Go green this holiday season, beyond the Christmas tree. 

By Karla Walsh
December 09, 2019
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We’re all about gifting thoughtful presents and getting in the jolly ol’ spirit with festive decor inside and out. But all the cheer often means a lot of “stuff.” And a lot of waste. Americans toss one million extra pounds of garbage each week between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, according to the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF). How can we channel our inner Santa without giving such a hit to Mother Nature? We spoke to Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), for her best tips and tricks to celebrate more sustainably this holiday season.

Jacob Fox

1
Deck the Halls With LED Lights

American cities shine 20 to 50% brighter from space between Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to NASA research.

“While that can bring a lot of cheer during this dark time of the year, it also takes a lot of energy. LED bulbs use at least 75% less energy, so that’s a much smaller climate footprint and much lower bills,” Hoover says.

Admittedly, the initial investment for strands of LED Christmas lights is higher (generally about $5 to $15 more for a strand of LED lights compared to conventional, depending on the number of bulbs), but Hoover says the lower energy bill quickly makes up for the difference in upfront costs.

Buy It: Philips 60ct Christmas LED Smooth Mini String Lights, $11.99, Target

“They also last a lot longer—up to 40 seasons!—so you are saving money and sending fewer strands into the trash year after year. On top of all that, there’s also a lower fire risk, since LEDs don’t get as hot against your tree,” she says.

Related: Here’s Everything You Need to Know to Hang Christmas Lights Outside

2
Opt for a Real Tree

“Real trees are almost always a better choice for the environment than artificial trees,” Hoover says, since they’re grown locally and are made from biodegradable materials. (Learn more about the environmental difference in our debrief about Christmas tree rentals.) “You can also decorate a tree that exists on your property already, or even decorate a houseplant,” she says. Just be sure to dispose of it properly after you pack up the decor.

“Keeping organic waste, like Christmas trees, out of landfills is a key strategy in fighting climate change. When trees and other organics in landfills break down, they produce methane, which is a powerful global warming pollutant. A better option is to recycle trees into mulch or compost, which helps return nutrients and organic matter back to soils and nutrient cycles. Check your local municipality’s website to find out if—and how—they might be able to help recycle your Christmas tree,” Hoover says.

3
When Gifting, Think Quality Over Quantity (and Go Ahead, Regift)

Items need not be new to be noteworthy. “The main misconception most of us have when purchasing gifts is that in order for it to be nice, it has to be new. The best way to reduce environmental impacts associated with gifts is to reduce and reuse—and then recycle, in that order,” Hoover says. 

Yes, that means you have his full permission to regift or shop for interesting finds at thrift stores. And you won't be alone. More than half of Americans are open to receiving pre-owned gifts during the holidays, according to a recent article from Bloomberg

4
Splurge on Experiences Instead of Things

When you do purchase new items, prioritize those that are durable, made from recycled content, and that can be repurposed or recycled at their end of life, Hoover suggests. And if possible, gift activities or services rather than items. Bonus points if it’s something you and the recipient can enjoy together, such as two tickets to a cooking class or a couple of memberships at your local museum.

“Tickets to a show or a handmade coupon for help with something needed are both wonderful options,” Hoover says.

5
Or Donate to a Charity in the Recipient's Name

For a gift that will give back for years to come, consider a charitable donation in someone’s name. “The holidays are the perfect time to make donations to charities that are working on causes near-and-dear to your loved ones’ heart,” Hoover says. “As you're looking for local or national charities to support, consider using resources like Charity Navigator, which provides in-depth ratings for thousands of nonprofit organizations.” 

Do so and you’ll benefit a bit, too: “Gifts made to nonprofit organizations before midnight on December 31 can be deducted from your 2019 federal income taxes,” she adds.

Related: 20 Amazing Gifts That Give Back

6
Wrap in an Eco-Friendly Fashion

Even if you share experiences and charitable donations, you’ll likely have at least a few items to wrap (say, for the white elephant exchange or your little niece). In that case, seek out recycled options such as newspaper comics, old wall calendars, fabric, or paper maps, Hoover recommends. You can even reuse wrapping paper.

Since Americans discard about 38,000 miles of ribbon, according to NEEF, or enough to wrap around the entire planet, also keep your tie materials top of mind. Try twine, raffia, or reused…or just skip it.

Related: Learn How to Wrap a Gift with Fabric

7
Send Recycled Cards—Or, Better Yet, Plantable Cards

More than 2.6 billion Christmas cards are sent each year, NEEF reports, which can really add up in terms of paper use and environmental impact for transport. The best option is to call with a holiday greeting or send an ecard. 

Related: Decorative Ways to Recycle Christmas Cards

But if you’re set on sending a handwritten note, invest in cards printed on 100 percent post-industrial, recycled paper. For a go-green bonus that will offset the shipping carbon footprint, send plantable cards that are studded with seeds. After opening and enjoying the sentiment, your loved one can soak the card overnight, tear it into tiny pieces, plant under a layer of soil, and water until seedlings delivery another gift: a new plant.

Buy It: Seed Paper Thank You Cards Set of 15, $19.50, Etsy

8
Right-Size Your Menu

“One of the best things you can do to host a more sustainable meal is to eat what you make. In our quest to show people how much we care via their stomachs, however, a lot of uneaten food ends up in the trash. When good food goes to waste, so does all of the water, energy, land, and money it took to get it to our plate,” Hoover says.

So make your list and check it twice before heading to the supermarket. The NRDC and Ad Council’s free online portion planner, The Guestimator, can help.

If you do end up with leftovers, “send your guests home with some. You can even ask them to come prepared with their own to-go containers. And when you can’t bring yourself to eat any more, use your freezer—nearly anything can be popped in there and enjoyed on a late winter weeknight when you’re too tired to cook,” Hoover says.

Love your leftovers event more, whether you enjoy ‘em from the fridge or the freezer, with these 30 smart round-two recipes for everything from chicken and turkey to bread and rice.

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