While the holidays are typically a time of indulgence, how can one celebrate when the phrase of the year is “climate strike”? And with the festivities in full swing, it easy to resort to old habits rather than thinking of eco-friendly ways to have a green Christmas.
“Although [the holidays] are full of merriment, they can also be a time of unnecessary excess. This time of year should be about family, friends, food, and fun—not stuff,” says Lindsay Coulter, senior public engagement specialist of the David Suzuki Foundation’s Queen of Green.
According to Coulter, between Thanksgiving in the U.S. and early January, household waste increases by more than 25 percent, due to extra food waste (up to 40 percent of festive food is wasted) in addition to packaging and older items being trashed for newer gifts. As a result of this material merriment, there are more than one million more tons per week in landfills across North America, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
No wonder many of us might have misgivings when celebrating a season of excess that puts a strain on the environment. Thankfully, with some effort and creativity, there are ways to ring in this special time with little impact on the planet. Below, we provided six ways you can have a greener Christmas, according to environmental experts. Because if there’s any time we should consider our environmental habits, it’s now.
When it comes to choosing your Christmas tree, opt for a real one instead of purchasing an artificial tree. “While [artificial trees] can be reused, studies show you would have to use one for 20 years before it [becomes more sustainable] than a real tree,” says Coulter.
Shyla Raghav, vice president of climate change of Conservation International, recommends buying a real tree from a local farm. Not only do real trees help to create a habitat for wildlife and provide clean air while they’re growing “getting your trees locally will also minimize the carbon footprint that comes from transporting the trees, and it can be used for mulch after the season is over,” she says.
Research from the Center for Global Development found that decorative seasonal lights accounted for 6.6 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity consumption every year in the United States, which is the equivalent of running 14 million refrigerators—and more than the national electricity consumption of such developing countries like El Salvador and Tanzania. The solution? Raghav recommends using modern tech. “For your [holiday] lights, try using LEDs over traditional. LEDs use up 80% less energy and last 25% longer,” she says.
When you’re purchasing gifts, Raghav suggests scouring antique and vintage shops for “those unique finds that don’t carry the huge burden of emissions from seasonal production and shipping. [For instance,] last year, I found a really cool shawl for my mom at a local vintage clothing store in DC.”
Another important thing to consider when purchasing gifts is to buy experiences, not gifts for people. Think museum memberships, workout subscriptions, tickets to see a show, spa days, etc, says Raghav. However, if you do choose to buy from online retailers, Raghav says to choose standard shipping and try to consolidate all of your purchases into one order so that you can reduce your carbon footprint as much as possible: “Make one list and order all [your gifts] at once,” she adds.
Of course, what’s gift-giving without wrapping paper? However, single-use wrapping paper is super wasteful, which is why Coulter suggests unleashing your creativity when it comes to decorating your gifts. “Check out furoshiki cloth wrapping techniques. [You can] sew your own reusable cloth bags; wrap with newspapers, maps or posters; [or] decorate with markers,” she says. And try not to use plastic ribbons, bows, glitter, and extra tape to avoid creating additional waste.
No holiday gathering is complete without food. “Bringing all of your friends and family together can greatly reduce your footprint,” says Raghav. “When making your menu, [opt for] vegetarian and vegan [dishes]. I really love dressing up a vegan celebration roast with sides like stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce.” But if you can’t ditch the meat entirely, Coulter recommends eating less and buying meat that’s been organically and ethically raised.
When it comes to leftovers, don’t let your food go to waste and repurpose them for another meal. “My favorite second day Thanksgiving meal is a Thanksgiving sandwich, complete with all the fixings,” says Raghav. “And if you don’t end up using all of the leftovers, be sure to compost.” Another eco-friendly tip: Ditch the plastic and disposables dinnerware, and invite guests to bring their own dishes if you’re in need of extra tableware.
For many of us, the holidays mean major travel time to see our loved ones. If your family is spread far apart from each other, you might want to agree upon a destination where everyone can meet in the middle, says Coulter. However, if that’s not the case, Raghav says you can help neutralize the carbon footprint of your travel and meals with Conservation International’s Holiday Carbon Calculator. “It will calculate the carbon footprint of your event or travel and allow you to invest directly in keeping a carbon-rich forest standing,” she says. “You’ll also discover easy lifestyle changes you can make in 2020 to live lighter all year long.”
Making simple environmentally conscious changes to our long-held traditions can help out our planet in the long run. As the list above illustrates, we don’t have to sacrifice on the specialness of the holiday season to not only make it memorable, but also help ensure we can continue making those memories for years to come.