The holidays bring mountains of trash

The end of the year is peak garbage season, helped along by holiday gifts and online deliveries.

By MSN Money Partner Dec 26, 2013 3:44PM
Credit: © Rick Wilking

Caption: Boxes from are pictured on the porch of a houseBy Serena Ng, The Wall Street Journal

Christmas isn't so pretty on the back end.

The annual frenzy of gift giving brings smiles to kids and billions of dollars to retailers that rely on the year-end holidays to drive a fifth or more of their annual sales. 

But the holidays also produce an ever growing pile of trash, one that is getting bigger as Americans shift more of their shopping to the Web.

David Menke, a sanitation worker in Ohio, sees it firsthand driving a garbage truck and collecting trash on the outskirts of Cincinnati. "You can tell people are buying more things online, as there are already a lot of Amazon and FedEx boxes," said the 34-year-old.

The end of the year is peak trash season across America, a superlative earned by all the eating, parties and gift giving that people do in the final weeks of the year. Americans produce around 25% more waste around the holidays than other periods, estimates the Environmental Protection Agency.

The additional garbage -- which adds up to over one million tons of waste -- includes food scraps, cutlery, wine bottles, wrapping paper and Christmas trees. People also toss furniture, television sets, microwaves and other appliances after receiving new ones as gifts.

Online sales add a thickening layer of refuse. In recent years, as more consumers have taken to buying online, the volume of corrugated cardboard boxes, air-filled plastic pockets and Styrofoam pellets in trash has grown. Much of it is recycled, but some people discard the items with other household waste, which ends up in landfills.

Either way, sanitation workers like Menke have to spend more time on the job, making extra trips to pick up trash and bulky items after the holidays.

"Most people don't break down their boxes -- they throw them out whole," said the Rumpke Consolidated Cos. worker, adding he has had to drag sofas, mattresses and stoves to the truck, lift them and push them into the hopper. "It definitely makes the job harder."

Online sales in the U.S. this year are forecast to grow 15% to $78 billion, according to technology researcher Forrester Research (FORR). United Parcel Service (UPS) earlier predicted an 8% rise in the daily volume of package delivery during the holidays, thanks to growth in online shopping. Last year, UPS delivered more than 500 million packages during peak season.

The U.S. Postal Service expects to ship a record 420 million packages between Thanksgiving and New Year's, an increase of 12% from last year. Both are used by large retailers, including (AMZN) and Wal-Mart (WMT) to deliver their products.

Alex Mark, a 25-year-old paralegal and college student living in Northport, N.Y., did all his Christmas shopping this year online, and buys the majority of items in his home on the Internet -- from toilet paper to furniture and cereal -- to save time.

"There is a lot of packing material and boxes, and I think it does get kind of wasteful, but what are you going to do?" he said, adding he tries to recycle what he can.

Academics have sought to compare the environmental impact of e-commerce with traditional in-store shopping. Despite the common belief that online shopping is greener, the issue isn't that straightforward.

Going to a physical store often involves driving, which consumes fossil fuels. But that is offset by the fact that people tend to pick up multiple items each trip. Online shopping creates packaging waste and consumes energy for shipping, especially when purchases are made one item at a time or with expedited delivery.

In the end, "the trade-off is pretty much the same," said H. Scott Matthews, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied the issue.

More online options also mean more cardboard boxes.

Generally "e-commerce increases the need for packaging -- instead of using a large corrugated box to ship a lot of products to a retail store, you have a lot of smaller boxes being shipped to households," said Chaz Miller, director of policy and advocacy at the National Waste & Recycling Association, an industry group. "It adds up to more" waste, he said.

At Atlantic Coast Fibers LLC, a New Jersey recycling company, corrugated cardboard boxes account for as much as 50% of the paper product waste from some nearby towns, versus less than 20% a decade ago.

"A lot of that is the result of e-commerce," said Allan Zozzaro, who runs a materials-processing division of Atlantic Coast. And after buying online, people get more catalogs in the mail from retailers, adding to the waste, he said.

A week before Christmas, a drop-off site at Atlantic Coast's facility in Passaic, N.J., was scattered with boxes that recently held purchases from Macy's, Kohl's, Nordstrom, Wal-Mart and Amazon websites. Another pile of plastics and metals at the site included children's toys.

The paper is easily recycled, but people sometimes leave air-filled plastic and other packing materials in the boxes that aren't always economical to separate and recycle, said Chris Riviello, a managing partner at Atlantic Coast. Most of those materials and the toys will end up in a landfill.

Some retailers in recent years have tried to cut down on box sizes and materials to reduce waste. Amazon now sells some toys and consumer products in what it calls "frustration-free packaging," which enables some items to be delivered in their own packaging without an additional shipping box. Still, shoppers say boxes they receive are sometimes too large or have a lot of filler material.

Sarah Skeuse, a stay-at-home mom in Winfield, W.V., shops online for packaged food, clothes, toys and accessories. For the holidays, the 30-year-old ordered many Christmas presents online, including jewelry, a pedometer and a whiskey decanter, and had them shipped to her parents' home in West Texas where the family will be congregating. The boxes and enclosed packing materials can be "excessive," Skeuse said, adding she doesn't live near many of the stores she buys from online.

Her neighborhood doesn't provide curbside recycling, so she throws away the plastic and once a month, drives 30 minutes to drop off the cardboard boxes at a recycling center. "There are lots of plastic bags filled up with air, and sometimes giant boxes," Skeuse said. "It's a lot of waste."

More from The Wall Street Journal

Dec 26, 2013 7:23PM

Recycle, recycle, recycle!

Take the plastic bags including the air filled plastic (pop out the air) to your local supermarket.  Most have containers for plastic bags right at the entrance.

Dec 26, 2013 7:52PM
You couldn't tell my trash can from the week before.  No presents bought.  Only a few small cash gifts other than for my lovely wife.  And, since she knew what hers was, we didn't even wrap them.  Best Christmas ever for me!!!
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