When I think about the holidays, the first things that come to mind is beautifully lit Christmas trees, celebrating with family and friends, and how all of it can be terribly wasteful when one doesn’t think mindfully about their impact. Because my wife and I live a relatively minimalist and sustainable lifestyle, we often struggle with how much waste there really is when we leave our bubble. I get why: thinking critically about where one’s stuff comes from sucks. Unfortunately, this can make the holidays a little more stressful. Examples include well-meaning family who insists that paper plates save time so are better at parties, all the electronics bought as gifts, tons of food waste, and generally people not thinking critically about what they’re buying or doing. It’s hard to debate every aspect of one’s lifestyle from food, to decor, to clothing. Yet as our environment becomes swiftly faster and more globalized, I find it imperative to continue to be thoughtful and intentional about our lifestyles. The holidays are part of that, whether we like it or not.
This is the first year that Amanda and I are living alone and celebrating the holidays together, so they’ve been on my mind a lot. There’s definitely a certain amount of pressure that people don’t talk about when you’re married and you don’t have housemates to decorate one’s house, host family and friends, and invest in things like Christmas tree stands. That said, we’re definitely trying to keep our lives free of too many material things. We’re both very wary of becoming people who store hundreds of boxes of holiday decorations hidden in our future basement or garage, not unlike our parents.
Luckily, all that thinking hasn’t been for nothing! I’ve compiled my top 10 ways of making your holiday season greener, so that you can have a beautiful, Instagram-worthy December, and feel really good about your choices as well. I really believe making sustainable choices can be more beautiful than piling on the gilded wrapping paper and plastic ornaments, and these suggestions will have you feeling the love in no time.
1. Invest In Your Tree
In the past week, I’ve done a lot of Christmas tree research, and it turns out that it’s more sustainable to purchase a live tree over a fake tree during the holiday season (though to be honest, a potted tree that you lovingly tend to is still the most sustainable alternative). The farmed trees are grown on land that has difficulty producing other viable crops, the land is protected through the farm and won’t be developed, the trees provide a habitat for animals throughout the year, and several trees are typically planted for every tree cut. The most sustainable tree farms typically cut from the top of the tree, leaving the rest to grow back, producing several Christmas trees in a tree’s lifetime! Not to mention, the trees suck up CO2 throughout the year, which is great. BUT, not all trees are equal, and there are several ways you can ensure that your tree purchase stays sustainable.
Always buy a tree that’s as local as you can. Do your research and make sure the tree you buy is the best tree you can buy in terms of mileage to ship it. Make sure your tree was grown sustainably by reading up on the farming practices of your local Christmas tree farm before you purchase. Many cities have composting or repurposing programs Christmas trees, see how you responsibly dispose of your tree when you’re done. Some cities turn the trees into multch for parks, others compost them, regardless, look to see what’s in your area before you just chuck your tree in the trash. There are also a ton of cool DIY projects you can make with old Christmas trees. I really liked the idea of turning the pine needles into sachets or natural dye, that might be a post for later!
2. Set The Table With Real Plates and Silverware
Make your guests feel special this holiday season, and serve them dinner on real plates and let them eat with real forks! I don’t even want to think about all the paper and plastic plates I’ve eaten off of in my life, when it’s so easy to just serve food on actual plates. And silverware! If you don’t have enough plates for your party, spend the extra dollar and rent some. As someone who has rented tableware for numerous events, and my own wedding, I’m always surprised by how easy it is. You can even just rent 10 plates, which is pretty awesome. 10 plates would cost you around $5, and those are Bay Area prices. Not only is it a much more sustainable way to serve dinner, it’s an elegant gesture that will go over well with your mom. The best rental companies won’t even make you wash all the dishes, just scrap off the excess food and put them back in the crate. It’s a win-win.
3. Buy Locally Handmade Gifts
Is there anything better than supporting a small business? Every year Amanda and I try to buy our gifts from locally owned small businesses run by women. It’s so much fun to go to a craft fair or to a locally focused shop and pick stuff out for family and friends, and we get the added satisfaction that we helped support a real person with real aspirations that aren’t just a bottom line. Plus, we always end up making a few friends along the way, and I’ve never had someone disappointed by the handmade soap, body butter, jewelry, home decor, or accessories I’ve purchased. It’s also really cool for relatives who live out of town to get something special from where you live.
4. Better Yet- Make Gifts Yourself
Of course, if you’re crafty and have the time, making your gifts is the best way to go, especially if you think intentionally about where the materials are coming from. The hat photographed above I knitted myself from locally sourced and naturally dyed wool from a local yarn shop here in Berkeley called A Verb For Keeping Warm. It took me a while to finish the hat, but I know my friend will really appreciate it. There are so many wonderful projects to try out, it’s almost impossible to run out of ideas. In the past we’ve made everything from flavored cooking oils to mittens made from sweaters. All are fantastic options.
