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10 Tips for Hosting a Wonderful and Waste-Free Holiday

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By Clara Chaisson

For many, the holiday season is a time of plenty. But with all the feasting, the decorations and the gift swapping, it can be easy to go overboard. And for hosts, especially, there's a lot of pressure to make sure guests feel adequately stuffed and the house looks sufficiently bedecked.


While there's nothing wrong with splurging a little on special occasions, there are consequences to our habits of holiday excess. This Thanksgiving, for example, about 204 million pounds of turkey meat will go to waste. That's a staggering statistic, especially given the fact that one in every eight Americans struggles with hunger. Another alarming stat? Americans throw away 25 percent more garbage between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day than they do during other times of the year. That's four million additional tons.

Whether you're hosting Friendsgiving, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year's Eve or all of the above, follow these simple tips for a successful—and sustainable—holiday with your friends and loved ones.

1. Save the food! Trim your shopping list.

Up to 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. never gets eaten, which means the resources—like land, water and energy—used to produce it get squandered, too. Commit to wasting less during the holidays. When grocery shopping, take into account all those heavy communal meals that will leave less room for snacking, the weekday brunches, the plethora of cookies. Be mindful (and realistic) about how your diet may change as you spend more time out celebrating and socializing, and let your grocery shopping reflect that. And if you're hosting multiple meals, think about how you can make your purchases do double duty—potato latkes one night and a hash for breakfast later in the week, for example.

2. Save water by vegging out.

If you want to save water, you can have a big impact by serving your guests a vegetarian main course. It takes 1,850 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef and 519 gallons for a pound of chicken, but only 39 gallons to produce the same amount of veggies.

Cutting back on red meat specifically can have a significant impact on our climate. NRDC's Less Beef, Less Carbon report found that Americans shrank their diet-related carbon footprint by 10 percent over a decade, mostly by eating less beef.

3. Ace the leftovers.

Strive to become the Goldilocks of hosting by making just the right amount of food for your company. Using the interactive Guest-imator tool, part of NRDC's Save the Food initiative, you can plug in the number of guests you're expecting, what kind of eaters they are—"small," "average" or "big"—and whether you want leftovers. In response, you'll get a calculation telling you how much to prepare in order to fill everyone up and avoid trashing the excess.

4. Freeze your bounty.

The refrigerator's cooler cousin is a sustainable host's best friend. Whether you've got a plethora of ingredients that didn't make it into the soup pot or many cooked portions remaining, you can freeze it all for another time (but not indefinitely; quality does deteriorate over time). Pretty much anything can be frozen—fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables that have been pureed or blanched beforehand, and leftover ingredients like tomato paste, chicken broth, or coconut milk. (Use an ice cube tray to apportion those ingredients into just the right quantity for your next dish.) One way to stay on top of your freezer stash is to label leftovers with the date and keep that icebox organized, lest you lose things way in the back.

5. Have a Tupperware party.

Some leftovers are inevitable, and even desirable (pumpkin pie is part of a balanced breakfast, right?). But share the wealth so you don't have to stuff yourself with stuffing before it goes bad. Send guests home with a container or two filled with food for tomorrow's lunch or a midnight snack. There's no better party favor than food.

6. Forgo disposable dinnerware—and use the dishwasher.

Sure, paper plates and plastic cups make cleanup after a large party a breeze in the short term, but once all that waste heads to the landfill, it'll be dirtying the planet for centuries. Opt for real plates and cutlery. If you don't have enough sets to go around, see if you can borrow a few from a friend, or visit a secondhand store to stock up on spare flatware for guests. And throw it all in the dishwasher after the meal. As long as you run it only when it's full, the dishwasher also saves you water. It uses as little as three gallons per load, while hand-washing that same load can take up to 27 gallons.

7. Light the nights with LEDs.

We decorate for the holidays so lavishly that it's literally visible from space. Satellite measurements show that U.S. cities shine 20 percent to 50 percent brighter between Thanksgiving and New Year's. (Merry and bright, indeed.) So if strings of lights made from inefficient incandescent bulbs aren't already a distant holiday memory in your household, it may be time to start a new tradition. LEDs cost more up front, but as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes, you could be using the same string of lights 40 holiday seasons from now. Not only do they use significantly less energy, but LEDs are safer, too—the bulbs won't get hot against a flammable Christmas tree.

8. Choose a real tree.

Speaking of Christmas trees, a real tree, rather than an artificial one, is usually the greener way to go. But first, consider its source, just as you would for meat, dairy, and seafood. (If you absolutely must have a fake fir, choose one made without PVCs. And make sure you really like it—by some estimates, you'll need to hang on to it for more than 20 years for its environmental impact to dip below that of a real tree.) At the end of the season, see if your community schedules curbside recycling for Christmas trees or if there's a local mulching program.

Alternatively, you don't need to dispose of your holiday greenery at all if you skip the cut pine altogether and instead buy a plant or succulent you can decorate, which won't expire come January (and fits nicely inside apartments and smaller homes). If you live in a house with a suitable yard and the right climate conditions, you can also consider getting a potted tree that can be replanted and will last for years to come.

9. Deck the halls with homemade crafts.

As for other decorations, avoid buying more stuff if you can help it. Paper snowflakes, cranberry garlands, pinecones, handmade mkeka mats, and creative card displays all make for a festive atmosphere. And follow this sage advice from NRDC's senior resource specialist, Darby Hoover: "Instead of putting up a bunch of decorations that you're going to tear down or put in the garbage, save them."

10. Choose gifts that come in small (or recyclable) packages.

We all know the feeling of frantically searching for last-minute gifts for guests soon to be on your doorstep. If you're buying something just for the sake of buying something, consider going a different route. Can you make a donation to an organization your loved one cares about, gift them an online news subscription, or cosponsor a low-income family's holiday wish list? You'll be funding an important cause (or investing in a free press) and producing less waste at the same time.

When giving more traditional presents, opt for recyclable wrapping paper and cards. Most greeting cards are made of paper, but embellishments like glitter can put them on the naughty list. (For those who can't join you in person, e-cards are the greenest route to go.) When on the receiving end, hang on to gift bags and cookie tins and reuse them. And whether you're shopping online or around town, make a list of all your needs, then shop at as few stores or sites as possible. It'll help you reduce emissions and waste, since stocking up in one trip or bundling your e-buys cuts down on transportation costs and packaging material.

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