Zero Waste Tips for the Holiday Season

Between shopping, decorating, traveling, and eating, maintaining Zero Waste habits during the holidays may seem impossible. It’s true: during this season, we may buy and use more than we do the rest of the year. However, we can all take steps to reduce the waste we send to the landfill over the holidays while still enjoying the treats and traditions we look forward to all year long. We built this list of tips to make less-wasteful holiday achievable and stress-free for Philadelphians.

Below, we’ve listed common holiday items that, ideally, should be recycled, composted, donated, or trashed. We’ve also listed ideas for Zero Waste shopping and gift giving. Use this list to guide what you buy and how it’s disposed. Find more Zero Waste tips that you can use year-round at CleanPHL.org/zerowastetips

Zero Waste Shopping and Gift Giving

How to Dispose of Holiday Waste

Single Stream Recycling
These items can go in your curbside recycling bin:
  • Paper and cardboard gift boxes and bags (remove any strings, tape, or non-paper-based decorations)
  • Cardboard shipping boxes (broken down)
  • Beverage bottles (glass or plastics #1, 2, and 5)
  • Wrapping paper (tape, bows, and other decorations removed)
    • NOTE: to be recycled, wrapping paper must pass the “scrunch test”: simple wrapping paper can be crumpled easily and recycled; stiffer paper that is coated in foil, glitter or other non-paper-based decorations cannot be recycled and should go in the trash.
Source Separated Recycling
These items can be recycled separately at special locations, but cannot go in your curbside recycling bin:
  • Plastic bags and wrappers can be recycled at most grocery stores
  • Holiday string lights can be recycled through seasonal collection programs
    • The Philadelphia Office of Sustainability will be collecting lights for recycling in the lobby of the Municipal Services Building at 1401 JFK Blvd. this season
    • Ask your local electronics store about opportunities for recycling
  • Batteries can be recycled at many hardware stores, department stores, and electronics stores. They can also be recycled at any of the City’s six Sanitation Convenience Centers.
Organic Waste
These items should be disposed of separately from other waste, whenever possible:
  • Christmas trees, free of all decorations, ornaments, and metal bases:
    • Trees recycled for free at any of the City’s six Sanitation Convenience Centers beginning on Monday, January 6 and ending Saturday, January 18. Trees can be dropped off at any time, Monday through Saturday between 8am and 6pm. Please bring ID or proof of current Philadelphia residency. Trees will not be collected curbside with regular City trash and recycling.
    • The Streets Department will be hosting Christmas tree drop off sites located throughout the city at 13 designated locations only on Saturday, January 11 and Saturday, January 18 from 9am to 3pm. To find the location nearest to you, click here.
    • Civic and neighborhood associations across the City will collect Christmas trees on specific days. To find a complete list of these events, click here.
  • Small pine limbs and needles are good winter mulch material for sensitive plants. Trees can also become backyard compost. Note that trees should not be burned in a fireplace; the sap from the tree creates foul odors and can coat the chimney with creosote which can cause a fire.
  • Food scraps can be composted using private composting services; check with your hauler to see what materials they accept.
  • If you do not have access to composting: food scraps can be disposed of using an in-sink garbage disposal. This is preferable to throwing scraps in the trash because scraps will be turned into energy at Philadelphia Water Department facilities. Do not put grease or fat in a garbage disposal.
Donation
Unused or unneeded items can be donated to local food pantries, second-hand stores, or neighbors:
  • Gifts that you won’t use and can’t be returned
  • Unopened packaged foods (i.e. canned goods, shelf-stable food items)
  • Seasonal decorations that are in good condition, but that you are replacing or not longer need (i.e. plastic trees, ornaments, table linens, serviceware)
  • Clothing, toys, books, electronics, and more that are in good condition, but that you no longer need
  • Check to see if your neighborhood has a “Buy Nothing” Facebook group, where neighbors give, borrow, or trade unneeded items
Trash
These items cannot be recycled. If they cannot be reused, they must go in the trash:
  • Broken decorations (i.e. shattered glass/plastic ornaments)
  • Plastic bags and film (such as shrink wrap or cellophane), if not recycling separately at designated collection sites (see Source Separated Recycling)
  • Ribbons, bows, tape, and wrapping paper that doesn’t pass the “scrunch test”
  • Fat or grease leftover from cooking (Keep in a container and allow to solidify before putting in the trash.)

Philadelphia Disposal, Recycling, and Donation Guide

See our Philadelphia Disposal, Recycling, and Donation Guide for a list of specific locations where you can recycle, compost, and donate items.

Philadelphia Streets Department’s Holiday Recycling Program

The Philadelphia Streets Department has created a comprehensive list of resources for recycling Christmas trees, as well as other common household recyclables. Take a minute before you bin it and check out their list of recycling DOs and DON’Ts this season here.

Philadelphia Streets Department’s Curbside Recycling Toolkit

See the Streets Department’s guide on How to Recycle in Philly for a complete list of what can and cannot go in your curbside recycling bin, materials collected at the City’s Sanitation Convenience Centers, and more.

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