The holiday season is a time of indulgence: Excessive shopping, eating, and drinking are just par for the course at the end of the year. But the impact these habits have on the planet is tremendous as waste and emissions level reach annual highs around the holidays.
The energy used to light up holiday decorations across the U.S. could power 800,000 homes
for an entire year.
If you are looking to incorporate more sustainability into your holiday spirit, there are plenty of ways to adjust habits without feeling like a grinch. Here, we’ve outlined four shifts with the biggest impacts.
Avoid e-commerce: Shop early, shop local
Between Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the wave of gift returns and exchanges post-Christmas, rates of e-commerce in the U.S. are at an all-time high between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Around 15 percent of all packages are shipped during this six-week period: that’s 850 million deliveries and a global spike in emissions. Not to mention the extra packaging that shipped goods require: In 2017, Amazon shipped five billion boxes to Prime members alone (think of all the cardboard and packing peanuts!)
But it doesn’t have to be this way: Try challenging yourself to stay local this year. As a general rule when shopping for gifts, the closer to home, the better. If you need something you can only find at a major retailer, it’s better to visit a store in your city in-person (ideally via transit or rideshare) than it is to buy online and ship directly to your doorstep. And for the same reason, it’s even better to buy directly from a vendor within your neighborhood.
Look through your neighborhood’s small business directory online to find the list of shops at your disposal: There might be a place to buy the perfect stocking stuffers within walking distance of your house, that you didn’t even know was there. You’ll never know until you check.
If you have no choice but to buy online, avoid indulging in expedited shipping, which typically involves a greater number of trips, and thus leads to greater emissions per package. Starting early is the best way to give yourself enough time for packages to arrive via standard shipping — but if you’re scrambling the week before the holidays, you can always give belated gifts. Your loved ones will understand.
Ditch the Christmas lights, go DIY and waste-free
Half the joy of the holiday season comes from seeing decorative lights dotting houses and storefronts at all hours of the day. But that joy comes at a price for the environment. According to satellite data collected by NASA, American cities appear 20 to 50 percent brighter from space during the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s than they do the rest of the year. Holiday lights make up 0.2 percent of the country’s total electricity usage: enough to run 14-million refrigerators or to power 800,000 homes for a year. It’s more energy than some countries produce in a year, including Cambodia, Nepal, Ethiopia, and El Salvador.
Between the wrapping paper, shipping boxes, and packaging, 25 percent more trash — an estimated 25-million tons — is thrown away during the holidays.
We love Christmas lights, but it might be time to ditch them in lieu of an eco-friendly alternative. Try making zero-waste garlands using compostable materials like dried cranberries, popcorn, and twine; when the holidays come to an end, they can be composted or stored away for use next year.
If you’re attached to your holiday lights, try swapping them out for LED versions, which use 70 percent less electricity than incandescent ones, and limiting their use by putting them on a timer or only keeping them on for a few hours a day while you’re home. By being smart about your use, you can shrink your carbon footprint a lot.
Get creative with wrapping
Americans throw away 25 percent more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s than they do during the rest of the year: That’s an estimated 25-million tons of garbage generated during a six-week period, a combination of packaging from shipped boxes, holiday cards, and wrapping paper. While wrapping gifts is a beloved tradition across many U.S. households, there are ways to uphold it without generating so much waste.
If you’re in the habit of saving and reusing your wrapping paper, use last year’s remnants to start with. Alternatively, old sheets of newspaper or magazine make for trendy wrapping, and biodegradable twine is a homey alternative to plastic ribbon. If you aren’t in the habit of reusing your wrapping paper, now is the time to start — be gentle with the gifts you open, then fold and store the paper neatly away when you’re done for reuse next year.
Encourage others to do the same by investing in sturdy paper and keeping the tape to a minimum — the harder it is for a sheet of paper to rip, the easier it’ll be for others to reuse. Better yet, leverage fabrics and textiles to make festive re-usable wrapping that acts as two gifts in one!
Feast with food waste in mind
Food waste poses a major threat to the environment, and levels spike around the holidays, when feasts are aplenty. In the U.S. alone, food waste is estimated to generate the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as 37 million cars. It makes up 21 percent of the country’s landfill content, and these levels only go up in December.
The best way to reduce your food waste is to plan ahead. Try to get an RSVP count of your holiday feast in advance this year and plan your meals accordingly, keeping in mind allergies and dietary restrictions that may reduce the number of people who eat certain meals — if half your party is vegetarian, for example, get a smaller Christmas ham, so you’re not left with an overwhelming amount left in the end. Send leftovers home with guests or use them to try out new recipes in the days following the feast.
If that sounds easier said than done, that’s because it is — research shows that many consumers intend to reduce their food waste, but have trouble remembering to follow through. Setting reminders is said to be a helpful tactic, as are tools like the Guess-timator, a dinner party calculator that will help you figure out how much food you need to prepare based on your guest list’s needs.