People sharing a holiday meal, they are trying to make their winter holidays sustainable this year.
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Connection over consumerism

How to Keep the Winter Holidays Sustainable

Ashley Robinson
December 13, 2023

Thanksgiving is long gone, the lights are up, and the winter holiday season is in full swing! As you shop for presents, decorate the house, and plan parties, you may be wondering how to celebrate the holidays in low-impact ways. While the U.S. holiday season has a lot of environmental downsides, there’s a lot you can do to keep the holidays joyful and sustainable.

The Darker Side of the Winter Holiday Season

Winter holidays are all about community, gifts, and fun, but sadly, they’ve come to take a major environmental toll because of the ways we celebrate. In the U.S., household waste increases a whopping 25% from Thanksgiving to the New Year. From food waste to packaging to unwanted gifts to single-use decorations, the average household throws away a lot of stuff around the holidays!

The American holiday season is also notorious for being about buying a whole lot of stuff. Over the past two decades, holiday spending in the U.S. has more than doubled. This spending is almost entirely on consumer goods, which all take resources and energy to create and deliver. Once you factor in the packaging, shipping, wrapping paper, and returns, this spike in consumption generates a whole lot of emissions.

Gifts wrapped in cloth

Returned products especially cause environmental issues that are exacerbated around the holidays, partially because of the sheer volume of purchasing and partially because shoppers are buying gifts for others that may not be quite right. In 2021, U.S. shoppers returned a staggering $500 billion worth of products. And while you may assume these products are simply re-sold, that’s not exactly the case. It’s estimated that retailers throw away about 25% of returns, meaning that around 6 billion pounds of returned merchandise end up in the landfill annually! And the process of returning merchandise generates an estimated 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Winter holiday travel causes a spike in emissions as well. 115 million Americans are expected to travel for the holidays this year, and 90% of those travelers plan to go by car. This surge in car travel, especially on congested roads, causes a big spike in greenhouse gas emissions!

The potential for increased emissions and waste around the holidays is high, but if you’re looking to limit your impact this year, let’s go through some tips to keep your holidays sustainable!

Travel Smart

The surge in holiday-related travel causes a big spike in greenhouse gas emissions every year. But seeing family and friends is a huge part of holiday traditions, so skipping travel entirely may not be a good option. That said, there are a few ways to minimize your impact this year.

  • Choose lower-impact forms of travel if possible. Planes are the most carbon-intensive option, followed by cars. If you can, take a train or a bus!
  • Travel at off-peak times. Sitting in traffic on congested roads increases emissions from cars, and it’s just not fun! Try to schedule your travel to avoid the worst of the traffic.

Update Your Gift-Giving Traditions

A lot of us were raised to think about winter holidays as a time for lots and lots of gifts. But if you’re keeping the environment (and your budget) in mind, maybe it’s time to rethink gift-giving traditions just a bit! Here are just a few ideas for more sustainable gifts.

  • Embrace vintage or second-hand gifts. These can be more unique, affordable, and interesting than new, and buying second-hand is great for the environment.
  • Avoid the trap of buying gifts just for the sake of buying something. These gifts have a pretty high chance of being returned or even thrown away. Ask people what they want and go from there!
  • Buy from local makers and stores when possible.
  • Consider a one-gift rule with friends and family. This is great for the environment and your budget as well!
  • Think about gifts that aren’t “stuff,” like donations, spa treatments, fun experiences, or even gift cards to local businesses.

Get Creative with Gift Wrapping

A big part of holiday waste comes from gift wrapping and packaging. Unfortunately, most wrapping paper isn’t recyclable because of the linings and decorations. That said, there are lots of fun alternatives for gift wrapping!

  • Look for recyclable options, like kraft paper or eco-friendly wrapping paper. A big roll of brown paper is affordable, recyclable, and a fun blank canvas for creative wrapping!
  • Reuse household materials like paper grocery bags, shipping boxes, and even newspapers and magazines instead of buying wrapping and shipping supplies.
  • Consider wrapping gifts in something usable, like a pretty cotton bandana, or buy reusable gift-wrapping bags that can be used year after year.
  • Decorate with natural elements like dried citrus and sprigs off the tree and compost when you’re done!

Decorate Sustainably

Another big source of holiday-related waste is decoration. A lot of decorations are made to be disposable, older incandescent lights use a lot of energy, and a lot of décor is shipped across the world before it even gets to our homes.

  • Switch to LED string lights. LEDs use a fraction of the energy as older incandescent lights, and they’ll last for many years.
  • Instead of buying disposable decorations from big box stores, look for locally made options that you can reuse year after year, or get into DIY! Bonus points for using natural materials like spruce boughs or dried flowers that can be composted at the end of the year.
  • If you’re looking for a tree, go for the real thing! Maybe surprisingly, live trees are quite sustainable. And considering that artificial trees are made of non-recyclable plastics, it’s usually a better choice to go for the real tree. Just make sure to compost or mulch it at the end of the season!

Overall, the U.S. has a bad track record with overconsumption and waste around the holidays, but there are lots of ways to skip that part of the season. With a little mindfulness and creativity, you can keep the holiday season about joy, community, and generosity instead of wastefulness!

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