Choosing to have a sustainable holiday can add an extra element of joy to your holiday season, as you’ll feel good knowing you made meaningful memories without harming the environment or adding more trash to landfills. According to Stanford University, Americans produce 25% more waste between Thanksgiving and New Year’s than at other times of the year, which translates into 25 million tons of garbage.
The waste is from discarded consumer packaging, wrapping paper, gift bags, unwanted holiday gifts, discarded holiday decorations, Christmas trees (both real and artificial), and food waste. Another source of waste? Greetings cards, most of which are thrown out. Cards with glitter and other non-organic embellishments aren’t easily recycled and, unfortunately, also end up in landfills.
The environmental impact of winter holidays is alarming, but we have some tips for adding some sustainability this holiday season as you create precious memories with your loved ones.
Eco-Friendly Christmas Trees
As mentioned, Christmas trees, genuine and artificial, account for a huge portion of landfill waste each holiday season. The problem with artificial trees is that most are made from PVC and other plastics. The manufacturing process in fake Christmas tree production creates harmful petrochemicals that contribute to gas emissions. A substitute for traditional trees might be an all-wood tree made with a dowel construction. It can be disassembled after the holiday, then reused for years to come.
Another more sustainable Christmas tree idea is purchasing a tree made from recycled materials like this 6-foot Oncor eco-friendly tree made from recycled materials. It costs $138 and is rated to last forty years. Forty years will save forty trees, but, of course, you’ll have to make a sustainability call on your environmental concerns, whether it’s emissions or landfill waste and tree life that matter most to you. Know that there are sustainable Christmas tree farms where the planting rate exceeds the harvesting one. You can find one near you on Google.
One more eco-friendly Christmas tree idea, also non-traditional, is to use a small potted evergreen that you can enjoy all year round. A smaller tree also requires fewer lights (read about lights below), and you can even opt to decorate it without lights. Noble firs, fraser firs, and balsam firs are all good candidates for potting but know they need to live outdoors. Don’t keep them in your home for more than a week.
Eco-Friendly Christmas Tree Lights
Christmas tree lights are another environmental concern during holidays. Keeping Christmas lights lit all day consumes lots of energy, along with producing carbon dioxide, which is why we recommend not keeping them lit all the time and using LED holiday lights instead. LED lights consume 90% less electricity than regular incandescent Christmas bulbs, plus they have a longer lifespan (up to 50 times longer than incandescent holiday lights), so there’s less landfill waste. Purchasing smaller bulbs also conserves energy, along with using a timer to turn them off and limiting the quantity you use in your home.
Outdoor, solar-powered Christmas lights are another way you can conserve energy, reduce carbon emissions and make your Christmas green. Of course, outdoor lights are nice any time of year and solar-powered Christmas lights come in a range of festive colors, including warm and cool whites for all seasons. Solar-powered lights eliminate the hassle of having to connect multiple strings to outdoor electric outlets.
Solar-powered Christmas lights work in all seasons, including snowy winters, provided they can collect enough energy from the sun to run them through the night. Solar lights are powered through a small solar panel (or multiple solar panels, that charge a battery during daylight hours. Solar-powered lights are not just for outdoor use; you can use them indoors too, although connecting them to a battery and outdoor solar panel might be complicated.
The only drawback to using solar-powered Christmas lights is the upfront cost. A 40-foot light string may cost $40 (more than the average incandescent), but the long-haul savings is well worth the initial investment.
Eco-Friendly Christmas Decorations
Eco-friendly Christmas decorations may be a tough aspiration as the winter holidays tend to be full of non-renewable glitter and other artificial shiny things. One thing to avoid is single-use decorations which add to our landfills. Think about collecting heirloom ornaments to pass on (but not too many of them)! Many holiday ornaments and decorations are made of PVC and other plastics that emit harmful gasses once they land in the garbage dump. If you do need to purge your decorations, try donating them to Goodwill rather than leaving them on the curb.
Also, acquiring holiday and Christmas decorations made from natural materials rather than plastic goods means when their useful life has ended, they can return to the earth. Wreaths made from evergreens and pine cones are an example of eco-friendly holiday decor. One of the ways to make your holidays green is to simply think about reuse as opposed to decor shopping each holiday season. Being environmentally mindful is sometimes as simple as weighing our choices as consumers and making decisions about usage, consumption, and disposal.
