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Seven Ideas for a More Sustainable Holiday Season

Try a new set of traditions that are slightly more sustainable.


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Americans produce 25% more waste per week in the time between Thanksgiving and New Years. That’s 2.6 billion holiday cards, 38,000 miles of ribbon and $11 billion in packing and wrapping material. Much of this waste is single-use, making its way into landfills and the ocean by the end of the season of giving.

Personally, I’ve never understood the appeal of spending your hard-earned money on plastic knick-knacks that only come out once a year. Also, I will never be able to wrap a gift in a way that justifies the surprising expense of a roll of wrapping paper.

Still, I appreciate the importance of the ceremonies that accompany this time. Climbing into the attic to retrieve the dusty box of ornaments once a year is not an experience I want to take away. Instead, I want to suggest a new set of traditions that are slightly more sustainable than the endless consumption the holiday season seems to imply.

  1. Edible garlands
    Save your money on plastic decorations and ornaments that only see daylight once a year. Instead, decorate your home with edible garlands. Unlike tinsel and plastic baubles, these beauties are biodegradable. With a needle and thread, string popcorn, cranberries or dried citrus fruits together to your desired length. Wrap around a Christmas tree or simply hang anywhere in your home that could use a little cheer. (Bonus: As a cat owner, I’ve noticed these have the added benefit of being less interesting to cats than tinsel and traditional ornaments!)
  2. Get creative gift wrapping
    Wrapping paper is a major offender in the annual holiday tradition of wastemaking. Instead of buying wrapping paper, trying using materials you already have around your house to keep your presents a surprise. I’ve found that paper grocery bags, deconstructed creatively, can make a tasteful wrapping paper. You could also use newspaper or magazines. Tie it all up in a bow with some kitchen twine, insert a sprig of pine, and you’ll have a very tastefully presented gift. Instead of wrapping your gifts, you could also reuse boxes or gift bags. Or, check out this beautiful reusable fabric wrap from Unwrp.
  3. Rent a living tree
    If you celebrate Christmas and/or bring an evergreen into your home to mark the season, consider renting a living tree. Instead of chopping down a pine or buying an artificial one, there are now options to rent a potted tree, care for it for a few weeks in December and return it to the nursery at the end of the season. The leased trees will be repotted every year until they outgrow their containers and are retired, AKA planted in the community or nearby reforestation project. If you live in Los Angeles or New York, there are a couple major companies offering rentable trees. If not, check with your local nursery to see if renting your next Christmas tree is an option.
  4. Gift experiences
    There is plenty of research to suggest that gifted experiences are more satisfying for both the recipient and the giver. Gifted experiences offer the chance to make memories, improve character, and strengthen bonds. They also happen to be better for the environment. The pandemic has taken options like concerts and travel off the table, but there are still experiences to be had. Buy your friend timed tickets to a national park, or offer a history buff a socially distanced walking tour. As another example, I’ll be buying my partner an outdoor survival course. The great outdoors offers many opportunities!
  5. Leftover pot pies
    Americans also tend to throw away a lot of food during the holidays. As Pete Pearson, WWF Food Waste Director aptly puts it, “When we throw away food, we’re also throwing away the land, water, and energy used to produce that food.” One of my favorite hacks for saving food after holiday entertaining (particularly after Thanksgiving) is to create easy pot pies with the leftovers. Make a classic pie crust with flour, butter and water. Layer your leftovers in the crust from dryer foods (stuffing, meats) on the bottom up to wetter stuff on top (mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce). These leftover pot pies make an excellent party favor that can be frozen and dethawed later in the year when you’re craving a taste of the holidays. Cook at 350 degrees for about an hour.
  6. Gift perishable items
    If you really want to give a material item, try to prioritize things that are perishable or can be ‘used up.’ Food is an obvious crowd pleaser, but other items in this category include bar soaps and shampoos, incense, and candles (reuse the glass jars they are poured in!) Come up with a signature recipe for holiday cookies and gift them to your neighbors. Or, you can even experiment with pouring your own candles and soaps.
  7. Reuse greeting cards
    Greeting cards are a personal pet peeve of mine, but they can be given a chance at a second life! Keep the greeting cards you receive this holiday season. Next year they can be repurposed as gift tags by cutting them into about 2”x3” pieces.

Want more tips for sustainable living? Stay tuned for my January series for incorporating sustainability into your New Year’s resolutions. I’ll help you incorporate sustainable practices in your daily life, room-by-room in your home–from the bathroom to the kitchen.

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