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Recycling Challenge: Your Holiday


What to do with your trees, lights and wrapping paper

When I was young, my family had a semi-official competition for the prize-winning bow each year at Christmas. The contenders would tirelessly toil away on their masterpieces, and the winner would be appropriately admired, photographed and stored away until the next year, when it would be resurrected to adorn a less important package than the one it graced the year it claimed victory.

I, of course, assumed this was commonplace. From year to year, the same lot of boxes, bows and paper would reappear, and everyone would have a swell time laughing at the 15-year-old box from the now-defunct Hess’s department store that kept reappearing. I learned this wasn’t normal when my college friends laughed at me as I meticulously removed the wrapping paper from a package to save it for future use.

According to, wrapping paper and shopping bags account for four million tons of trash annually in the U.S. Holiday lights aren’t much better. They’re often treated as disposable products, and with 15 million sets of holiday lights purchased annually, that’s a lot of lights that eventually end up in landfills. Fortunately, the figures for Christmas trees are considerably less daunting. According to a national survey, 93 percent of all real Christmas trees are recycled in some sort of community program.

Many Philadelphians want to do the right thing, but taking your tree to a Streets Department sanitation center when you don’t have a car can be tricky. And, now that you’ve switched to more energy-efficient LED holiday lights, what do you do with those old strands of incandescents? Luckily, the options for Philadelphians to improve their sustainability quotient at the most consumption-oriented time of the year keep growing.

For the past several years, the city has offered a tree recycling program in January at several of their Sanitation Convenience Centers. While the 2010 schedule is not yet posted, it is likely that this service will be offered again. Trees must be free of tinsel and decorations, and they can’t be flecked with fake white snow. Residents must bring their trees to the designated drop-off sites for recycling. Any trees left out for curbside pick-up will be treated as trash and landfilled.

Another resource for treecycling is the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association (NLNA). They are planning a post-holiday season chipping event for January 9. While last year’s event required residents to bring their trees to one designated site in Northern Liberties, this year NLNA will be partnering with New Kensington Community Development Corporation and Greensgrow Farm to expand collection sites.

According to Lara Kelly, who organizes the event, NLNA is also looking into the possibility of having drop-off sites in other parts of the city beyond Northern Liberties and Kensington, such as Queen Village, Manayunk, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill. The event will take place at Orianna Hill Dog Park (the 900 block of North Orianna Street between 3rd and 4th), and the resulting wood chips will be used there. While the event is free, NLNA does request donations to help defray the cost of the chipper, and any extra money brought in by the event will go to planting trees in the area. For more information, contact Kelly at or visit

A unique alternative to the traditional cut tree is a live, potted one that can be planted outside after the holiday season. Last year in Northern Liberties, Jason Butsch and Bronwynn Hall began selling smaller live trees that could then be planted after the holiday season. They’re ideal for apartment dwellers with limited space, students and anyone who travels over the holidays.

According to Butsch, they had “limited success but overwhelming encouragement” last year. Butsch, a restoration landscaper committed to using native plants, plans to continue the operation (named Sappy Holidays) this holiday season. Arbol Café and Mugshots Coffeehouse and Café have already agreed to work with him, and this year’s menu of available plants will include native evergreens and deciduous trees. Butsch has also contacted the Schuylkill Project, which aims to revitalize the waterfront, and hopes to partner with them to offer post-holiday collection and planting for those who don’t have the ability to plant the trees themselves. For more information, contact Butsch at or visit

lights OUT
If you’ve upgraded to LEDs, and your old incandescent strands still work, consider donating them. If you’re replacing your lights because the old ones don’t work, there are a couple of resources out there. You can ship your non-functional lights to, and they will recycle them responsibly. If you’re looking for an even bigger payback than knowing you’ve diverted a recyclable product from a landfill, consider participating in the program offered by Christmas Light Source (, which donates all the proceeds from their holiday light recycling program to a book program for Toys for Tots. Again, all you have to do is ship your lights to them. Save money and packaging by organizing a few of your friends to send theirs at the same time.

The other big holiday waste generators—wrapping paper, ribbon, decorations and packaging—are things that Philadelphians can manage on their own through reuse or avoidance. Paper can be reused easily from year to year, especially when wrapping progressively smaller packages. If it can’t be reused, it can probably be recycled. Avoid metallic or laminated papers, as they cannot be recycled in Philadelphia.

Consider using other items, such as newspaper or old calendars, to wrap your gifts instead of purchasing new paper. As for ribbons and bows, consider using natural ones instead of synthetics, avoid metallics and reuse them from year to year. Last year’s Christmas cards can be cut up and used as this year’s gift tags.

Packaging can be a little trickier because often there isn’t a choice as to how something is packaged. However, when there is an option, go for the gifts that minimize packaging, or whose packaging is made of recycled materials or is recyclable itself. Those notoriously hard-to-open plastic clamshells are also often hard to recycle, and the city of Philadelphia does not accept them at all, even if they are #1 or #2.

The added benefit to all of this holiday reuse is that it costs less and it saves you time deliberating between the green and red ribbon in the gift wrap aisle at Target. Now get to work on that prize-winning bow!

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