We may know it as the most wonderful time of the year, but the holiday season is not always a joyous one for our planet.
Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, household waste in the United State increases by more than 25%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s an additional one million tons of garbage filling landfills each week. On top of that, the holidays bring huge spikes in activities like travel, food consumption, and shipping, all of which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
Thankfully, there are simple ways to celebrate with sustainability in mind. As the holiday season begins, the choices we make – from decorating the house to buying gifts and traveling – can be done in a way that is thoughtful to one another and our planet.
Use Green Holiday Decor
A greener holiday starts with how we decorate our homes. Switching to LED bulbs, for instance, will reduce your energy consumption by 75% and they’ll last 25 times longer than traditional bulbs.
When it comes to putting up the Christmas tree, buying a real one – which is easy to recycle and often sourced locally – is more environmentally-friendly than buying an artificial tree. As many as 90% of those fake trees are shipped from across the world, increasing carbon emissions. And even if you reuse it year after year, these plastic-heavy, non-biodegradable fake trees will end up in a landfill.
A real Christmas tree doesn’t have to end up in the trash, either. Rather than cutting down a tree for a few weeks of festivities, you can rent a live, potted tree that will be returned to the tree farm in January. London Christmas Tree Rentals is one company that will rent trees out temporarily for the holidays and then replant them in a protected forest. Others, like California-based Rent A Christmas Tree, sell the trees with their roots intact so they can be replanted outside your home after the holiday excitement subsides.
Give Shared Experiences
Gift-giving is one of the biggest sources of holiday waste and emissions. One way to limit your environmental impact is to prioritize giving real world experiences over physical objects. Giving the gift of something they can do can be a more meaningful alternative to an item that will eventually become outdated or thrown out. Indeed, a Cornell University study found that “over time, people’s satisfaction with the things they bought went down, whereas their satisfaction with experiences they spent money on went up.”
When it comes to gifting experiences, aim for personalized ideas that cater to people’s interests and passions. Get your aspiring chef nephew some cooking classes, or send your thrill-seeking best friend a hot air balloon ride. Is your sister just getting into yoga? Try a gift certificate to the local yoga studio. For creative types, an annual membership to a local art museum or gallery is a gift that will bring value to their lives – not to mention a much-needed chance to unplug – all year long.
For best results, plan something you can do together. Get tickets for a future outing or book a road trip for next year. Are they the outdoorsy type? Gift them an annual pass to the National Parks alongside camping plans or hotel reservations for a scenic weekend getaway. A thoughtfully-selected shared experience is pretty much guaranteed to be more meaningful than any present they could unwrap – and crucially, those memories won’t ever end up in a landfill.
Reduce Your Holiday Carbon Footprint (and Theirs)
This year, many of us will feel compelled to scale back the holiday travel we might normally do. And that’s okay. While this may be a difficult decision to make, relieve yourself of any guilt, self-inflicted or otherwise. Limiting your holiday travel – and making up for your absence by sending extra-thoughtful gifts and planning some shared experiences for next year – is not only the safest way to celebrate this year, it’s friendlier to the environment.
Another way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to minimize shipping. Whenever possible, prioritize local businesses and goods made from locally-sourced materials and try to limit items that need to shipped from halfway around the globe.
In addition to reducing your own holiday carbon footprint, consider giving a gift that directly helps the environment. Terrapass, for example, is an organization that lets you purchase carbon offsets in their name and support carbon reduction programs like wind farms and methane digesters. We Are Neutral is another environmental nonprofit focused on reducing and offsetting our collective carbon footprint. In addition to selling carbon offsets, they also accept tax-deductible donations that can be made in your recipient’s name.
Donate To Environmental Causes
There are plenty of other organizations working to protect the environment and promote sustainability.
For wildlife lovers, you can adopt an endangered animal in their name. World Animal Foundation sends an animal kit and adoption certificate with each symbolic adoption. International Animal Rescue saves, rehabilitates, and releases animals all over the world. They also provide a permanent home for animals unable to return to their natural habitats. Right now, Lily the slow loris, Max the Armenian brown bear, and Mango Troop the howler troop monkey are ready to be symbolically adopted. Each adoption comes with a personalized certificate, a photo and fact sheet, regular updates, and an optional plush toy.
Wild Boyz Photography shines a light on a nature-focused nonprofit each month through their photography. 75% of your donation will go directly to their featured nonprofit. Combine a donation dedicated to a loved one with a print from their shop for a gift that’s both environmentally-friendly and easy to display.
To the plant parents and green thumbs, send a one-time or monthly donation to Trees For The Future. Founded in 1989, this nonprofit works with farmers across Africa to achieve a sustainable livelihood while preventing deforestation.
Buy From Zero-Waste And Carbon-Neutral Companies
Experiential gifts and charitable donations can go a long way, but they likely won’t eliminate the most timeless holiday tradition of all: Shopping. If you’re buying gifts this year, do so from companies that offset their carbon emissions, strive to reduce waste, and prioritize environmental sustainability in other meaningful ways.
Brands like Patagonia and Cotopaxi are working to reduce their carbon footprint and have pledged 1% of their revenue to promote environmental causes. Online retailer Uncommon Goods donates one dollar per purchase to nonprofits around the world. Offering a variety of products from independent makers, including handmade and locally sourced items, Uncommon Goods has donated over $2 million to date.
Etsy is another online marketplace that supports small businesses and independent makers while also doing right by the environment. The company offsets 100% of shipping carbon emissions, giving you peace of mind with each order.
Of course, if you’re looking to turn photos into thoughtful gifts – which is an excellent idea, by the way – getting them printed on glass with Fracture isn’t just a beautiful, enduring way to display them, it’s done in a solar-powered facility by a carbon-neutral company.
Wrap Gifts Sustainably
Gift wrap makes up a huge amount of holiday waste. While a lot of traditional wrapping paper is recyclable, other commonly-used materials like tissue paper, velvet, glitter, and those with certain metallic accents can’t go into the recycling bin. And whether it’s recyclable or not, about half of the gift wrap used each year is estimated to wind up in landfills anyway.
One easy option is to simply to forgo gift-wrapping altogether. Instead, consider putting gifts inside a container they can easily reuse later, like a decorative basket or jar. Or just let your generosity and good taste speak for itself by presenting your gifts sans wrapping.
If you must wrap gifts, keep it minimal and reuse materials you already have at home. There are always creative, DIY alternatives to traditional gift wrap. You can use craft paper and rubber stamps, or wrap them in old newspapers and use local shrubbery and other natural decorative flourishes.
Whether you go the creative route or skip the gift wrap entirely this year, try not to sweat it too much. After all, it’s the meaning behind what’s inside the package – or better yet, the experiences they’ll share with you later –that they’ll remember years from now.