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The most wasteful time of the year

H&M reusable gift packagingThe amount of waste generated by U.S. consumers leaps by 25 percent around the holidays, bumping our yearly output of garbage up from 199.9 million pounds to 249.9 million, based on calculations from the EPA’s 2010 measurements. A whopping one fifth of our annual trash load is produced during the holidays, making this not only the most wonderful time of the year, but also the most wasteful.

With people buying more products in more packaging every day, fiscally, this is a bonanza–a gold mine, really. This time of giving is a chance for us, the packaging professionals of America, to think about responsibility and sustainability in addition to the fiscal pressure placed on us all. These three things can go hand in hand-profit doesn’t have to be separated from responsibility and sustainability. If we think about creative ways to offset this packaging problem, we can also think of ways that packaging could be more appealing to consumers and help cut down on the waste mess during future holiday seasons.

Think about holiday-specific packaging: gifts, packages, boxes, gift-wrap etc. What if, instead of making promotional holiday packaging that didn’t really enhance the product itself too much, designers created a package that came ready to put under the tree-no pointless, wasteful gift-wrap needed.

What about packaging that can be reused immediately to spread holiday cheer? Food items (especially for kids) could have decorations in them to be cut out, or packaging could include directions on how to craft the box into a holiday decoration. The packaging from a Christmas or Chanukah gift becomes a decoration or favor for a New Year’s Eve party.

We also need to remember that post-consumer waste isn’t the only type of waste that grows around the holidays. Seasonal packaging often is printed in bulk for the holidays, with unused packaging getting discarded when the merriment ends. Couldn’t companies design such packaging to be used year after year, so leftovers wouldn’t need to be thrown out? The seasonal implementation would make for great marketing and holiday spirit, but right now, it adds far too much to the packaging waste stream.

Now, when the paper and boxes surrounding our holiday gifts have been discarded but visions of sugarplums are still fresh in our heads, is an ideal time to think about what we can do for next year: observe packaging-related behavior, monitor habits, hold a holiday gift in our hands, and think: how can we make this better for next year? Can we make the packaging look as if it’s already gift wrapped? Can we make packaging that is designed for reusability? Can we cut down on that 25 percent? Accomplishing those goals will help make our holiday seasons a little bit brighter.

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