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Issues of the Environment: Reducing and managing holiday waste in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County

Lydia McMullen-Laird and all of the waste she generated in 2018.
Samuel McMullen
Lydia McMullen-Laird and all of the waste she generated in 2018.


  • A widely cited statistic from the US EPA in 2016 claims that Americans throw away 25% more household garbage between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Between then and 2023, the popularity of online shopping (and packaging waste that comes with it) guarantees even more waste during the holidays now.
  • Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County are urging residents to think about the environmental costs of what they purchase and making shopping decisions that are mindful of a circular economy. When buying gifts, ask yourself, “Where will this gift likely end up? Does it contribute to environmental pollution? Can it be reused or recycled?”
  • To that end, some tips for reducing holiday waste include: 

    • Shop locally for quality items, instead of numerous knick-knacks or dollar-store type items that lose relevance quickly. A study by Ann Arbor’s Ecology Center in 2021 found that of the 226 consumer and food products tested at Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Dollar General, 99 Cents Only, and Five Below, 53% of the products screened in 2021 contained one or more chemicals of concern. 
    • Gift something you already own. Second-hand gifts can be very meaningful if you give someone something of yours that you know they love or that has a sentimental meaning for both of you. In addition, quality like-new items are easily found in local thrift stores like the Kiwanis thrift sale, the Sharehouse, Ann Arbor PTO thrift shop, the Salvation Army store, and more in Ann Arbor. In Ypsilanti, try the Thrift Depot and Value World.
    • Give to a charity or organization that is meaningful to someone instead of a wrapped gift or give a gift of experience such as concert tickets. 
    • Be extra mindful of online purchases. A higher percentage of online purchases are ultimately returned when compared with products purchased at brick-and-mortar stores. According to the National Retail Foundation, Americans returned $816 billion in products in 2022. The shipping process for returns is responsible for about 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, according to analysis by the Environmental Capital Group and shipping logistics company Optoro in 2020. And, as much as 80% of returned items end up in a landfill, instead of being resold. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.a2gov.org/departments/trash-recycling/Pages/Christmas-Tree-Disposal-.aspx
  • Gifts aren’t the only pitfalls when thinking about reducing holiday waste. In the great “artificial vs. real Christmas tree” debate, fresh trees win if you recycle them (there are multiple convenient location to drop them off in Washtenaw County from Dec. 12 - Jan. 16). However, if you care for your artificial tree and use it for decades, that can be a more sustainable choice.
  • While food waste occurs year-round, it can be tempting to go overboard during the holiday season, but planning well and freezing leftovers can limit waste. Gift wrapping also ends up in the landfill if the paper is coated with plastic or glitter. 
  • Still, most of us will end up with extra waste at the end of the year. Fortunately, for a $3 fee, residents of Washtenaw County can use the drop-off station recyclable items, including packing peanuts, bubble wrap, cooking oil, cardboard, non-coated paper, batteries, and up to 3 bags of textiles.  (Source: https://www.recycleannarbor.org/divisions/drop-off-station)


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And while Hanukkah has concluded, Christmas is just five days away and Kwanzaa begins in six. It is the holiday season. We gather family and friends. We feast. And we share gifts. And we create literally tons of waste. I'm David Fair, and welcome to Issues of the Environment. There's still time to make a difference when it comes to our impact. But adopting some holiday tips and behavioral changes and year-round choices, that's where we can really make a difference. So, what is our impact? And what is the guidance on best practices? Well, we knew just the person to ask. Lydia McMullen-Laird, who's co-founder of Ann Arbor-based zerowaste.org. Happy holidays to you! And thanks for the time today.

Lydia McMullen-Laird: Thank you so much, Dave.

David Fair: I read a statistic from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the amount of trash and garbage we generate just between Thanksgiving and New Year is about 25% more than we do any time the rest of the year. Do you see that play out locally in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County?

Lydia McMullen-Laird: Absolutely. I think that's something we see all across the country, and Ann Arbor is not excluded from that. And the sad thing about that, Dave, is that a lot of that waste comes from things that are purchased that are never even used, not even once or sometimes twice, sometimes never at all, because we have a sort of tradition of buying things for each other in the holidays, which is a lovely sentiment. But, sometimes, those are things that we just don't need.

David Fair: Well, how much of our waste can be attributed to the insane amount of packaging that manufacturers do use to shelve the products in stores and protected in shipping, whether we end up returning it unused or not?

Lydia McMullen-Laird: You know, that's a really interesting question because when we have something and we throw away the packaging or even the product, we see that trash in our trash can and think about that impact. But really, more than 90% of any product's environmental impact happens before you even buy it. So, a lot of the climate impacts and the waste impacts as well happen upstream. So, think about the amount of energy and resources it takes to make something, all the shipping and all the packaging that happens throughout that production cycle is really where a lot of the impact is happening. So, the answer really is that the most environmentally friendly product is the one that just never gets made and focusing a lot more on reducing, reusing, refusing, rather than trying to figure out what to do with the trash of a product once you have it.

David Fair: Are we environmentally worse off since the advent of online shopping in the Amazon era we currently live in?

Lydia McMullen-Laird: Absolutely. I mean, there's no question about it that waste has gone up a lot because of how convenient that is. And listen. Like, I love the convenience of buying something online just as much as the next person. But the great news is that you can buy a lot of used things online nowadays. There's so many great platforms and, of course, there's also local options for buying things that you don't have to get shipped to you and that aren't such a big part of that kind of easily accessible and fast Amazon culture.

David Fair: So, do you end up buying a lot of used products locally or make your own gifts and presents to pass along? What is the idea behind reusing in order to reduce waste during the holiday season?

