Eco Etiquette: How To Have A Zero Waste Holiday Season

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

Any tips for how to reduce waste over the holidays? Despite my best eco efforts, I can't seem to put a stop to all the useless gifts, disposable decorations, piles of wrapping paper, etc.


If your garbage can is already feeling fuller than usual, you're not alone: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, American household waste increases an astounding 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, or an extra 1 million tons each year. That's an awful lot of trash for the sake of good tidings.

And that number may be higher this holiday season. Despite the down economy, Americans are still buying, buying, buying: This past Cyber Monday was the heaviest online shopping day of all time, with $1.25 billion spent.

While Ms. Eco Etiquette personally tries her best not to cave in to all the consumerism, admittedly even she has a hard time keeping her trash can lean and clean this time of year. (Maybe she's too polite to tell well-meaning gift-givers no?)

So this year, I'm calling for outside help. Meet Bea Johnson, author of The Zero Waste Home blog. She, her husband and two sons live in a lovely home in Marin County, Calif., like any other stylish American family, save for one caveat: The amount of trash they produce in a year can fit in a quart-size jar. (Don't believe me? Watch this video.)

That doesn't mean they're short on holiday fun, though, as I learned when I spoke with Bea before the Thanksgiving break. She says it's possible to not only trim the holiday waste, but eliminate it altogether. Read, then get inspired to start some Zero Waste traditions of your own.

Jennifer Grayson: First off, I have to tell you I'm a fan of your blog. My family and I recently had to move to smaller temporary housing, and we put a lot of our belongings in storage and sold the rest. We're kind of loving it. It's very freeing to not have so much stuff around.

Bea Johnson: You know, that's how Zero Waste started for us, because we also moved from a large home to a small one; in between we lived in an apartment, had to put our stuff in storage and loved living with less. Once we did find a house that was small, we were like, OK, we need to get rid of all that stuff we had.

JG: So speaking of all that stuff: How does the Zero Waste Home avoid it over the holidays? What are your plans this year?

BJ: This year, we're going to Hawaii for Christmas. The kids don't know about it yet, but it's going to be all paid for by renting out our house.

JG: Spoiler alert. I hope your kids aren't reading this.

BJ: It's really easy for us to rent out our home, since we live so simply -- it's 15 minutes to clear the house of our personal belongings. We each have a carry-on; we open our carry-on, the whole closet fits in the carry-on, and then we're out of there. That's how we paid for our trip to France this past summer.

JG: Wow. Most people wouldn't be able to do that because it would take weeks to pack everything up. So fabulous as that sounds, do your kids get actual presents, too? Or do you just give experiences?

BJ: This year, it's going to be all experiences because in Hawaii, we'll probably also get them a snorkeling or mountain bike excursion. Last year, I gave the kids a subscription to a monthly surprise family activity [SFA] where we do something fun we've never done before. They really enjoyed it -- it's the Christmas present that keeps on giving.

JG: It sounds like they've really embraced the Zero Waste lifestyle, even during the holidays.

BJ: At first, it was an adjustment. The holiday season has become a competition with the other kids. You know your kids are going to go back to school and they'll be comparing presents, so you think you need to have a well stocked tree. But our kids are fine with it; last year, they each asked for only one present, and we didn't ask them to do that.

JG: For us, the biggest challenge is our very generous extended family. We have a 15-month-old daughter, and the presents just keep coming.

BJ: This is where you have to be super proactive. Send an email ahead of time to let your loved ones know you're happy with what you have, you don't need anything else, and you would rather the grandparents take the money they'd spend on toys and come visit you so you can spend time together. Time, to me, is more valuable than anything.

JG: Dear Family, please stop showering our daughter with toys... Yikes, I don't know if I can do that.

BJ: It helps to give really concrete ideas, otherwise people get kind of lost because they're so used to buying stuff. We always say movie tickets or a bowling pass, or a gift certificate to a local ice cream shop.

JG: So for our little one, maybe toddler music classes or a gift certificate to a local indoor play space?

BJ: Exactly.

JG: OK, Bea -- you've inspired me. I'm off to write that email...

Want more tips for a Zero Waste holiday season? Part II of my interview with Bea Johnson covers edible holiday decorations, slashing your budget by nearly half and how to re-gift like a pro. Check back here next week!