How to clean up after the holidays

December 18, 2009

recycle Christmas
(Photo: Influx Productions / Getty Images)

The gifts are unwrapped, the guests are gone, and your house is littered with tinsel, paper, and empty boxes. Not to mention, there's a big tree sitting in the living room. What's the best way to dispose of all this junk, preferably without digging a new landfill in town?

With just a little bit of sorting, you can clear out the house for the New Year. Here's how:

Recycle the Christmas tree

If, like 30 to 35 million American households, you bought a freshly cut, real tree for the holiday, you can easily recycle this renewable resource.

Go to Earth 911, type in "Christmas tree," and then enter your ZIP code to find one of the 4,000 recycling programs around the U.S. Many communities have curbside pick-up for trees after Christmas, while other towns have drop-off locations.

Before you recycle the tree, make sure to prepare it correctly:

  • Remove lights and decorations, including all strands of tinsel.
  • Take the tree out of the stand.
  • Be sure there is no metal attached to the tree.
  • Don't wrap the tree in a bag for pick-up unless instructed to do so.
  • Check to see what size trees are accepted; if necessary, cut the tree in pieces.

Flocked trees usually can't be recycled and must be put into the garbage. "Living" trees (with root balls) shouldn't be recycled; they should be planted as soon as possible after the holiday.

Also, artificial trees can't be recycled. If you need to get rid of an artificial tree, try to donate it to charity or give it away on Craigslist or Freecycle. Otherwise, it will sit in the landfill forever.

Recycled trees are used throughout the country as mulch in public gardens. Some communities offer this mulch back to individuals for free. Christmas trees have also been used to help rebuild dunes in Gulf Shores, Alabama, following Hurricane Ivan. Nearly 1.5 million Christmas trees were recycled into waterway conservation projects in Louisiana.

Recycle the gift wrap

First step is to sort: Remove ribbons and bows, tear off remaining bits of tape, and separate out any metallic or glitter-encrusted papers. None of that stuff is recyclable, although some of it may be reusable (especially ribbons!).

Now, can you recycle the paper that's left? This will depend on where you live. Look for the website of your local waste management company, because that's who will decide what to take. Plain wrapping papers can be added to mixed-paper recycling in some communities.

Next year, try using less wrapping paper. You'll save money and have more fun being creative with fabric wraps, reusable bags, and recycled wrappings.

Recycle the boxes and packing material

Cardboard and paperboard boxes are easy to break down and recycle in most curbside programs. If you have a lot of material, you might need to bundle the cardboard in small packets with string.

If you have space, you might want to keep a few boxes around to give next year's gifts in. Or give them away -- people can always use large shipping boxes as moving boxes.

Bubble wrap and packing peanuts can be reused. If not by you, then by someone searching Craigslist or Freecycle. Mailing centers such as The UPS Store and Mail Boxes Etc. will also accept them.

Wondering what to do with other packaging stuff? Find out what else can be recycled and what should be trashed.

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