Cut back on waste, reduce emissions, and create memories that will last a lifetime with these tips for a more sustainable holiday.
Consumers expect to spend an average of $1,652 on holiday-related purchases this year. We get it. Decorating the house from top to bottom with garland and lights and watching your loved ones “ooh” and “ahh” at the gifts you gave them is joyous.
But getting all these items from the internet to your front door creates a lot of carbon emissions, not to mention the waste produced from bows, boxes, wrapping paper, and disposable décor.
According to one study, total consumption and spending on food, travel, lighting, and gifts over three days of holiday festivities in December results in as much as 650 kg of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) per person — equivalent to the weight of 1,000 Christmas puddings — or 5.5 percent of our total annual carbon footprint. During the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Americans throw away 25% more trash, resulting in 25 million tons of waste.
The good news is we can reduce our individual waste and emissions by being more conscious consumers.
Start by shopping locally whenever possible, which reduces the environmental costs of transportation and packaging while supporting jobs and health in your community. If you do order online, look for brands with third-party certifications that validate their positive impact, like B Corp, Climate Neutral, or 1% For the Planet.
Here are a few more easy ways to make the holidays more sustainable this year.
The U.S. gift-wrapping market is expected to reach $5.9 billion in 2023 and increase to $7.02 billion by 2025. That’s a lot of money for something that typically gets ripped open and immediately thrown away — creating an enormous amount of single-use waste. This year, forget the glittery paper and snowflake-adorned packaging.
Instead, upcycle newspaper, brown paper, or recycled cardboard boxes and wrap them in twine and dried herbs, all of which are compostable. Or, go sans paper completely and check out these tips for no-waste ways to wrap a gift.
Do good for the planet and protect our most vulnerable ecosystems by adopting a coral reef, restoring coastal mangroves, or planting a tree in one of our national forests in the name of a friend or loved one. Your donation, which you can make in the recipient’s name, will help ensure these essential habitats are here for future generations to come.
In the U.S., food waste is rampant. Each year, Americans throw away 120 billion pounds of food or 40 percent of our food supply. If you’re hosting or attending a holiday dinner, plan ahead to keep perfectly good starters, sides, and mains out of the garbage.
First, determine how many people are attending your gathering and cook for that number — don’t go overboard with the spread. Purchase extra to-go containers and have them ready for guests to take leftovers home. Turn any remaining dishes into something new.
For example, greens and ham are great in an omelet or quiche; turkey, biscuits, and cranberry sauce come together for a delightful sandwich, and butternut squash or pumpkin can be transformed into a creamy soup.
Read more: How to Support Food Security
Decorations set the mood during the holidays. And it’s easy to infuse your home with cheer without springing for garland that’s made out of plastic. Grab a bag of fresh cranberries or dried cherries, and string them with a needle and thread for a touch of color on your mantle, door frame, or tree.
Or, thinly slice a few grapefruit and oranges and dehydrate them in the oven (set the oven to 200 degrees and cook them for three to six hours). Once they’re dry, connect the slices with twine for a waste-free, sustainable holiday decoration. When the holidays are over, toss it all in the compost.
Read more: DIY Dried Citrus Garland for the Holidays
The glimmer of lights is a key part of the magic of the holidays. But there’s a better way to do them than with the twinkling lights of yore. Instead, invest in LED versions of your favorite string of bulbs. Not only do LEDs use 75 percent less electricity (read: will cut down on your electric bill), they last longer, are a safer option because they don’t get very hot, and are easier on the environment than traditional lights by cutting down on light pollution.
Here’s the problem with surprise gifts. We don’t always nail it, and when we don’t, said present gets returned and shipped back to the store, racking up carbon emissions on the journey. In the U.S., returns create approximately 15 million tons of carbon emissions annually. And oftentimes, these products aren’t put back on shelves — an estimated five million tons of returns end up in landfills each year.
If your family or friend group isn’t about to jump on the no-gift bandwagon anytime soon, get everyone to send a list with links to items they’d really love to receive. When in doubt, get someone a gift card so they can purchase exactly what they want. In the event that you are gifted something you don’t care for or need, regift or donate it to cut back on waste.
Card sending ramps up during the holidays — the U.S. mails 1.3 billion holiday cards per year. It makes sense. The practice is a great way to send an end-of-the-year update to far-off friends and family and send a few photos, too. Unfortunately, cards have a dark side. All that mail generates enough CO2 emissions to charge 22 billion smartphones or 22,000 homes’ energy use for one year.
The solution? Go digital. Websites like Paperless Post, Greenvelope, and Evite offer tons of festive digital card templates with the option to personalize them with messages, artwork, and photos. Plus, these cards make it easy for the recipient to save or print to put on display, no carbon emissions included.
The greatest gift for holidays is love for yourself and others. The bonds you create with those who exist today are what give us the most meaning in our lives. Most of our loved ones would want nothing more than a piece of our time. So rather than showing up with an armful of gifts, plan a fun outing like a walk at a park, an ice skating adventure, or a cookie-making date. After all, a special memory is a gift that lasts a lifetime.
Have feedback on our story? Email [email protected] to let us know what you think!
The Essential Organic Pillow Collection
Gentle, breathable, non-toxic support.