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How to be more sustainable this holiday season

by Aleza Freeman

Christmas. Hanukkah. Kwanzaa. Winter Solstice…. ‘Tis the season of holidays in the United States and around the world. But with overflowing gift wrap, festive parties, delicious feasts and colorful decorations, ‘tis the season of waste.

Between Thanksgiving to New Year’s, Americans throw away 25% more trash—1 million extra tons of garbage per week—than any other time of year, according to the CDC

But isn’t this supposed to be the most wonderful (not wasteful) time of year? 

Follow our 5 tips for sustainability to help reduce waste this holiday season. That’s something we can all celebrate.

Tip #1 Trim your tree’s carbon footprint

Around 30 million Christmas trees will be cut down and sold in the United States this year, according to the American Christmas Tree Association. While those trees are the real deal, a 2018 annual survey by ACTA found that more than 95 million U.S. households have artificial trees (82 percent).

So, what’s more sustainable, a real or fake Christmas tree?

It depends. 

Here are some of the pros and cons of real and fake trees to help you decide.

The real deal
Real pine trees are grown as crops at farms throughout the U.S. for the sole purpose of becoming your Christmas tree.  

  • Pro: Real Christmas trees are biodegradable and recyclable. By purchasing a tree at a Christmas tree farm, you’re supporting the local economy, notes Real Simple. The closer the tree farm to your home, the better.
  • Con: Christmas tree farms may use toxic chemicals like pesticides and herbicides. For the most eco-friendly tree, the Mother Nature Network recommends visiting an organic tree farm, which practices sustainable growing methods. 

Fake it ‘til you make it

Fake Christmas trees are relatively cheap and can be reused year after year.

  • Pro: An ACTA assessmentfound that an artificial tree is a more environmentally friendly choice if you use it for at least five years.
  • Con: Scientific American points out that this non-biodegradable plastic imposter (i.e. your fake tree) often comes from outside the U.S., was probably manufactured with toxic chemicals, and will likely end up in a landfill.

Still stumped?We have a few ideas that may help:

  • Rent a tree: A new and (literally) growing industry, Christmas tree rental companies deliver a live tree to your door and pick it up after the holiday. Some, like California’s Rent A Christmas Tree, LLC, claim to grow the trees on site and return them to “their natural habitat in our forest nursery, where they continue to produce oxygen” after pickup
  • Plant a tree: If you feel like connecting with the earth and you have the space in your yard, purchase your very own potted Christmas tree. Better Homes & Gardens provides this guide for planting one at home.
  • Decorate a plant: Dress up a houseplant with ornaments, tinsel and even a star topper. It may not be the most traditional idea, but it’s definitely the most sustainable.

Tip #2 LED there be light

Festive light displays are a staple of the holiday season. They not only brighten up the cold, winter nights, but holiday lights also communicate friendliness and cohesiveness with neighbors, according to a study by the Journal of Environmental Psychology. 

If you’re searching for a way to light up your home without drastically raising your electric bill, the key is LED. 

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, LEDs use 75% less energy than incandescent lights and last 25 times longer. They’re also cooler (so they won’t burn your fingers) and less likely to break (a relief during your annual untwisting process).

Whether you go LED or incandescent, be sure to pre-program your light display to turn on and off with a self-timer. There’s no reason to leave the lights on the entire night, and you certainly don’t need them draining energy all day.

Pro Tip: We love this energy-saving idea for your tree from frugal living website The Balance Everyday, which suggests turning off the lights in the room when the tree is lit. It will eliminate energy waste and add a comfortable ambience, perfect for family gatherings.


Tip #3 Gift an experience

This year, rather than spending money on material goods for friends and family, gift experiences like concert tickets or a spa treatment. There won’t be any trash to toss, and the memories will last a lifetime.

Purchasing an experience may also be good for the recipient’s health. In a study on “experiential consumption,” those who bought an experience for themselves felt increased gratitude afterwards. It only seems logical that the increase in thankfulness would also extend to an experiential gift recipient.

More green gifting ideas:

  • Buy used: Whether using a consignment app like ThredUp or buying and selling locally with OfferUp, it’s easy to purchase secondhand items these days without leaving your house. It’s also becoming a popular option.

    According to a survey by Mercari, 61% percent of Americans say they're comfortable receiving a second-hand item as a gift, particularly if it’s one-of-a-kind or hard to find.

  • Use a plantable card:Biodegradable and eco-friendly, holiday cards made from plantable seed paper go straight from your gift to the earth (or a pot of soil). The seeds grow into beautiful flowers and the paper becomes compost.

  • E-gift cards: E-gift cards spend the same as physical gift cards, but without the added waste. In many cases, the gift recipient can load the e-gift card directly into the store app on their device. The cashier scans the app and there’s no plastic card to toss.

Tip #4 That’s a Wrap

Next time there’s a football game on TV, think about these touchdown tidbits from Stanford University

  • If every American family wrapped just three presents in re-used materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields.
  • If we all reuse just two feet of holiday ribbon, we could tie a bow around the entire earth. 

Now that’s one heck of a present!

With the many sustainable alternatives available today, wrapping paper and gift bags are really a waste. 

Some wrapping paper is recyclable—The American Forest and Paper Associationsays it’s generally safe if you can scrunch your paper into a tight ball—but the majority is destined for a landfill; about 2.3 million pounds of the 4.6 million pounds of landfill waste produced each year, according to Earth911 estimates. 

Rather than taking a chance on creating more waste, create something sustainable instead. Here are a few ideas:

  • Newspapers, magazines and paper grocery bags: Your grandparents were ahead of the curve when they wrapped your presents in the funny pages. Reusable and recyclable paper, like newspapers, magazines and paper bags are the perfect wrapping paper substitute. They are also easily shredded for use as package filler, rather than harmful, Styrofoam peanuts.

  • Shopping bag bows: If you acquire any unfortunate plastic bags while shopping for holiday gifts you may as well get crafty and turn them into bows. Blog site Splash of Something provides this do-it-yourself tutorial.

  • Fabric: The Japanese have applied the art of fabric wrapping, known as Furoshiki, since the 8th century and even our favorite minimalist, Marie Kondo, swears by the zero-waste practice in Domino. Any fabric will do: Bandanas, scarves, shirts, sheets; and you won’t even need any tape (hence, zero waste).

Tip #5 Recycle or regift your phone

Is a new cell phone or tablet on your holiday wish list? Fingers crossed that Santa delivers (he’s going to be busy). Turns out that theConsumer Technology Association rates cell phones as the #2 most wanted tech gift this holiday season. And one survey shows that 41% of adults in the United States are expected to buy a smartphone as a holiday gift.

Americans discard millions of cell phones every year and about 90 percent end up collecting dust in a drawer or taking up space in a landfill, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency(EPA).

Only 10 percent get recycled—a huge bummer since recycling is easy and free on the world’s largest marketplace, Amazon. Just fill out this online formto generate a UPS shipping label, print and ship from your nearest UPS location. 

Tech Dump lists the following reasons for recycling or regifting your phone:

  1. It keeps the hazardous materials contained in the phone, such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants, out of the environment. When these materials contaminate the environment they can cause major illness in people and animals.

  2. Recycling your phone conserves energy, enough to charge a laptop for about 44 hours. 

  3. It cuts down on the mining of scarce, valuable minerals. The recycling of one million cell phones can recover 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium.

When it comes to protecting our planet, making changes to help reduce waste is a gift that keeps on giving.

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Aleza Freeman