‘Traditions are lasting’: How Summit County residents can reduce waste while forging holiday traditions

A community Thanksgiving dinner is served at the Silverthorne Pavilion in Silverthorne, Colo. on Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019.
Liz Copan /

Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and gobs and gobs of mashed potatoes. These are just a few of the Thanksgiving staples that will fill the tables — and stomachs — of many Summit County residents this holiday.

But soon, these Thanksgiving staples will also be filling the insides of fridges. Leftovers are a common aftermath of the holiday, and many residents will have plans for another feast come Christmas time. Before many people know it, they’re throwing out all those leftovers as well as all the discarded wrapping paper, decorative ribbons and excess packaging materials leftover from the holiday season.

It is pretty “staggering,” how much Americans — Summit County residents included — waste every year, High Country Conservation Center community programs director Rachel Zerowin said.

On average, each person in the U.S. produces about 5 pounds of household trash per day, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, the amount of household garbage Americans generate increases by about 25%.

But reducing waste doesn’t necessarily mean holiday traditions have to change, Zerowin said. In fact, reducing waste can often help people save money during the busy holiday season, she said.

“We can maintain all those holiday traditions, whether that’s decorating or gift giving or cooking and also save some money by doing it in a way that is not so wasteful,” Zerowin said. “When you prevent waste in the first place, you’re saving money.”

Food scraps are composted in Silverthorne as part of the High Country Conservation Center’s food scraps program that aims to reduce waste.
High Country Conservation Center/Courtesy photo

Food waste

In the U.S., one-third of all food goes uneaten. The Environmental Protection Agency in 2019 estimated that about 96% of food wasted by households ends up in landfills, combustion facilities or down the drain to the sewer system. Less than 4% was composted.

In Summit County, food waste is by far the top material trashed by residents and businesses, according to a waste composition study conducted in the county in 2019. That study found that about 20% of what local residents and businesses throw into the landfill is food waste.

With families preparing holiday meals for all their guests and loved ones, there is more food than usual that can go to waste this time of year, Zerowin said. That means extra consideration should be given to how much is being prepared and how many people will be there to eat it, she said.

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“As far as traditions, I love cooking all my favorite foods that I don’t eat all year and I’m still going to do that,” Zerowin said. “Food waste prevention starts even before you go to the grocery store. Start working now on cleaning up that freezer, creating space so that when you do have leftovers you have a place to freeze them.”

Now is the time to be eating those leftovers that are already in the fridge in order to make room for the additional food that will be leftover once bellies are full on Thanksgiving, Zerowin said. It’s also a good time to look at what ingredients are already on the shelf at home before buying duplicates.

Environmental Protection Agency/Courtesy photo
The Environmental Protection Agency’s food recovery hierarchy can be a useful tool for thinking about how to reduce food waste around the holidays.
Environmental Protection Agency/Courtesy photo

Writing down a menu as well as a list of what guests will be bringing with them can help a host prepare the proper amount of food, Zerowin said.

Having a well-tailored menu “all in one place is really going to help you understand whether you want to get creative with the leftovers or maybe just cut what you’re not so excited about,” she said.

The number of people that will be in attendance at a holiday dinner can be especially impactful, Zerowin said. Having a good understanding of who is bringing food, who is taking food home and how many people are coming can help a host save money by only buying what is needed.

“Is this a situation where everyone is going to bring something and take home leftovers or are they going to all stay at your house?” Zerowin asked. “Maybe it’s not perfect — it’s not exact — but it can be the difference between three versus 13 dishes.”

Having a plan for how to store all the extra food is also important, Zerowin said. Knowing how to properly store produce, for example, can make the difference between that food lasting long enough to be eaten versus that food being discarded when it rots, she said.

Zerowin recommends the website, where people can use the dinner party estimator tool to calculate how much food is needed to keep guests happy and healthy. The website also has meal prepping and food planning tools.

“It all is part of planning,” Zerowin said. “Whether that’s making things last longer in the fridge or doing some meal prep for the next month and sorting things out in the freezer.”

A lot of reducing food waste comes down to not buying or preparing more food than can be eaten, Zerowin said. That’s why when people reduce food waste they’re not only reducing their impact on the environment, she said, but the impact to their pocketbooks as well.

Even with the best planning, though, some food may end up going bad or being wasted. But in Summit County, there is little reason for that food to end up in a landfill, Zerowin said. Through High Country Conservation Center’s food scrap program, county residents can compost their food scraps for free at various locations.

With drop-off locations in every Summit County town, residents can enroll in the food scraps program online at All foods — from fruit pits and peels to meat bones, coffee grounds, spoiled food and baked or processed foods — are accepted.

“It’s astonishing how much food Summit County residents are keeping out of the landfill with that program,” Zerowin said.

A Christmas tree is reflected in an ornament.
High Country Conservation Center/Courtesy photo

Gifts, decorations and wrappings

Almost as soon as stomachs are full and the leftovers stashed away after Thanksgiving, Black Friday deals will be kicking off and many Summit County residents will begin to look toward the Christmas holiday.

The holiday season means gifts, decorations and wrapping. But much like Thanksgiving, residents can maintain their holiday traditions while also reducing trash and saving money, Zerowin said.

“Traditions are important. They bring joy,” Zerowin said. “The question is how do we maintain those traditions and that joy. Whether it’s food or gifts, you can be a little less wasteful and save some money.”

Decorations are abundant this time of year, and it can be tempting to get new decor each year as box stores sell cheap, plastic holiday decorations in bulk. In addition to reusing decorations leftover from last year rather than buying new ones, Zerowin recommends people try using natural materials as decorations as well.

Those who are crafty can easily turn bundles of pine needles and twigs into a nice centerpiece for the table, Zerowin said. Or, for those who are less crafty, a winter squash can decorate a mantlepiece or tabletop for weeks before being cooked into a soup and eaten, she said.

When it comes to gift giving, Zerowin noted that the most impressionable gifts people receive usually aren’t the biggest or most expensive. Rather, people connect with gifts that create a memorable experience, she said, adding that that is sometimes as simple as a card with a heartfelt message.

“How are you gifting those moments?” Zerowin said. “Maybe it’s an experience in the community. It doesn’t have to be a physical thing. Support a local masseuse or activity company.”

When it comes time to wrap a gift, Zerowin noted that gift bags can be saved and reused over and over again. Wrapping gifts in cute dish towels or in a brown paper bag with watercolors painted on it can also be a great idea, she said. 

This copy of the Summit Daily News could be recycled and used as gift wrapping, Zerowin noted. But for those who do want to use store-bought wrapping paper, seeking a brand that uses recycled materials is best, she said.

Finally, Zerowin said, the best holiday traditions are those that have been passed down through the years. Family memorabilia is often passed down through generations, so Christmas glasses or holiday mugs that can replace disposable cups, for example, make great gifts that can also forge new, long lasting traditions.

“Traditions are lasting,” Zerowin said. “So let’s make those traditions with things we can use over and over again.”

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