By the Numbers: Holiday Waste Do We Really Increase Our Waste By 25% Between Thanksgiving and Christmas?

holiday waste, credit: tommy miles, flickrcc25% more. This is oft-cited statistic from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of how much more waste Americans produce between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day than during the rest of the year. But tracking down the data behind that number turns up many doubts about its accuracy today, even from the agency that arrived at it in the first place. Most likely, we generate more than 25% of our usual waste during those holiday bookends.

The origins of the widely accepted “25%” can be found not with the EPA, but with the Use Less Stuff (ULS) Report, a waste-reduction and resource conservation advocacy group created by Bob Lilienfeld. Lilienfeld says the figure was developed as part of the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona in 1998 and was calculated using data from the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as well from various trade organizations that track sales of wrapping paper and packaging during the holidays. But Lilienfeld admitted that 25% was an old number, saying that since the late ‘90s that statistic “certainly hasn’t gotten better” and may in fact have gotten worse.

A more up-to-date figure is not likely to come from the EPA. The agency continues to track how much garbage Americans produce year-round (243 million tons in 2009, or 4.34 pounds per person per day) but does not track statistics by season. And despite Lilienfeld’s understanding that the holiday waste number may have changed, the 2006 ULS Report—and consequently the EPA—stuck with the same 25% figure. It has not been modified or updated since, and a regional EPA director reported that figures on the websites and in ULS reports cannot be guaranteed to be accurate for 2011.

While 25% may in fact be a debunked number, it is a rounded, easy-to-remember statistic that should encourage Americans to take care with how much packaging they use during the holiday season. Whatever the real waste increase is, it is likely to have shot up past 25% along with our other national garbage numbers. As the U.S. continues to produce more waste per capita than any other country, it is important for holiday shoppers and gift-givers to follow the EPA’s tips on holiday waste reduction and garbage reduction year-round.