Editor's note: This article was originally published Dec. 18, 2017. We're bringing it back today as you go about your holiday shopping.
WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — Bustling shopping malls, ugly sweaters, and awkward family photos can only signify the beginning of one thing: the holiday season.
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, or none of the above, you're probably feeling a bit crazed right now, preparing the all-important ingredient list for the holiday dinner, coordinating the travel plans of all the relatives, and fulfilling everyone's gift list.
It may escape your mind, but all these errands add up when it comes to waste. According to Stanford University, Americans throw out 25 percent more during the holiday season. That amounts to 25 million tons of garbage, or about 1 million extra tons per week.
Simple but effective measures can go a long way, such as recycling gift wrap or skipping out on those holiday cards. But other steps can make a big difference as well. If you're looking for other ways to increase your sustainability during the holidays, try to stay away from these not-so environmentally friendly gifts.
Unless you're under the age of eight, you may attract some eyerolls if you're adult wearing glitter. The exception to that rule, however, is during the holiday season — a brief period of time when you're able to flaunt that shiny lipstick and those sparkly New Year's Eve pumps without judgment.
But as eye-catching as glitter may be, try to steer clear of gifting any clothing and hygiene products that contain glitter. All those sparkles are made up of microplastics — pieces of plastic that are less than five millimeters. According to scientists, the fibers have the ability to absorb toxic chemicals.
"It forms this very thin film around the plastic, which makes it sort of like a little poison pill, because it has higher concentrations of, in some cases, heavy metals or chemicals like PCBs."
Plastic isn't biodegradable, but it does slowly break down over time, which forms the microplastics. When the plastic becomes smaller and smaller, it releases the absorbed toxins. When they're released, the chemicals have the ability to disrupt hormones in animals and humans.
According to UN News, microplastics are nearly unavoidable, with as many as 51 trillion particles littering the seas and threatening wildlife. For some perspective, that's 500 times more than the number of stars in the galaxy.
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All those floating particles, as a result, are able to make their way into our drinking water. A recent study published by Orb Media found that 83 percent of the 159 tap water samples surveyed from 14 countries were contaminated with plastic fibers.
Self-serve coffee machines
They're easy and convenient, but also wasteful: single-serve coffee machines.
Best estimates say the number of Keurig pods buried in 2014 would circulate the Earth more than 12 times.
Keurig supporters are quick to defend the company, saying that the pods are actually recyclable. That is true, but there is a catch.
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The customer must disassemble the pod before recycling it.
“So, that’s a challenge for (the) convenience-oriented consumer who’s presumably using these products because they don’t want to use a lot of time making coffee — to expect them to separate all these little components for recycling, is challenging," said Darby Hoover, the senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The blame isn't entirely on Keurig, though. Other companies like Nespresso use aluminum pods that also generate a lot of waste. The company has developed a recycling program to give its pods a second chance at life, but it's difficult to know how many people take advantage of it.
Regardless of whether the pods are recyclable, Hoover said the production of the pods themselves requires a lot of energy.
"It’s important to remember the resource use that goes into making all those disposable pods. So, each little pod takes energy, takes natural resources, like fossil fuel, takes water, takes chemicals to produce. Even if we are recycling, that’s not necessarily the best solution to a problem that didn’t exist.”
As much as we all enjoy a good exfoliation, especially as a method to escape the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, those tiny beads found in many hygiene and personal products aren't so good for the environment. Like glitter, microbeads don't break down once they're rinsed down the sink.
Because they're so small, microbeads cause problems for the wastewater treatment process. The mesh-size filters are just too big to capture the microbeads, allowing them to float through the system. Eventually, they end up in lakes, rivers, streams and other bodies of water.
Once they end up in the ocean, marine organisms mistake the plastic for food. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, microplastic ingestion causes reproductive and digestive problems for everything from zooplankton to shellfish to whales.
If shellfish and other foundational species consume plastic, that means you probably are, too. Because plastic never biodegrades, it's able to make its way up to the food chain — ending up in shrimp, crab and clams.
Fortunately, most companies have already started phasing out microbeads from their products, thanks to legislation passed by Congress in 2015. The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 banned rinse-off cosmetics that contain artificially added plastic microbeads, with a deadline of Jan. 1, 2018.
Though some companies, like REI and Target, have already transitioned to sustainable gift cards, others still use cards made of PVC. That means most gift cards cannot be recycled in your traditional curbside bin.
According to the nonprofit Earthworks, there are 3 billion new gift cards placed in circulation each year — potentially adding 75 to 100 million pounds of PVC material to the waste stream.
If you do end up receiving a gift card this holiday season, know that you can recycle the PVC through Earthworks' mail-in program.
No matter how hard you try or how well you know somebody, sometimes you just end up gifting something that someone doesn't want.
"The absolute worst gift you could give in terms of sustainability is a gift that someone doesn't want," Kathryn Kellogg of the Going Zero Waste blog said.
She added that those gifts essentially go to waste — gathering dust in the attic corner.
“Especially because we have a lot of guilt around gifts that are given to use, we’re much more likely to hold on something we don’t want or we don’t need, simply because it was given to us by a relative," she said. "You feel guilty because it was a gift and you don’t want to give it away."
A little preparation goes a long way, Kellogg added. The awkward debacle of gifting something someone doesn't want can be entirely avoided by creating a gift list or focusing more on experiences, like a trip to the spa, tickets to a concert or a dinner date.
"Experiences are great because it's a memory that you can form with someone, and it's not something that's going to sit on a shelf and collect dust."