Reducing the Volume of Holiday Trash

Officials Provide Some Tips & Tricks

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Catherine Hurley is sustainability manager for the city of Evanston, Ill.

Angela Wallis is the city of Seattle's solid waste outreach coordinator.

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Posted: Wednesday, December 16, 2015 10:00 am

The holiday season is a busy time of year for solid waste and sustainability departments throughout the country. It’s generally accepted that the volume of household waste increases 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day in the United States.

In an effort to reduce their communities’ holiday waste, many cities are promoting reduction and recycling through seasonal programs, while others are working with their communication teams to encourage recycling, reducing and reusing this holiday season through existing sustainability programs.

In seasonally specific efforts, cities such as Evanston, Ill., are participating in partnerships to recycle holiday lights.

Evanston’s annual holiday light recycling program is done in conjunction with the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County and is supported by Elgin Recycling. Elgin Recycling is a family-owned business that processes metals, paper, electronics and plastic for communities in the Chicago area. Through the holiday light recycling program, Elgin Recycling recovers and recycles the copper wire inside the holiday lights. Participating cities receive a rebate check for the copper.

In February 2015 Elgin Recycling picked up 576 pounds of holiday lights at the Evanston Public Library and then paid the city .08 cents per pound, for a total of $46.08 for the copper recovered. In February 2014, Elgin Recycling picked up 422 pounds of holiday lights at that same location and paid .15 cents per pound for a total of $63.30.

This year’s holiday light recycling program started on Dec. 1 and will conclude on Jan. 31, 2016. Through this program, residents can drop off broken or old holiday string lighting and extension cords at three locations, said Evanston Sustainability Manager Catherine Hurley.

“More people are making the switch to LED lights or they have lights that aren’t working anymore,” she said, and this program is an “every little bit counts,” type of recycling program.

“People really like the program,” she said. “It’s seasonal and we try to make it as easy as possible.”

Hurley explained that the holiday lights program is two-fold.

“There is a bit of value in the lights that can be recovered and recycled,” Hurley said, and the program fits within an educational awareness campaign. “It’s the buying season. A lot of stuff is being created and exchanged and it’s a good time to remind people to recycle and repurpose.”

In Minnesota, there’s a statewide holiday light recycling program managed by the Recycling Association of Minnesota. Residents can drop off their unwanted light strings at more than 450 locations between now and the end of January.

Through the program, Recycle Your Holidays, the strands are dismantled by vocational center clients and properly recycled locally. More than 200 individuals with disabilities are employed through this unique program.

“Last year we recycled more than 104,000 pounds of holiday lights,” said Maggie Mattacola, executive director of operations at the Recycling Association of Minnesota in a Star Tribune article. “We’ve collected nearly 672,934 pounds since we started collecting them in 2009.”

For cities that don’t currently have a holiday light recycling program, Hurley offered this advice.

“I would recommend reaching out to a local recycling company to see if they would be interested in doing it,” she said. “We are lucky we have a local company in our area that does the holiday light recycling.”

Holiday treats also are a waste concern. Americans waste more than 30 percent of the food produced each year and that will be a major focus for sustainability efforts in 2016. The EPA and USDA recently issued a challenge to Americans to cut food waste in half by 2030.

In Seattle, residents have been prohibited from putting their food waste into the garbage since January. Its successful food composting program is part of the city’s long-term goal of recycling 70 percent of all its waste.

During the holidays, Seattle city officials are encouraging comprehensive meal planning to reduce holiday food waste.

“We are all making too much food. We can cook smarter and plan ahead,” said Solid Waste Outreach Coordinator Angela Wallis. “We recommend figuring out what can be frozen for when you want to eat it and what can be reconstituted into something new. Like taking leftover turkey and making it into turkey soup.”

A recent study found that about 1/3 of all food scraps thrown out by Seattle households could’ve been avoided, according to the city of Seattle.

The city also released these tips to “break the pattern of unwanted holiday leftovers.”

• Use smaller plates so your family and friends don’t leave a lot of uneaten food on the plate. Encourage people to go back for seconds and thirds until they’re full.

• Have your family and friends serve themselves so they can choose what and how much they want. They’ll be less likely to leave uneaten food on the plate.

• Send leftovers home with your guests. Have reusable storage containers ready at the end of the meal for guests to take leftovers.

• Create new, creative meals with your leftovers so you don’t get tired of eating the same thing.

• Freeze holiday leftovers so you can enjoy them later.

“We encourage people to buy local and fresh and plan so that it doesn't get lost in the fridge,” Wallis said. “And put whatever can’t be used in your food and yard waste cart for composting.”

And finally, the Christmas tree. There are more than 4,000 local Christmas tree recycling programs throughout the United States, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

The National Christmas Tree Association reminds consumers that Christmas trees are biodegradable “which means they can be easily reused or recycled for mulch and other purposes,” according to its website.

The website also contains links to notable Christmas tree recycling programs throughout the country. For cities without a Christmas tree recycling program, the association has a guide that explains how to start and promote a program.

In Seattle, residents who subscribe to curbside food and yard waste collection can put their trees and greens out on their regular collection day at no extra charge from Dec. 26 through Jan. 10.

Residents are required to cut their trees into sections of 6’ long or shorter, with branches trimmed to less than 4’ to fit into the collection trucks. All ornaments, lights and decorations must be removed.

Residents also have the option of dropping off their holiday trees and greens for free at Seattle Public Utilities’ South Recycling and Disposal station. The limit is three trees per vehicle and trees and wreaths are composted free of charge.

The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, the New York City Department of Sanitation, and GreeNYC call their annual holiday tree recycling program MulchFest.

This year’s MulchFest will take place on Jan. 9-10. The city encourages residents to either drop off their tree at a designated location starting Jan. 2 or they can bring it to MulchFest where they have the option of taking home their own bag of mulch to use in their backyard.

More than 30,000 trees were recycled last year through the event.

Being aware of what should – and should not – be recycled is also an important part of a solid waste manager’s December efforts.

Items that often can’t be recycled include: bows, ribbons, Styrofoam, packing peanuts, some kinds of wrapping paper and Christmas cards.

But just because a Christmas card can’t be recycled doesn’t mean it can’t be reused or repurposed, Hurley said, and “There’s a million and one ideas on Pinterest showing how to repurpose Christmas cards.”

Wrapping paper can be recycled with paper as long as it’s not shiny and doesn’t have glitter on it. It must be the basic matte paper, Wallis said.

“We want to recycle to give these things a new life and when we recycle the wrong way, we give up on that,” she said.

The city of Evanston is asking residents to reuse their wrapping materials during the holidays.

“We advocate for not tearing the wrapping paper to shreds when opening presents and instead carefully opening it, folding the wrapping paper and using it again,” Hurley said.

People are also encouraged to reuse gift bags or let the gift’s “container be the gift wrapping.”

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