Between shopping, decorating, and eating, maintaining Zero Waste habits during the holidays may seem impossible. It’s true: during this season, we may buy and use more than we do the rest of the year. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we continue to see 25-50 percent increases in trash and recycling tonnage curbside due to more waste being generated at home.

During the holiday season this year, we can all take steps to reduce the waste we send to the landfill while still enjoying the treats and traditions we look forward to all year long. We built this list of tips to make a less-wasteful holiday season achievable and stress-free for Philadelphians.

Below, we’ve listed common holiday items that, ideally, should be recycled, composted, donated, or trashed. We’ve also listed ideas for Zero Waste shopping and gift giving. Use this list to guide what you buy and how it’s disposed.

Low Waste Shopping and Gift Giving


  • One of the best ways to reduce holiday waste is to do your shopping in person to avoid shipping and packaging waste. Make sure to follow COVID-19 health guidance and wear a mask, sanitize your hands often, and keep your distance from other shoppers. Check out tips for how to safely support local Philadelphia businesses this holiday season.
  • If you’re gift shopping in person, bring your own bag; bonus, your gift recipients won’t be able to tell where you’ve been shopping! If you’re shopping online or having gifts delivered, shop from vendors you know to use low and Zero Waste packaging materials. Finally, see if your favorite local stores offer curbside pickup to avoid extra shipping costs and packaging.
  • Purchase ingredients for holiday meals in bulk. Not only does buying in bulk reduce waste, but you can save up to 20% compared to pre-packaged foods. While many grocery stores have modified their bulk foods bins during the pandemic, many still offer these foods with less packaging and at a lower cost. If you do not have access to bulk bins, purchase non-perishable foods in larger volumes to avoid buying more single-use packages.
  • Instead of purchasing new items that you will only use for the holidays, borrow one from a friend or neighbor when it can be done safely. Check to see if your neighborhood has a “Buy Nothing” Facebook group, where neighbors give, borrow, or trade unneeded items.


  • Purchase experiences or DIY gifts for friends and family: give gift certificates to their favorite takeout restaurants, or homemade crafts or baked goods. Bonus: this is a great opportunity to support favorite local businesses!
  • Gifts don’t need to be new! Not-new, but new-to-you items (think vintage and thrifted items, family heirlooms, and book exchanges) make for unique, meaningful and low-waste gifts.
  • Wrap gifts in reusable cloth or linens, or with recycled or recyclable materials (i.e. newspaper, craft paper, wrapping paper free of plastic, foil, or glitter coating).
  • When purchasing tangible items as gifts, purchase items that are durable and can be used for a long time — like plants, or a pair of high-quality boots. Or, purchase items that support Zero Waste year-round — like high-quality reusable water bottles and travel mugs, tote bags, or glass food containers. Just remember: only purchase “stuff” if you think it will be useful to the recipient for a long time.

How to Dispose of Holiday Waste

Use this guide to figure out the best way to dispose of common holiday items. Remember that purchasing items that are durable and can be used year after year is ideal, and the best way to limit the amount of holiday waste produced each year.

Use the City’s Recycling & Donation Finder* to find specific locations where you can recycle, compost, and donate items listed below to keep them out of the landfill. You can search by address or by material to find a list of locations nearest to you. Start your search with the Recycling & Donation Finder. Note: until further notice, please call ahead or check hours of operation while COVID-19 business restrictions are still in effect. 

Single Stream Recycling

These items can go in your curbside recycling bin:

  • Make sure you know what belongs in your recycling bin and what doesn’t.
  • For recycling, use any sturdy plastic or metal container that holds 32 gallons or less and mark it with the word “RECYCLING” on its side. NEVER use paper bags or cardboard boxes for recycling. Be sure to properly dispose of/recycle items like electronics, mattresses, and tires. Review residential trash and recycling set out guidelines. Residents can also bring trash and recycling to the City’s Sanitation Convenience Centers.
  • Paper and cardboard gift boxes and bags (remove any strings, tape, or non-paper-based decorations)
    • NOTE: To be recycled, wrapping paper must pass the “scrunch test”: simple wrapping paper can be crumpled easily and recycled; stiffer paper that is coated in foil, glitter or other non-paper-based decorations cannot be recycled and should go in the trash.
  • Cardboard shipping boxes (broken down)
  • Beverage bottles (glass or plastics #1, 2, and 5)
  • Wrapping paper (tape, bows, and other decorations removed)

Source Separated Recycling

These items can be recycled separately at special locations, but cannot go in your curbside recycling bin:

Organic Waste

  • Christmas trees, free of all decorations, ornaments, and metal bases:
    • Trees can be recycled for free at any of the City’s Sanitation Convenience Centers beginning in early January (dates to come). Please bring ID or proof of current Philadelphia residency. Trees will not be collected curbside with regular City trash and recycling.
    • The Streets Department will also be hosting Christmas tree drop off sites located throughout the city at 13 designated locations only. Stay tuned for further details.
  • Small pine limbs and needles are good winter mulch material for sensitive plants. Trees can also become backyard compost. Note that trees should not be burned in a fireplace; the sap from the tree creates foul odors and can coat the chimney with creosote which can cause a fire.
  • Food scraps can be composted using private composting services. Check with your compost collection service to see what items they do and don’t accept.
  • If you do not have access to composting: food scraps can be disposed of using an in-sink garbage disposal. This is preferable to throwing scraps in the trash because scraps will be turned into energy at Philadelphia Water Department facilities. Do not put grease, fat, animal bones, or other hard items that might damage the system in a garbage disposal.


Unused or unneeded items can be donated to local food pantries, second-hand stores, or neighbors:

  • Gifts that you won’t use and can’t be returned
  • Unopened packaged foods (i.e. canned goods and shelf-stable food items)
  • Seasonal decorations that are in good condition, but that you are replacing or no longer need (plastic trees, ornaments, table linens, etc.)
  • Clothing, toys, books, electronics, and more that are in good condition, but that you no longer need
  • Check to see if your neighborhood has a “Buy Nothing” Facebook group, where neighbors give, borrow, or trade unneeded items.


These items cannot be recycled. If they cannot be reused, they must go in the trash:

  • Broken decorations (like shattered glass/plastic ornaments)
  • Plastic bags and film (such as shrink wrap or cellophane)
  • Ribbons, bows, tape, and wrapping paper that doesn’t pass the “scrunch test”
  • Fat or grease leftover from cooking (Keep in a container and allow to solidify before putting in the trash.)


* To learn about adding your organization or company to the City’s Recycling & Donation Finder, contact

**The City of Philadelphia has a contract with Retrievr. Learn more about Retrievr and the City’s partnership with the company here.

Disclaimer: Reference in this blog to any specific commercial product, process, or service, or the use of any trade, firm or corporation name is for the information and convenience of website visitors, and does not constitute endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the City of Philadelphia.