How to celebrate the holidays without ruining the planet

Deck the halls, but make it sustainable.

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ByLauryn Higgins

1 million

The amount of additional trash, in tons, Americans throw out each week between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day

Environmental Protection Agency

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The holiday season is all about bringing loved ones together — but it’s also a terrible time for the environment. According to the EPA, electricity generation and transportation are the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions — and it’s safe to say both significantly increase during the holidays. Add in mass amounts of cards, wrapping paper, and decorations that end up in the landfill, and fake Christmas trees that take centuries to decompose, and things are a little less merry and bright. But a sustainable Christmas and winter holiday season isn’t impossible.

Here’s how to bring the holiday cheer without leaving a massive carbon footprint in your wake.

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Zero-waste holidays are the only holidays I do. I primarily buy things secondhand, make something special, write a kind letter, or re-gift something I no longer use. I spend a lot of time learning what others’ love language is, and a good portion of the time, people don’t want something physical, they want some quality time or kind and loving words.

Kat Woerner, climate activist and youngest elected executive committee member at Nebraska Sierra Club

Let there be (LED) lights

Old school, incandescent holiday lights are a major electricity drain. LED lights use at least 75% less energy — and last way longer, per the U.S. Department of Energy.

The upfront cost is typically more for a string of LEDs, but the emissions and money you’ll save over the years is well worth it. Plus, you can connect up to 25 strands of LEDs plugged into a single outlet without overloading the socket.

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Keep it simple

The holiday season can account for up to 50% of an increase in light pollution, which has seriously disrupt wildlife’s natural behavior.

And LED lights may make it worse — in part because of their harmful blue wavelengths, and in part because their efficiency has apparently led people to use even more lights.

Protect the ecosystem (and minimize your carbon footprint — yes, even LEDs contribute) by:

  1. Opting for amber lights over blue or violet
  2. Buying LEDs with a built-in timer and setting them to turn off when you’re asleep and away
  3. Using dimmable lights to limit the brightness when they’re on
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Remember to recycle

If you need to get rid of old or broken holiday lights, be sure to recycle them properly. Many hardware stores will take them off your hands, but if you can’t find a local option, you can ship them to Holiday LEDs or Christmas Light Source and get a discount on new lights in return.

Pass on paraffin

Many candles are made with paraffin wax, a petroleum product that’s objectively terrible for the planet. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have an eco-friendly Hanukkah.

Channel the Maccabees and burn olive oil, or light your menorah with paraffin-free Hanukkah candles. Beeswax is a popular alternative; but if you want to go vegan (the ethics of beeswax are questionable), opt for responsibly-sourced plant-based candles.

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Buy secondhand decor

It’s certainly okay to invest in quality decorations that you’ll use for decades, but using recycled ones is even better — especially if you expect your tastes to change.

Before buying new, check local thrift stores, Facebook Marketplace, and online vintage and secondhand stores; and ask family and friends if they have any leftover or unwanted decor. Whether you’re looking for something specific or open to whatever catches your eye, you can likely find it secondhand.

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Donate before ditching

If you’re tired of your own decor, be mindful about how you get rid of it. Arrange a swap with loved ones, donate directly via a “Buy Nothing” group, or seek out specialty recycling programs for items beyond repair.

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Get crafty

Chances are, you have plenty of things at home that can be transformed into festive holiday decor fairly easily — even if you’re a big DIYer.

Use scrap paper to make snowflakes. Repurpose old food jars into candle or twinkle light holders. String popcorn or dried fruit to make a garland. If you have leftover artificial spider webs from Halloween, use them to create a snowscape on your table or mantel.

When the holiday is over, pack away your creations (or compost the food and paper materials) so you don’t have to use even more materials next year.

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Forgo glitter

Glitter may be beautiful, but it’s also on the holiday decor naughty list. The sparkle that’s on everything from wrapping paper to garlands is made of tiny plastic sheets that break down into microplastics — which ultimately end up in our waterways and get consumed by marine life and even humans. Instead get your holiday sparkle and glow from reusable alternatives like colored sand, glass, recycled paper confetti, beads, and colored seeds.

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Become one with nature

Take a note from Mother Nature and venture outside to source your holiday decorations. Gather pine needles or pine cones to make a Christmas wreath; twigs or branches for a tablescape; or berries and nuts as accents. Just be sure these items are clean and free of any bugs before you bring them indoors.

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4.6 million

The amount of wrapping paper, in pounds, Americans use each year

Inverse

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Wrap without waste

Many wrapping papers can’t be recycled because of the dyes, inks, plastic, glitter, tape, and other embellishments they contain. The same goes for ribbon, which can be a nightmare for recycling facilities. And yet, according to the National Environmental Education Foundation, Americans toss an estimated 38,000 miles of ribbon every year.

Instead of adding to the waste, sustainably conceal your gifts with magazine pages, brown grocery bags, fabric scraps, old maps, and even scarves and t-shirts. Have a bunch of canvas totes lying around? Use those, too.

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Rethink holiday cards

2.65 billion holiday cards — enough to fill a football field 10 stories high — are sold in the U.S. each year. And if they’re embossed, embellished with glitter, or on glossy paper too thick to tear, they can’t be recycled.

If you still want to send holiday cheer, consider e-cards or video messages, repurpose last year’s cards, or make your own from materials you already have. If you’re set on pre-made greetings, opt for envelope-free paper postcards, plantable cards made from seed paper, or cards made from recycled materials.

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500

The number of years it takes for an artificial Christmas tree to decompose in a landfill

Recycle Track Systems

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Get real (trees)

Artificial trees are often made of a plastic called polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which can’t be recycled and creates far more carbon emissions than live trees — especially when you consider the fact that almost 90% of fake trees in the U.S. are shipped from China.

As The Nature Conservancy points out, when you buy a real tree, you’re helping keep farms in business and, in turn, preserving healthy forest habitats. Just be sure to buy it from a local, sustainably managed farm.

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If you’re adamant on going artificial, hold onto it for as long as possible.

A 2009 study out of Montreal found one fake tree would need to be reused for 20 years to have a smaller footprint than getting a real one annually.

When you are ready to toss it, try donating it to a local business, school, or church first. And if the tree has seen better days, break down the branches and mold them into a wreath.

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Give your tree a second life

There’s no reason any Christmas tree should end up in a landfill.

Real trees can be composted or recycled and turned into mulch, depending on where you live. Most rural garbage services pick up trees during the first two weeks of January; just call ahead to be sure.

If you live in a city where you can’t leave trees on the curb, inquire with your local Parks and Recreation Department about how you can responsibly dispose of your tree. Most cities have drop-off locations in major parks.

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Take your time

Celebrating the holidays sustainably doesn’t have to mean overhauling your entire set-up at once. Consider it a long-term project: Light your leftover paraffin Hanukkah candles before buying new vegan ones; use up the last of the wrapping paper in your collection (and save the salvageable scraps for next year); collect meaningful vintage decor as you discover it; and reuse the decorations you already have for as long as possible.

After all, the holidays are all about tradition — and the best traditions are solidified over time.