Lydia McMullen-Laird: I mean, that's the great thing about Ann Arbor is Ann Arbor has such a strong culture of reuse. There are so many amazing thrift shops. But not only that, there's a really strong culture of sharing things with other people. So, for example, there's a group on Facebook buying those things where you can just post anything that you're not using anymore and somebody else can have that. And that's a great way to get new things, not just for the holidays, but just generally for when you need something. And the other option that you can use in Ann Arbor or anywhere is just buying things used online, either in Facebook Marketplace or even on eBay, places like that. I myself will do that and just ask the shipper to please put it in a reuse package. But gifts don't also have to be things all the time. You know, buying experiences for people, doing things together, that creates amazing memories and can give you something that's a really unique gift or even just getting gift cards to local businesses. Ann Arbor has so many amazing businesses to support that there really are endless options for ways to give gifts and show that love to people without having the huge environment and mental impact that we see every single year around the holidays.

David Fair: We're talking with zerowaste.org co-founder Lydia McMullen-Laird on WEMU's Issues of the environment. And, Lydia, where do you land on the real versus artificial Christmas tree debate?

Lydia McMullen-Laird: Honestly, in my family, we've had a Christmas tree that is potted that we just reuse every single year. And I feel like that's an option.

David Fair: I had never considered that.

Lydia McMullen-Laird: And I think, you know, you see a lot of creative things online or people using all kinds of things as trees, both real and artificial. Christmas trees have issues with them. The real ones, obviously, if you have to grow it and then get rid of it, there's a lot of energy that goes into that. I've seen things about people who like rent Christmas trees and pots, that kind of thing. That's a really nice option. But just like using any kind of plant you already have might be nice because the plastic one that you reuse every year, that's still had to be produced and, at some point, is going in the trash, whether it's in ten years or next year, it's not going to be immune to that. So, I'm really a proponent of just being very creative.

David Fair: Well, my favorite part of any holiday gathering of friends and family outside of their company, of course, is the food. I love holiday meals, particularly those prepared by someone else. But I also know that even if everyone takes home some leftovers, there's always food waste. Environmentally speaking, how significant an issue is holiday food waste?

Lydia McMullen-Laird: I mean, just like we buy a lot more things and have a lot more gifts and consumption around the holidays, the same thing goes with food. We just have so much of it, and we see the food waste going up during the holidays. And that's a really sad thing that we preferably wouldn't want to be part of it. So, there's lots of strategies you can use that decrease that obviously from starting with your shopping trip, trying to make that zero waste, trying to decrease the packaging, but also really thinking through how much you need, how many quantities, making things that are easily stored, easily given away. I think it's great when people take home leftovers and that kind of thing, but also freezing things, keeping them for later, just really planning ahead. And then, if inevitably something does go bad, Ann Arbor has a great composting system. So, that's much, much better than throwing it in the trash because all that food waste in landfills creates a lot of methane. And that's something we really want to try to avoid.

David Fair: Once again, you're listening to 89 one WEMU, and our Issues of the Environment conversation on reducing holiday waste continues with zerowaste.org co-founder Lydia McMullen-Laird. And you've touched on it in terms of deliveries and the trips to the stores, but transportation really is a huge issue--all those packages delivered and shipped around the country in trucks, trains and planes, a lot of carbon emission on our trips to the stores. What are some other tips to reduce our footprint and still enjoy the holiday to want to get to where we want to go?

Lydia McMullen-Laird: I mean, really, the answer is to support your local businesses and support the reuse economy where you live. So, Ann Arbor is really great, and Washtenaw County has a lot of amazing options. We have a circular economy map at zerowaste.org that you can check out that has tons of shops that need your support and also are going to reduce that footprint. Bringing your own container comes to mind. There's just a lot of different places where you can go and support the local economy and also feel really good about your holiday gifts.

David Fair: Well, the big takeaway from our conversation to me, to this point, seems that solutions really come in the forethought, the planning, having stewardship at the fore of how we plan to buy, deliver and share gifts, foods, trees, all of that. It's a behavioral change. What are the best practices in changing our individual and public mindset when it comes to creating these experiences and holidays?

Lydia McMullen-Laird: I mean, I think I would first of all say that it's a process. So, you know, a lot of people who get interested in being zero waste or being more environmentally friendly, it can feel really overwhelming because, right now, our society is not built that way. It's not built for zero waste, and it's not necessarily built for all that reduction. So, it's a process that you have to be patient with yourself, and it takes some time to learn it, but it's also a super rewarding process. And this can be your start. The holiday season can be that push to get you started in terms of reducing waste and thinking about that kind of thing. But New Year's is also a really great time to make a commitment. We have a New Year's pledge every year at zerowaste.org, where you get 30 days of tips every day through January that can help you little by little and chip away at the types of behavior change you need to have sustained change throughout the year. And then, by the time you get to the next holiday season, you'll have all kinds of ideas. But really, if there's just one thing I want people to take away from this is that buying things that are already used, reusing, sharing, repairing, that's really where it's at. Because when you buy new things, that's when you create the most environmental impact of anything. So, if there's any switch you make, if you just make one switch this holiday season or into the new year, it's really that focus on not buying new things.

David Fair: Lydia, I really appreciate your insights and your guidance. And thanks for the time and enjoy the rest of the holiday season.

Lydia McMullen-Laird: Absolutely! Happy holidays, Dave!

David Fair: That is Lydia McMullen-Laird, co-founder of Ann Arbor-based zerowaste.org. She's been our guest on Issues of the Environment. For more information on waste reducing tips, pay a visit to our website when you get a chance. It's wemu.org. And of course Lydia's website--well, it's right in the title of the organization: zerowaste.org. Issues in the Environment--it's produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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