Sustainable Gift Ideas
Gift giving, one of the joys of holidays, can inadvertently contribute to waste. Knowing that about 60% of gifts are unwanted and many of those are discarded, what kind of gifts might everyone (or at least most people) enjoy? And, how might those gifts be sustainable? DIY gifts, provided you have the time to make them, add a personal element to gift giving. Food gifts make great eco-friendly gifts, especially when they come in eco-friendly packaging. Cookies or brownies packaged in recyclable bags are one food-gift idea. Homemade canned goods or snack mixes in reusable Ball jars are other ideas. Also, gift certificates to frequented or rare-occasion restaurants people night not normally indulge in make lovely gifts as they provide both food and a pleasurable outing.
Another eco-friendly gift idea is to give people experiences including day trips, museum tickets, concert tickets, movie tickets, or subscriptions to digital services like Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Providing services to someone is another sustainable holiday gift. A lot of older people, for example, might appreciate yard or housework. You could offer to do some tasks for your sister she hates to do herself, or paint a relative’s living room. When you gift someone with services, you’re giving them your time, something very valuable in a busy culture like ours.
Sustainable gift giving can be literal too. If your loved one doesn’t want things, they might appreciate a donation in their name to their favorite sustainable organization. Greenpeace relies entirely on donations for its projects. You can learn more about them here. When your green holiday includes donations, be sure to investigate the eco-friendly organization or non-profit before committing the funds. With a little luck, your loved one may already have some favorite organizations.
Sustainable Gift Card Ideas
The best cards are hand-crafted ones. For eco-friendly holiday cards, try making them with recycled materials including old holiday or Christmas packaging (and cards), with natural, biodegradable materials, and with things you might have around your home. The key to making your DIY cards green is to ask yourself the following questions: a) Is it made of recycled material? and b) Can the recipient recycle the material? and c) Is it made from biodegradable materials? Engaging children in making sustainable holiday cards is a fun activity, as well as an opportunity to teach them about environmental responsibility.
Forest-friendly Christmas or holiday cards also make for a sustainable Christmas. Many card manufacturers feature recycled paper products. Paper Culture offers personalized cards made from consumer waste. Botanical Paperworks makes cards on seed paper. These clever, sustainable holiday gifts have embedded seeds the recipients can plant in the spring.
If you are not artistically inclined but do love handcrafted cards and gifts, there are many artists selling on Etsy, many with sustainable sensibilities. A simple keyword search like “handcrafted sustainable cards – Etsy” might reveal some unique, eco-friendly gifts for your loved ones.
Another sustainable holiday card idea is to send people e-cards rather than physical ones. You could even make a single homemade card, scan it, and send it to all of your loved ones.
Eco-Friendly Gift Wrap and Gift Bags
If you’re wondering if you can recycle wrapping paper, of course, you can! Just be mindful when you unwrap gifts and roll up the wrapping paper for storage until next year. Also, making unique wrapping paper from fabric, recycled paper, paper grocery bags, or hand-decorated paper makes the gift all the more special because you are also giving the gift of your time. Also, if your DIY-gift bags and gift wrapping paper are made from biodegradable goods, your green holidays become all the greener. Hint: this is an activity that kids love, so if you have the time, assemble your team for a weekend of crafty fun.
Carbon Emissions Reduction
Carbon emissions increase exponentially over the holidays, both because of package delivery and travel. Carpooling to holiday events is a small way to reduce your carbon footprint. Shopping locally, rather than traveling distances also reduces toxic carbon emissions. Of course, when you shop online, you are reducing your own carbon emissions output, but someone else is driving to deliver the packages (plus there is additional shipping packaging that ends up being consumer waste). Supporting local businesses is good for your community, and you may find some unique opportunities for holiday gifts such as local microbrews, pies, orchard products, and more.
Proper Clean up for an Eco-Friendly Holiday
Your green holiday will end on a greener note with proper clean up of gift wrapping paper, gift packaging, and other holiday waste. Think of the clean up as an opportunity to make your next holiday green. Interesting cards and gift wrapping can be folded, stored, and saved for some rainy-day, DIY fun next year. And if you receive gifts you don’t want, it’s okay to recycle them, pass them on, re-gift someone, or donate them to a charity or church. Making your holidays green is your gift to the planet, and when you take the time to be kind to your loved ones AND the Earth, you’re investing in our collective future.