Ratcliffe encourages folks to take inventory of their belongings and find a second life for unused goods. Also, before purchasing gifts, consider the item’s full lifespan rather than getting caught in the rush of seasonal consumerism.

“[Think about] the bigger picture rather than instant gratification,” Ratcliffe said. “[Also consider] ‘What do I have that someone else can use?’ There is always someone else that can use what you have.”

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Hannah E. Jones

Hannah Jones is an Atlanta native and Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for two newspapers. Hannah managed the Arts and Living section of The Signal, Georgia State’s independent award-winning newspaper. She has a passion for environmental issues, urban life and telling a good story. Hannah can be reached at hannah@saportareport.com.

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