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Fourth of July

How to Recycle or Reuse Holiday Decorations

Candles, greenery, table decorations . . . they?re so pretty. Too bad they all turn into trash. Here?s how to put them to good use instead.

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As much as we love the celebrations and decorations of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s, they produce a season of excess. During the 5 weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, the nation’s trash increases by astronomical levels—some say millions of tons—a great deal of which could be reused or recycled. Before you buy, consider whether a product can have a second life. “Thinking green” during the holidays means getting into the spirit of giving back to the planet.

Autumn Treats for Wildlife
“Look for pumpkins, ornamental corn and gourds that don’t have waxes or other polishes on them,” says Sally Conyne, director of citizen science at the National Audubon Society office in Ivyland, Pennsylvania. Then, when they’ve done their decorative jobs, don’t drop them in the garbage. Add them to your compost pile, if you have one, or put them outside as food for wildlife. “Indian corn can be left on the cob for the birds to peck. The seeds in pumpkins and gourds are treats for birds, squirrels, chipmunks and other wildlife, so cut them open, and put them on the ground in an out-of-the-way place; the skin will mix in with the earth.” (Discard any melted candle stubs from jack-o-lanterns first.)

Guilt-free Disposables
You’re having a full house for Thanks-giving and don’t have remotely enough dishes and pots? Here are guilt-free ways to use paper plates, foil pans and other handy disposable items.

Look for recycled paper goods—they’re rarely coated with plastics so they can usually be recycled again. Avoid Styrofoam products, which are the hardest to recycle.

If you use paper or plastic cups, let the kids make name tags for them so people don’t lose track of theirs and end up constantly grabbing a new one.

Reuse and/or recycle even small aluminum foil pans. 

Have recycling bins for drink bottles and cans readily available; guests will use them if they can find them easily. Don’t fall into the “just this once won’t matter” syndrome: One aluminum can may take 80–100 years to break down in a landfill.

Recycling it provides enough electricity to power a television for 3 hours, explains Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition. Plastic bottles can take 700 years to break down, but they can be recycled into everything from more bottles to flooring, sleeping bags, even clothing.

If you don’t compost, see if your town does. “Many cities offer year-round programs called ‘foodwaste’ or ‘greenwaste,’ where compostable materials are either picked up with
the garbage each week, or they can be dropped off at a central location,” says Krebs. San Francisco’s Environment Department has one of the country’s most comprehensive foodwaste composting programs and runs a terrific Web site with how-to information:

It IS Easy Being Green
Which is environmentally better: buying a live Christmas tree each year or buying an artificial tree that you use over and over again? 

Surprisingly, environmental experts say a live tree is better. “A real tree is a renewable resource,” explains Anne Reichman, director of Earth 911, a national environmental program and hotline. “It’s farmed and harvested just like any other crop and then, ideally, put back into the earth through recycling and composting. An artificial tree can’t be recycled, and after a few years, it usually ends up in a landfill.”

Currently there are more than 4,000 tree recycling programs in the United States, according to Earth 911. And they’re amazingly effective. Of the more than 23 million Christmas trees bought in the United States in 2003, about 93 percent wound up being recycled, according to the
National Christmas Tree Association.

Some communities ask you to drop off your tree at a central location; others do pickups. Most recycled trees are cut up and used as mulch or compost for community landscaping projects. Some are placed on beaches to stop erosion or put in fish ponds to encourage animal habitats.

To be sure that your tree can be recycled, remove everything—ornaments, garland, tinsel. Also, avoid buying trees that are “flocked” (sprayed with white paint); many recycling programs won’t accept them because the paints can be hard to break down. To check on local tree recycling, call your department of parks or environmental services, or log on to, which lists tree-recycling services by zip code.

“If you don’t have access to a tree recycling program, consider simply putting the tree in a corner of the yard for the winter,” says Conyne. “The branches provide hiding places and protection from wind and predators for rabbits, birds and other small wildlife. By spring, the tree will have dried out, which makes it much lighter and easier to break up for kindling or mulch.”

Decorate the Back Yard
You can just skip all of the above, and decorate a tree outside for wildlife—a great project for kids. Use twine and tapestry needles to string together garlands of dried orange sections and apples, cranberries or grapes. Roll pine cones in peanut butter and then in birdseed. Cut out bread with holiday cookie cutters, let it get slightly stale, then attach it to branches of the tree. For more easy tips, log on to the Web site of the National Wildlife Federation:

Think Outside the Gift Box
Okay, so now you’ve got lots of great ideas for Earth-friendly Christmas trees, but what about all of the other stuff that accumulates throughout the holidays, including wrapping paper, wreaths, garlands and other household decorations? Close that trash can lid! There are plenty of other solutions.

Don’t wrap gifts for pets! In a holiday survey, 80 percent
of people said they bought Christmas gifts for their pets—and 67 percent said they wrapped them, according to the poll, which was done by CNN in December 2001. 

Tuck leftover sprigs of mistletoe into a tree for the birds to eat. While the berries are
poisonous for humans, dogs and cats, they are perfectly safe for birds, says the National
Audubon Society’s Conyne.

Remove all ornaments and wires from wreaths and garlands, and compost the greenery or pile it up in the woods to make a small-animal shelter.

Be inventive when wrapping gifts: Recycle comics, old posters, leftover wallpaper, maps you no longer use, even paper bags decorated with ink stamps, stickers or colored markers.

Use recyclable craft paper to make Chanukah decorations for children.

A growing number of malls offer “boxing days” shortly after the holidays; you can bring in your corrugated cardboard boxes for recycling. Check local malls. 

If you’re mailing gifts, pack them in old newspapers or stuff grocery store plastic bags in the gaps to prevent crushing.

If you receive a gift cushioned in Styrofoam peanuts or plastic packing materials, call your local UPS or Mailboxes, Etc. store. Some branches will accept these materials and reuse/recycle them.

Some of the most welcome Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanzaa gifts require little or no wrapping—gift certificates, of course, but also local museum memberships, theater tickets and donations in the recipients’ names to their favorite charity.

Decorate Kwanzaa dinner tables with festive, reusable, brightly printed fabric.

Recycle greeting cards by cutting out the pictures and using them as gift tags next year.