The Worst Holiday Sustainability Offenders & How To Avoid Them

Photographed by Nicole Maroon.
Airplane emissions, single-use wrapping paper waste, and electricity-sucking Christmas tree lights — oh, my! There are a lot of scary things that stand in the way of being truly eco-conscious during the holiday season. But we don't have to totally swear off merry-making in the name of sustainability.
To understand which holiday traditions have the biggest environmental impact and to learn how to minimize that impact, we spoke to Nathan King, the sustainability program manager at Virginia Tech. Ahead, he shares insights and tips for how to spread holiday cheer while still being eco-friendly.

The worst holiday sustainability offenders

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, electricity generation and transportation are the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. King points out that, of course, the use of both those sources increases during the holidays. "Demands for electricity are high due to holiday light displays, shorter daylight hours, and heating homes. In addition, over 100 million people will be traveling to see family or friends with most of them — 91% — traveling by personal vehicle," he says. Additionally, King says trash output increases this time of year. "Americans throw away 25% more trash during the holidays than other times of the year, which end up in our landfills at best or polluting waterways at worst."

Use LED lights

Because electricity generation is such a big offender during the holidays, changing up the lightbulbs you use can make a significant impact. According to King, LED lights and LED candles are worth investing in because they are at least 80% more energy efficient than traditional holiday lights. "Also, you can pair these with indoor and outdoor timers to further save on electricity costs by having them turn on and off exactly when you want them to," he suggests.

Use real dinnerware & freeze or donate leftovers

Listen, we all hate the cleaning up phase that comes after a dinner party, but if we want to cut down on waste, we're just going to have to get over that. "When planning holiday meals, try to ditch the single-use plates, cups, and utensils for your regular dishware and storage containers," King recommends.

If you're making a meal for friends and family, take some time to plan ahead. According to King, putting a little thought into where the leftovers will go before you get to cooking will help cut back on food waste, which he shares, is the largest percentage of waste going to our landfills. "You can freeze leftovers to eat later or donate unused food to a local food bank or homeless shelter," he says.

Wrap gifts with alternative materials & send e-cards

"Traditional wrapping paper typically can't be recycled through curbside programs due to dyes and inks used in the paper," King explains. So, when it comes to wrapping presents, he urges us to get creative and use old newspaper or fabric scraps. You could also opt for brown craft paper, which can be recycled or reused. "Similarly, consider sending an e-card instead of a traditional paper greeting card to reduce landfill waste and save money since roughly 1.6 billion Christmas cards are purchased each year," he shares.

Purchase smaller containerized Christmas trees

You may think that artificial Christmas trees are the more sustainable option compared to cutting down a new tree each year, but the truth is, those create a lot of plastic waste when they're inevitably retired after a few years of use. "For a truly sustainable Christmas tree, think about purchasing a smaller containerized tree to decorate, and then plant it in your yard later in the spring," King recommends. "This has the dual benefit of keeping cut trees out of the landfill and making a beautiful addition to the yard, as well as sucking up carbon dioxide, shading the house in the summer, and reducing soil erosion."

Even if you live in a small apartment, the sustainability program manager has a suggestion for you: "purchase a small slow-growing containerized tree such as a Norfolk Pine and keep it to reuse each Christmas." Plant queens, rejoice!

Invest in carbon offsets

If you live far from your loved ones, no one should tell you not to visit them over the holidays. This season, at its very best, is about being with the people you love most, after all. So, if that means traveling by plane, there are ways to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. "Some airlines give you the option of investing in carbon offsets on their website or you can do an internet search for carbon offset companies. They typically plant trees or restore natural habitat that will act as a carbon sink," King says.

Give eco-friendly gifts

While you can't control other people's sustainability practices this holiday season, you can subtly nudge them in the right direction with what gift you chose to give them. King suggests giving presents that promote sustainable living, like reusable water bottles, metal straws, beeswax wrap, or bamboo toothbrushes. Another type of eco-friendly gift he recommends is an experience: "Consider giving the gift of an experience rather than a material present, such as a trip to the zoo, movie theater, local sports team, opera, etc. This will avoid wrapping and packaging waste while building a memorable time with family and friends."
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