How to Be Environmentally Friendly During the Holidays

Send more joy—and less to the landfill.


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The holidays produce a lot of trash—more than 1 million tons of additional stuff goes to the landfills each holiday season, according to Oceanic Global

But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a few simple strategies, your holidays can be super-festive and fun—but also be eco-conscious at the same time. 

“We need to be creative and find ways to make this holiday less wasteful,” says Lea d'Auriol, founder of Oceanic Global. “There are now sustainable alternatives to nearly every item you may typically buy during the holidays, so start swapping!”

Reduce your gifting carbon footprint

Get a gift they’re guaranteed to love

Encourage kids (or adults) on your shopping list to create a very specific wish list, whether the old-form written variety or using an online registry like MyRegistry. That’ll help you ensure that your gift is a winner every single time—and avoid the hassles and waste of returns (or gifts that just create clutter until they’re given or thrown away). 

Give your loved ones experiences instead

Avoid the wrong sizes, the returns, and the gift wrapping altogether when you gift experiences instead. Whether you take your nephew for a trip to the zoo, your mom to a fancy tea, or surprise your family with an epic vacation, you’ll be giving priceless memories that they won’t get from the latest electronics. 

Check the labels

More companies create products with sustainability in mind nowadays—so you may be able to find great giftable items crafted from recycled or repurposed materials.

Opt for frustration-free packaging

It’s a small thing, but frustration-free packaging often reduces the amount of plastic used to box it up. (Bonus: you’ll save so much time unpacking all of those toys for your kids or gadgets for you during the holidays).

Watch your local Buy Nothing groups

Many people are giving away new or like-new items that make perfect gifts (likely things that they’ve received as gifts and never used!). If you see something on there that’s perfect for someone on your list, snag it—you’ll save money and save something from the landfill. 

Wrap your gifts sustainably

Unfortunately, most gift wrap isn’t recyclable or reusable. “We throw away an estimated 228,000 miles of wrapping paper per year—which is almost enough for us to wrap the moon once,” d'Auriol says. “Being creative with wrapping is a great way to minimize waste.” 

Ideally, d’Auriol recommends choosing something reusable (or that can be part of the gift), like a scarf. Sites like Living Ethos and Wrappr sell bags or pieces of cloth that can be reused every year for your gifts, or use scraps of fabric that are leftover from crafting projects. Save ribbons and paper gift bags to reuse the next year too. 

You can also look for recyclable options, such as recycled brown kraft wrapping paper or eco-friendly recyclable wrap—or reuse old newspapers, magazines, or other paper around the house for a funky (yet still fun) wrap. 

Rather than use a whole roll of gift wrap on a large gift, hide the item somewhere in the house and send the recipient off on a hunt for it. 

Send e-cards instead of holiday cards

Sad to say, but that adorable family photo that required 100 takes will likely end up in a landfill somewhere. So perhaps send your well wishes and annual family newsletter digitally instead.

If you can’t say goodbye to the paper cards, look at sites like Minted and Artifact Uprising that offer cards made on recycled paper—and skip the foil treatments so they can be recycled again. 

Send gift cards electronically too

Gift cards are a super popular gift—but you don’t need to send another piece of plastic to the trash. Most major retailers sell e-gift cards—and you can often buy now, and have it sent on a specific date to make gift shopping even easier. 

Aim for more eco-friendly entertaining

Be smart about disposables

Minimize one-use plastic products like cups, plates, and utensils to be more environmentally friendly during the holidays. Compostable items may seem like a better option, but d'Auriol says that they may not be as green as you imagine. “Stay away from industrial compostable cups—that means they need to be thrown away in a special bin for pickup, but this is not widely available for home waste management.”

Invest in reusables

If you throw parties on the regular, it might be wise to invest in dishes you can break out for every holiday. “The first and most eco-friendly is always going to be investing in reusables—even if those include 100% recycled hard plastic cups that you reuse for events,” d'Auriol says.

Rent or borrow dishes

Sites like Social Studies and Hestia Harlow can rent you stylish tablescapes, or opt for a local venue to rent dishes for the night. (Most rental places will wash up the cups and plates for you, which can help minimize the post-party cleanup.) Of course, you can always borrow a few trays or salad plates from friends and family members as well to round out your set. 

Send invites electronically

Save the trees and use one of the many digital options, whether you send via text, email, or social media. (Another plus to the electronic invite: They make it easy to manage RSVPs and other party details.) 

Green your holiday decor

Rethink your tree

There’s been a lot of debate about whether a real or artificial tree is more eco-friendly, but there are other options that can be even greener than those. “Consider renting a Christmas tree or decorating one of your house plants instead,” d'Auriol says. You can even get creative with your tree alternatives–like a stylish stack of books or a branch of berries. 

Use LED lights and smart electronics

If your string lights have seen better days, now’s the perfect time to upgrade to LEDs, which use a fraction of the electricity, last much longer, and often come with smart components that allow you to change up your lighting scheme with a tap on a smartphone. Use smart plugs or timers to set lights to go on and off automatically, so you don’t accidentally leave them on when no one’s enjoying them.  

Forage for your decor

Pine cones, pretty branches (evergreen or bare), dried flowers, berry branches, and fruit will look gorgeous and can be composted or eaten when the season’s over.

Invest in a reusable advent calendar

“Most chocolate advent calendars have the single-use plastic trays, so opt for a sustainable one,” d'Auriol says.

Make your holiday menus more earth-friendly

Look for plant-based alternatives 

There are a ton of great plant-based recipes that are celebration-worthy (and likely easier on your budget too).  

Even if you can’t entirely cut out the meat, consider making it a smaller part of the celebration and adding more plant-focused dishes to round out the menu. 

Give out leftovers

Holiday parties always come with tons of leftovers—and you probably don’t need an extra half a cake and five pounds of turkey. So offer guests a parting gift of goodies to enjoy the next day. (You can save and recycle plastic takeout containers for just that purpose, or use mason jars or paper bags.) 

If you end up with more than your guests can take home, look for other ways you can repurpose the food. Groups like Rescuing Leftover Cuisine can take professionally prepared food and deliver it to people or organizations that need your help.

Sign up for cookie exchanges

Unless you’re giving cookies as gifts or throwing a series of massive celebrations, you likely don’t need several dozen of 10 different kinds of cookies. You won't end up with a mountain of cookies going stale at home—and you will get lots of different sweets to sample. (Win-win!)

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