5. Give Experiences and Causes over Things
Every year for Christmas my mom asks for the same thing: a renewal of her membership at the DeYoung Art Museum in San Francisco. She loves art, she loves the museum, and it’s never been a disappointment for her because she gets reduced rates for shows and then she can bring me or a friend as well. While some people might sneer at getting an experience or a cause over a physical gift, others would actually prefer it. The truth is, not everyone wants more stuff, but if you spend the same amount of money on an experience that they’d never think to get themselves or one they’ve been wanting for awhile, it can be really worthwhile. The photo above, for example, was taken of me wandering through the moors of Northern England. Because Amanda and I don’t spend a ton of money on things like televisions, iPads, or designer clothing, we’re often able to travel to really amazing places.
As for causes, I love when people donate to causes in my name- assuming I agree with the cause. It can help here to choose politically neutral causes, like wildlife refugees, humane societies, children’s foundations, hospitals, you get the idea. Definitely don’t try to stir up controversy with this gift. That said if you really know the person and suspect they might enjoy a donation in their name to Planned Parenthood (me, if anyone’s reading this), go for it.
6. Get Creative with Gift Wrapping
Wrapping paper might be one of the most fun things about putting presents under the Christmas tree, but it’s also one of the most wasteful parts of the holidays. Most people in my experience rip their gifts open with glee and then toss the respective paper in the trash. I’ve seen big black plastic bags of paper just thrown away at various holiday events. Because trees make paper, and we currently have a shortage of trees in the world, recycling your wrapping paper is one of the best things you can do with it. Better yet – use recycled materials to wrap your gifts, and then recycle the paper when you’re done. Even better than that is if you can use recycled materials to wrap your gifts, and reuse that wrapping time and time again until it can’t be used anymore. Kids will typically always rip paper, but you can teach them about recycling by getting all the kiddos to gather up the wrapping paper at the end of opening their presents and talking about how we need to save trees.
Gift bags are also a great alternative to traditional wrapping paper. I’ve been using the same brown giftbags that I hand-stamped myself for several years now. My family knows that I’d prefer they give them back to me if they don’t plan on keeping them, and they always do. I mix and match different additional decorations to keep things interesting, and it really never gets boring. A well-thought out wrapping job is a well-delivered package no matter what you use.
7. Choose Natural Decor
You know what you can’t recycle? Petroleum-based holiday decorations. But you can compost natural decor like branches, berries, leaves, and misteltoe. Culinary herbs like rosemary and sage make beautiful holiday decorations in little vases or mason jars, the added benefit being that you can cook with them when you’re ready to take them down! Almost anything from your backyard can be repurposed into stunning natural decorations, like this wreath I made from branches that fell off a tree near my apartment building. Of course, you could argue that you plan to use your plastic decorations for years to come, but those decorations would have to be used for many years to earn back their carbon footprint after production and shipping from China. Natural decor- even the branches you snipped of your Christmas tree to fit them into are elegant, minimalist, and provide a great alternative to synthetic ribbons piled with glitter, in my humble opinion.
8. Turn Off Your Lights
There is absolutely no reason your Christmas tree or holiday lights need to stay on all night. If no one is enjoying them, turn them off and save energy. It’s much more efficient in the long run, even if your lights are battery operated LED lights, because no matter what makes your lights twinkle, they’re running off of something. I keep mine off during the day, or when I’m not in the room with them, turn them on in the evening to enjoy during dinner, or when I have company over, and then turn them off when I’m going to bed.
9. Eat Less Meat
Whether we love it or hate it, no one can deny that it takes a lot of energy and water to raise livestock for food. I’m not suggesting that you can’t eat meat, only hinting that if you want to cut back on your impact, maybe having numerous meat dishes at your family’s holiday feast is unnecessary. It can be just as delicious to have a main dish like lamb or turkey and a bunch of tastey sides. Yes, that might mean giving up anything bacon-wrapped, but with a million vegetarian recipes out there you’re bound to find something that satisfies your pallet. And while you’re at it, make sure that the meat you do buy is local and organic- which will definitely mean less CO2 was released while shipping the meat, and it will be more nutrious overall.
Better yet- go completely meatless! As a not so strict vegetarian who actively does try to eat vegetarian, my favorite recipe blogs for vegetarian food are Cookie + Kate, 101 Cookbooks, and The Simple Veganista. You can’t go wrong with these sites, trust me.
10. Compost Your Food Scraps
I know, I know, I know, you probably don’t have compost in your city and don’t have the space for your own compost garden. I’ve heard it all before. But if you do, you should be composting. It’s so beneficial to the environment, it provides the city with a free mechanism to get compost for local parks and gardens, it’s super easy, and it doesn’t cost a dime. If you have space, you could also think about setting up your own compost pile. Regardless, holiday parties create a lot of leftover food and it’s way more sustainable to compost that food and the scraps than toss it into a plastic garbage bag and ship it off to the landfill.
Of course, meat isn’t something you can compost. That said, making bone broth from the bones left over from your holiday meal is really easy and a great boost for the rest of cold and flu season!
Anyone have other tips?
I hope you enjoyed these tips for keeping your holidays sustainable! What are other ways to cut back on your waste during the holidays? I’d love to hear more suggestions.