Don’t Take a Holiday from Recycling: A Guide for Eco-Friendly Tips This Gifting Season

Join the upcoming holiday webinar Celebrate Sustainably: Gifts and Glitz on December 12

What comes to your mind when you think of the holidays? Perhaps it’s family, friends, decorations, music, food and gifts. Unfortunately, what comes with many of our holiday traditions is a spike in waste. Whether it be shopping bags, packaging, gift wrap, or food scraps, Americans generate 25 percent more waste between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day than during the rest of the year. This equates to an extra one million tons of waste generation per week nationwide during the holidays.

An increase in online shopping this year will exponentially contribute to the waste stream; however, much of this waste can be recycled or reused.

Gifting and festivities can still be special and memorable while reducing waste and recycling right. Although this holiday season may look different and seem limited for most of us, the strategies highlighted below can be put to use now and for years to come.

Join Us for the Gifts and Glitz Webinar

Join I Love A Clean San Diego and the County of San Diego for tips and inspiration at the “Celebrate Sustainably: Gifts and Glitz” webinar on Saturday, December 12 from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Register here to attend the fun and informative event. I Love A Clean San Diego’s education team will bring creative ideas to reducing waste and recycling, while keeping the spirit of the season alive.

Gift Giving

When thinking about holiday gift shopping, consider the entire life cycle of your purchases. How long will the person receiving this gift actually use it? Will it be memorable and useful, or will they forget about it by next year? Gift giving can be a wonderful opportunity to express love and appreciation, but it can also slip into feeling like a mandatory practice (i.e. the “I don’t know what to get them, but I have to get them something” mentality). Here are some ideas for low-waste, mindful gift giving.

Take the Love Languages Quiz with your friends and family to determine how meaningful gifts actually are to each of you. Does a friend prefer gifting or serving others rather than being on the receiving end? Would your family member actually value quality time more than an item? Knowing this may change what you gift them.

Create a “Secret Santa” or “White Elephant” system with your family and friends. This way, everyone is included equally and each person is only responsible for one gift.

Shift the focus away from “stuff.” Check out this graphic on and this Zero Waste Guide to Holiday Gifts.

Here are some low-packaging gift ideas and technologies to consider.

  • Give away things you don’t need to someone who needs it. The new Good Use App, designed right here in San Diego, connects you and the thing you don’t need any more to others who can give it a second life. Sign up for the Good Use App here
  • Experiences: Memberships or subscriptions, tickets, classes, or pre-planned adventures and excursions
  • Time: Making a home-cooked meal, helping with car or yard maintenance, “get out of a chore” or “design your perfect day” passes for kids
  • Donations on their behalf to a cause or organization they’re passionate about
  • Second-hand items: The most sustainable item you can buy is the one that already exists Used items can still be high quality and in practically new condition. Aside from thrift stores, the Good Use App, Facebook Marketplace, Offerup, and Buy Nothing can be good online sources to check regularly
  • Zero waste tools: Help your loved one live more sustainably with items such as travel utensils, stainless steel straws, or cotton produce bags

Gift Wrapping

Many traditional gift-wrapping materials, such as ribbon, bows, and cellophane, are not recyclable in your blue bins.

Stick to these recyclable items when wrapping presents:

  • Paper wrap without metallic and glitter designs
  • Paper gift bags
  • Cardboard boxes
  • Paper cards and envelopes
  • Glass jars are great for DIY gifts

These materials cannot be recycled in your curbside bin so please consider avoiding or reusing them:

  • Metallic, glossy and glitter-covered wrapping paper
  • Ribbons, bows, and twine
  • Polystyrene packing peanuts
  • Cards on glossy photo paper
  • Plastic bags and film (return to participating stores for recycling)
  • Tissue paper

Reuse supplies you have on hand. This can include cardboard shipping boxes, tissue paper from another item, and paper bags from the store. There is no shame in saving a gift bag to re-gift; the person on the receiving end won’t know the difference.

If every American family wrapped just three presents in reused materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields.

There are so many ways to get creative with repurposing materials, so have fun with it. See this as an opportunity to customize the gift to the person. For example, check out this tutorial to learn how to make bows out of magazine pages. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, give the Furoshiki cloth-wrapping method a try.

Recycling and Proper Disposal

Keep these recycling tips and resources in mind.

Recycle Right

When sorting through and putting away decorations and gifts you’ve received, remember to dispose of items properly. Recycle only accepted materials in your curbside blue bin. In general, this includes paper, cardboard and cartons, plastic bottles and containers, glass bottles and jars and metal and aluminum cans and foil. For more information on what’s recyclable, visit the County of San Diego’s Recycling page and for holiday specific recycling questions, check out this holiday recycling resource.

Common holiday items that can be recycled include cardboard gift boxes, plastic bottles and containers, glass jars, and brown paper wrap. Remember to keep these items empty, dry, and loose.

Properly Dispose of Batteries and other Household Hazardous Waste

Separate out hazardous items such as batteries and lights. These CANNOT go into the trash or recycling bins. Check org for a comprehensive list of hazardous items and find drop-off locations in your area.

Recycle Your Christmas Tree

After the holidays, remember to recycle your fresh-cut tree and help close the loop, returning the tree to the earth as mulch. County of San Diego residents are encouraged to recycle their Christmas trees as soon as possible to reduce fire danger and minimize the amount of holiday waste sent to the landfill. In addition to dozens of community drop-off sites, many local waste haulers offer curbside tree and wreath pick-up. These trees and wreaths are ground into mulch, which is then used to improve soil health. Visit org or call 1-811-R-1-EARTH for more information and a complete list of drop-off locations.

Incorporating zero waste practices into your holiday planning may take some time and thought at first, but once habits are implemented, they can actually reduce stress, save money, and allow you to focus on what’s most important about the holiday season.

About I Love A Clean San Diego

Founded in 1954, I Love A Clean San Diego is an environmental nonprofit supporting residents and businesses of San Diego County through youth and adult education, and local action through impactful volunteer events and workshops. As San Diego’s most influential advocate for sustainability, I Love A Clean San Diego’s programs are an environmental catalyst, awakening passion and inspiring action to empower everyone to be leaders in conservation and waste-free living. Our community is passion in action to maintain and improve the health of the home we love. For more information, to volunteer or donate, visit or call (619) 291-0103. Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and