Sustainable Holidays

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Why is it that every year, during the holidays, our environment takes a beating? Consider this: the Do Your Bit campaign, sponsored by the U.K. Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), estimates that British landfills at the end of the festive season could contain as much as 1 billion Christmas cards (17 for every man, woman, and child); 6 million Christmas trees; 4,200 tons of aluminum foil; and 125,000 tons of plastic packaging. The mountains of trash will also include 32 square miles (83 square kilometers) of wrapping paper, enough to bury St. Thomas, one of the Virgin Islands.

But hang on. Before you get weighed down by the sheer guilt of having had a great time during the festive season, here’s some good news – there are many easy, simple and cost-effective ways to enjoy a cleaner, greener Christmas.


[edit] Environmental Costs of a Traditional Christmas

Who doesn’t like receiving or giving gifts? But each gift means more paper and plastic packaging, which means more trees are cut down and more petrochemicals are produced. Now think about the kinds of things we give each other – consumer goods, books, CDs, candies and chocolates. These require vast amounts of fossil fuel energy to manufacture and transport.

All of us love the sight of a fragrant Christmas Tree – but few of us stop to think what goes into getting so many trees ready for the festive season. They take about seven to ten years to grow to the right height. Most commercially grown Christmas trees are grown on farms that use large amounts of pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers. While they are growing, the fertilizers and pesticides sprayed on them pollute the soil and ground water. When they are cut before Christmas, they are used for an evening and thrown into landfills.

The lights that add so much to Christmas cheer also don’t come without a price. They guzzle electricity to run, and are very harmful when thrown into landfills. All incandescent lights contain lead in the wires that connect to the filament, but the impact is much greater with Christmas lights, which come on a string with many bulbs.

Then we come to what everyone loves most about the holidays – food. Did you know that the average American Christmas dinner could have traveled 1,200 miles to reach the plate? That’s a shocking amount of food miles for one dinner, which guzzle up petroleum for transport and energy for refrigeration.

[edit] Did You Know?

  • Americans throw away an additional 5 million tons of trash - 25% more than usual - between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve.
  • If every family reused just 2 feet (0.6 meter) of holiday ribbon, the 38,000 miles (61,000 kilometers) of ribbon saved could tie a bow around the entire planet!
  • According to one U.S. Department of Energy study, if everyone replaced their conventional holiday light strings with LEDs, at least two billion kilowatt-hours of electricity could be saved in a month. This would be enough to power 200,000 homes -- for a year!
  • The 2.65 billion Christmas cards sold every year in the US could fill a football field ten storeys high! If all of us sent one card less, we could save 50,000 cubic yards of paper.

[edit] How to Lighten the Impact of Holiday Gifts

Before you get put off the holidays, here are some ways to assuage your guilt. As far as gifts are concerned, you can’t stop giving or getting them but you can certainly reduce their environmental impact! Here are some suggestions how –

  • Keep it simple. Giving one thoughtful gift is always better than many small, individually wrapped ones.
  • Give joint gifts. Not only will you be able to get something larger, you’ll also avoid wasting all that wrapping.
  • Try giving homemade presents – friends and family often appreciate homemade wine, jams, preserves and other goodies. Or if you are good at knitting, sewing or painting, you could create gifts that are personal and a lot more meaningful than anything you’d buy from a store.
  • Try choosing gifts that are energy efficient, haven’t been over-packaged and are reusable or recycled.
  • When buying electronics products or watches or toys, try choosing durable, repairable products with warranties. Otherwise, they’re going to land up in landfills sooner or later.
  • Look for gifts that are made of natural components, like sustainably harvested wood, natural fibers, or glass.
  • Buy local. Purchase gifts like foods and handicraft from local vendors.

[edit] Alternate Gift Suggestions

There are many gifts you can give that have minimal or no impact on the environment. For example, you could --

  • Make a donation in the name of the person you want to give a gift to, to an organization working in a subject area of interest to him/her. So if he likes soccer, donate a couple of footballs or kits to a school for underprivileged kids.
  • Gift seeds instead of flowers.
  • Gift certificates offering your time – you could baby sit, pet sit, cook or mow a lawn.
  • Make your own calendars using treasured photographs – they make wonderful gifts!
  • Create recipe books from old family recipes to gift to friends.
  • Plant a tree in someone's name.
  • Gift tickets to a baseball game or to a concert
  • Name a star after them (visit Starnamer for more on this)

[edit] Eco Friendly Gift Wrap Ideas

There are plenty of eco-friendly gift wrapping options. All you need is a bit of creativity and lots of reusable materials! Many wrapping papers these days come with a recycled tag – it means that they have been reprocessed to be used again. Here are some interesting things to use for gift wrapping–

  • Old maps, sheet music or colorful ads from old magazines
  • Scarves and handkerchiefs
  • Leftover fabric or fabric gift bags
  • Lightweight wallpaper
  • Pages from a child's coloring book taped together
  • Newspapers (foreign newspapers are great) and Sunday comic pages
  • Last year's holiday paper (warm iron if wrinkled)
  • Pictures or advertisements from magazines and catalogs

You could also box your gifts, especially if they are fragile. You could use –

  • Baskets
  • Reusable tins
  • Candy boxes decorated with leftover glitter, paint, markers, etc.
  • Old wooden boxes.

[edit] Eco Friendly Christmas Trees

What’s Christmas without a nice tree? The good thing is that Christmas trees do not really denude our forests as they are grown on tree farms. However, the farms they grow in usually use chemical pesticides and fertilizers to hasten their growth. Also, the transport costs add up quite substantially.

So what is the option? Artificial trees consume significant energy and petroleum-based materials during their manufacture. While getting potted trees seems to be the eco-friendly thing to do, they often don't fare well in temperature-controlled homes. The better thing to do is to go in for potted Christmas trees kept outdoors.

If you do go ahead with a cut tree, be sure to send it to be recycled afterwards. This goes a long way in reducing holiday waste. Instead of being thrown in landfills, these may be ground into wood chips, and used as mulch in gardens or parks.

[edit] Guilt-Free Eating During the Holidays

While lavish holiday dinners and entertaining is part of the fun in the festive season, there are many simple ways in which we can cut down on kitchen waste.

  • Get snacks and drinks in large party packs instead of single serve packs. This reduces the packaging material that is thrown away.
  • Proper plates, glasses and cutlery not only look classier, but also reduce the load on your dustbins, which would have otherwise been clogged with disposable crockery and cutlery.
  • If you have conveniently located recycling facilities, this is the time to use them stringently, as much of the waste generated during the holidays -- cans, glass, cardboard, paper and plastic, is recyclable.
  • In order to reduce your Food Miles, plan menus around local produce that is in season.

[edit] Eco Friendly Christmas lights

Christmas lights made with light-emitting diodes, or LEDs are much more energy efficient than traditional Christmas lights. They use the same computer-chip technology used to light calculators and watches.

To find a large selection of these, go to, or For LED garland lights and big lights, go to and type "LED Christmas lights" in the search box.

[edit] References

  • Eco-friendly gifts Global Exchange & Nigel's Eco Store
  • Green Christmas
  • Holiday Wasteline
  • Creative Eco Gifts
  • The Green Ghost