This Is How Much Waste a Typical Person Generates Over the Holidays

"Here's what you should know about holiday wrapping paper waste, food waste, and more."

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Unfortunately, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, the holidays can also be incredibly wasteful. Think wrapping paper, returns, food waste, decorations… the list goes on.

How much waste do we actually generate while celebrating? Americans toss out 25% more trash during the holidays than any other time of year. That includes food waste from making holiday recipes, wrapping paper, shopping bags, bows and ribbons, and more.

The average American produces 5 pounds of trash per day, or 35 pounds each week. During the holidays, that rises to 6.25 pounds per person per day, or 43.75 pounds each week. With a population of 330 million people, that means 2,887,500,000 more pounds of garbage are generated per week during the holidays relative to the rest of the year.

holiday waste facts wrapping paper decor lights food waste

It’s crazy, we know. The good news is there are plenty of ways you can make your holiday season more low-waste, starting with the simple solutions below.

The Biggest Sources of Holiday Waste

1. Wrapping Paper

Americans love wrapping paper. Unfortunately, many people don’t think about the pounds of wrapping paper waste being sent to the landfill after unwrapping those gifts.

Wrapping paper isn’t generally recyclable, as most utilize glitter or metallic materials. But even the types that are recyclable (those that pass the scrunch test) often get tossed in the trash.

The U.S. is estimated to produce 4.6 million pounds of wrapping paper every year, and half of that—approximately 2.3 million pounds—winds up in landfills. The amount of wrapping paper used increases over the holidays, so it’s no surprise that wrapping paper, gift wrap, and shopping bag waste make up a large portion of the waste generated over the holidays.

Ribbons and bows are a problem, too: If every family reused two feet of ribbon, it would save enough to tie a bow around the planet.

What Can You Do About It?

If you’re looking to wrap your gifts with eco-friendly wrapping paper options, you’re in luck—there are plenty to choose from.

Reuse old gift wrap, or get creative and use newspapers, maps, pages from a magazine, or any other paper you can upcycle. For a reusable cloth option you can use year after year, try furoshiki. Other eco-friendly gift wrapping alternatives include Mason jars and reusable tote bags, both of which incorporate a bonus item for the recipient.

You can also cut down on the amount of wrapping paper you’re using by giving your friends and family experience gifts. Consider memberships, park passes, tickets, and gift certificates. Aside from cutting down on waste, giving an experience can also be more memorable and personalized than store-bought options.

2. Returns

holiday waste

The National Retail Foundation monitors the volume of returns throughout the year, with an annual forecast for each holiday season. The organization reported that retailers estimated “13.3 percent of merchandise sold during the 2020 holiday season to be returned.” From a cost perspective, that amounted to $101 billion, which made up nearly 25% of the $428 billion of returned merchandise handled by retailers in 2020.

In January 2021, it was estimated that 8.75 million packages were returned within the span of a few days. Many don’t make it back into the market—they’re sent to landfills. In fact, returns account for five billion pounds of waste sent to landfills and 15 million tons of carbon emissions every year in the U.S.

What Can You Do About It?

These statistics illustrate the importance of well-researched, thoughtful shopping both during and outside of the holidays. Consider how your gift idea would be interpreted by your friend or loved one before purchasing: Is it right up their alley, a tasteful curveball, or a total wildcard? If you’re not sure what they would like, a gift card is probably a better option.

If you’re wanting to avoid a gift return yourself, consider regifting the item or swapping gifts with someone else after the event in order to reduce holiday waste.

3. Food Waste

It’s estimated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that between 30 and 40% of the food supply goes to waste each year in the U.S., with the heaviest losses occurring during the holiday season. From a volume perspective, over 70 billion pounds of food waste reaches U.S. landfills each year.

Whether you’re hosting a holiday party or Christmas Eve celebration, your guests are bound to be hungry. When you’re planning the Christmas dinner menu, keep in mind that food waste has two main streams: preparation and post-meal. 

With more mouths to feed, and eyes bigger than our stomachs, over-preparation can seem inevitable. Anything that doesn’t get eaten as leftovers within a day or two goes in the trash.

What Can You Do About It?

The first thing you can do to cut back on food waste is send out a virtual invite so you know exactly how many people will be attending your holiday feast. Once you know the number of guests, you can determine how much of each dish will be needed to feed every mouth. You can use Natural Resources Defense Council’s Guestimator tool to help you determine how much of each ingredient to buy. 

What if there are still leftovers? Easy. Have containers on hand for guests to stock up on their favorite dishes before leaving. Also, reserve your first trip to the grocery store post-holiday for grabbing a few ingredients needed to upcycle any leftovers you still need to use up. Think turning ham into a soup, casserole, or even an omelet.

4. Greeting Cards

holiday waste

Greeting cards are a popular way to spread holiday cheer to long-distance friends and family. During the COVID-19 pandemic, mailing cards became even more mainstream. Between March and December 2020, Etsy reported a “74% increase in searches for greeting cards, a 101% increase in searches for holiday cards, and a 46% increase in searches for personalized or custom cards” on its platform compared to years past.

How does this volume of mail measure out environmentally? On average, the U.S. mails 1.3 billion holiday cards per year, which is the amount of CO2 emissions as charging 22 billion smartphones or 22,000 homes’ energy use for one year.

What Can You Do About It?

Sending an e-card is a great way to minimize the physical waste generated by mailing holiday cards. When you do opt for physical greeting cards, look for options that have the environment in mind.

Certifications like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) are a signal to consumers that the card prioritizes sustainably-sourced materials in its design. Other certifications and product specifications include statements about the recyclability of the card and its components.

5. Decorations

Holiday decor includes everything from Christmas tree ornaments to dinner dishes. Even though most of these purchases can be saved and used again the following year, it’s tempting to start fresh every year to give your annual gathering a new look.

What Can You Do About It?

This “decoration turnover” is something consumers can take steps to minimize. One of the best things you can do to reduce waste is to only buy what you know you’ll love for years to come. Avoid trendy holiday pieces, and stick with high-quality, traditional items meant to last a lifetime.

Instead of buying brand-new decor at a chain store, you can also opt for handmade items from local artisans or vintage secondhand options. Thrift shops are filled with holiday treasures this time of year.

Want to get crafty? DIY Christmas decor is another great option, as you can upcycle items you already have at home. Think beaded candy canes, festive candlesticks, and stockings made from fabric scraps.

6. Holiday Lights

Holiday lights and displays are a marvel to look at, and their energy impact is just as significant. A past calculation found they consume enough energy to power 400,000 homes for a year. If you decide to decorate with holiday lights this season, opt for a more sustainable option.

What Can You Do About It?

LED holiday lights are a much more eco-friendly option than standard holiday lights. The simple switch uses 80% less energy than traditional holiday lights. LED lighting not only lowers the electricity bill and generates less heat, but can also last up to 25 times longer than traditional lighting.


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Here's what you should know about holiday wrapping paper waste, food waste, and more.

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