Christmas turbocharges our trash problem. This is how I cope

Every time I rip open a lovingly wrapped gift (and plenty of us will be doing a lot of that soon), one thing pops into my mind: trash.

The wrapping paper, trash. The package hidden underneath it, trash. And the gift itself, in most cases, future trash, given enough time.

Too harsh? Then ask yourself: Do you remember much of what you got last Christmas?

Though I’d wager the answer is no, I’d also bet you do remember something: who gave you a present, and the love you felt because of it. Like it or not, giving our friends and family stuff between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is one of the most important bonding rituals we have.

This is why my instinctive “don’t get me anything” response won’t work when my wife, my mother-in-law and even my children ask what I want for Christmas. My late Norwegian grandparents, who spent much of their childhood under Nazi occupation, appreciated this kind of conspicuous frugality, but to American ears, “Don’t get me anything” sounds like “I want a divorce.”

So in the interest of domestic harmony, I try to keep the monologues about presents being just future trash — and the planes ferrying them across the country, the delivery trucks shuttling them to our doorsteps, the gas burned driving to mall parking lots, good God don’t get me started — to myself.

My wife puts a lot of thought into her gift-giving, and my children beam when they get something in the mail from their great-grandparents. I respect that — no matter how intractable our trash problem has become.

And it is a monstrous problem, especially around Christmas. By one estimate, we generate more than 25% of our annual waste during the holidays. That might be tolerable in a more conservation-minded society, but the typical American already produces nearly one ton of garbage per year.

We’ve created a civilization bursting at the seams with stuff, and the holidays merely see the worst of it. In the city we see overflowing trash bins and roadside litter, but those of us who wander in our mountains and deserts find indestructible plastic and food containers tangled in brush, miles away from the nearest convenience store or fast-food restaurant.

Even along some high-altitude trails in the San Gabriel Mountains, I’ve seen chaparral and pine groves that double as balloon graveyards, their branches ensnaring the inflated Mylar and latex that routinely escape suburban birthday parties. The more stuff we produce, the more the dregs of our daily lives find their way far beyond our urban boundaries.

Aware of this, I shop for gifts locally and buy with waste reduction in mind, two habits that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests for shoppers looking to shrink their garbage footprints. For several years I’ve also made large batches of krumkake, a wonderful dessert you can get in the U.S. only if you know a Norwegian, and divvied them up among loved ones. My mother and grandmother always appreciated that; with both of them gone, more friends and family will be getting their share.

That touches on something I sincerely want this year. Both my mom and my closest cousin in age (we were one day apart) died of lymphoma. Requesting a small donation to a charity supporting people living with this cancer in lieu of a gift might sound like a cliche cop-out, but honoring it would be for me the sincerest expression of love and concern this holiday season, the first since my mom died.

Still want to put a wrapped box or throwaway gift bag under my Christmas tree? Then I’ll give you the best gift of all and spare you my lecture on trash.

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