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From plant-based eggnog to recycled wrapping paper, here are the best ways to curb your environmental impact.
Words by Jessica Scott-Reid
The season of giving is upon us — a time for joy and cheer, gifts and goodwill. But for those of us looking to cut our eco-impact, this time of year can sometimes feel overwhelming. Consumerism and carnism fuel waste and excess each holiday season, making the acts of both giving and receiving feel especially fraught with anxiety.
One person can’t solve the climate crisis of course, but research from Project Drawdown shows household actions can add up to make a big difference. Still, that doesn’t mean climate anxiety should stop you from celebration. Rest assured, there are ways to get that festive feeling while limiting your carbon footprint and taking it easy on the planet. This year, try these tips for making it a more sustainable holiday celebration.
1. Opt for eco-friendly trees, please.
A Christmas tree farm may be a fun setting for a holiday photoshoot or a Taylor Swift song, but as is often the case for so many agricultural practices, Christmas tree farms can also be ecologically harmful. Clearing wild land for monoculture tree farms can impact native wildlife by reducing natural habitats. The use of pesticides and fertilizers on some farms can leach into soil and water, threatening local ecosystems and polluting the water. Christmas tree farms aren’t doing much for climate change either, unlike the kinds of untouched forests that can help sequester carbon in the ground. Finally, when all the fun is over, discarding trees can contribute to landfill waste if not recycled properly. So consider instead an artificial tree purchased second-hand, which you can re-use for years to come. Or buy a potted live tree that can be replanted outside after the holidays.
2. Call it a wrap on single use wrapping.
While paper products aren’t as polluting as plastic or food waste, most wrapping paper is not recyclable, and ends up in landfill after a few minutes of use. Local recycling rules vary, but often the problem is metallic components, added wax-coated shine and dyes, as well as tissue, according to Zero Waste DC. To cut back on the piles of garbage filling up the bin after all the gift-giving this holiday season, opt for recyclable materials such as newspapers or specifically recyclable wrapping paper. Even better, go for reusable materials like gift bags and cloth wrapping that can be used over and over as a yearly tradition.
3. Gift mindfully this season.
The holiday season is fueled by consumerism — mass purchases of electronics, toys and all the packaging. One of the greatest eco-culprits in these consumer goods is the abundance of plastic. Time Magazine reported in 2021 that “by some estimates, the emissions from the plastics industry could overtake climate pollution from coal by the year 2030.”
The trouble with plastics is their persistence — they’re the scourge of any trash management plan. Enduringly durable and flexible, plastics can take thousands of years to break down in landfill, if they don’t end up in waterways and other ecosystems first. Plastic trash contaminates habitats, leaches chemicals into rivers and streams and becomes part of the food chain for unsuspecting wildlife.
Giving a second to life to used plastic-based goods can help quell the supply and demand for more plastic products in the future, even if it’s just a little. Try thrifting toys, décor and household items this holiday season, as well as source refurbished electronics. You can opt for wooden toys and other low-impact items, or even local experiences instead. And definitely avoid any gifts with climate-polluting animal textiles such as leather, fur and wool.
4. Leave meat off the holiday menu.
Meat and dairy production is a leading contributor to climate change, responsible for around 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. There are other impacts too, including biodiversity loss, land use, ocean degradation, freshwater pollution and deforestation. Opting for more plant-based meals and treats over the holidays can substantially cut your eco-impact.
Research conducted in 2018 by Humane Society International UK and a Harvard University research fellow, found, for example, that a turkey dinner can have double the greenhouse gas emissions of a vegan nut roast. As One Green Planet reported at the time, a traditional Christmas dinner of a turkey roast, meat stuffing, meat gravy, roast potatoes in goose fat and pigs in blankets emits 23.5kg of carbon dioxide. “This is the same amount as driving 78.5 miles in a standard UK car. Alternatively, the same vegan Christmas dinner, including a nut roast, roast potatoes in vegetable oil, vegan pigs in blankets, vegetarian stuffing and gravy emits 9.5kg of equivalent carbon dioxide. This is about 31 miles of driving.”
5. Forgo the New Year’s Eve fireworks.
Fireworks may be festive and fun, but they are also, essentially, exploding garbage. Fireworks release toxic chemicals, heavy metals (such as lead, copper and barium), and pollutants into the air and water, and litter the ground with plastic. Fireworks can affect air quality, ecosystems and wildlife. The noise pollution caused by fireworks can terrify animals, including companion animals, wildlife, zoo animals and farm animals. Nearly every holiday season, fireworks lead to instances of animals being injured or killed trying to flee the loud noise.
6. Plan ahead to reduce food waste.
When preparing your holiday feast, plan your menu with an eye towards reducing food waste. A staggering one-third of global food production is wasted annually — around 1.3 billion metric tons — with nearly 570 million metric tons of food waste tossed out in our own homes. We can help combat food waste by packing leftovers for guests, and exploring creative ways to repurpose remaining ingredients. Composting scraps also reduces your environmental impact, or keep a veggie scrap sac in the freezer to collect ends, stems and peels for nutrient-dense soup stock.
7. Don’t forget the clean-up.
The holiday aftermath can leave behind a major mess. During cleanup, assess your needs for the upcoming year, keep whatever can can be reused and repurposed. As for the rest, donate any surplus decor that you’re not likely to use next season and ensure all that can be recycled, is put in its proper bin. Minimizing what eventually lands in the trash is one key to keeping the festivities low-waste and environmentally sustainable.
The holidays can be an overwhelming time for anyone who worries about their impact on the planet. But they don’t have to be. A few easy steps can help you enjoy the festive season while sticking to your sustainability goals.
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