4 Steps to a More Sustainable Holiday

07 December 2021

CL Croft

Gift, eat, travel, and decorate with less

During the holidays, Americans add about 25 million tons of waste to the usual load, composed primarily of wrapping paper and shopping bags. More than two billion cards are mailed, and over 38,000 miles of (rarely biodegradable) ribbon is discarded. And all of those extra plane and car trips add up to exponentially higher carbon emissions.

So what's a celebrant to do? Are there ways to be merry and make less waste? Yes. Here’s our list of easy steps you can take for a more sustainable holiday season, from gift-giving to travel, dining to decorating.

And since sustainability is also about longevity, we've included a few insights on how to make, and keep, lasting changes to the way you and your family celebrate.

#1: Give lighter

Give attention

“Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart,” writes botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings Of Plants . The gift of a thoughtful letter—or of being present and mindful with loved ones—creates lasting memories that resonate beyond the lifespan of material.

Give intentionally

When it comes to objects, invest some thought in what your recipient truly needs, values, and wants. Then consider gifts that score higher on the sustainability spectrum—like ones from sustainable and local brands, ones from zero-waste and carbon-neutral shops, consumable gifts (like local delicacies), experiential gifts (like live music or sports tickets), or homemade gifts from the heart. No one forgets an expertly made homemade cookie.

shop sustainable gifts

Give low-waste

A majority of holiday waste comes from gift wrap alone—ones with metallic finishes, glitter or glossy plastic go straight to the landfill. Use recyclable/compostable gift wrap or brown kraft paper instead, and get creative with the paper already in your house.

#2: Feast mindfully

Eat plant-based

In the words of Michael Pollan, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

According to a 2019 report published by scientists Joseph Poore of the University of Oxford and Thomas Nemece of Agroscope, impacts of even the lowest-impact animal products tend to exceed those of plant-based substitutes. Producing 1kg of beef emits 60kg of greenhouse gases, while producing 1kg of peas produces only 1kg.

To summarize their findings: what you eat is generally more important than where or how it was grown. To save CO2, eat less red meat, less animal products, and more in-season vegetables.

eat sustainably

Go compostable

Single-use plastic is produced by fossil fuels and accounts for over 300 million tons of waste every year. Washable dishes are best—but if you are having large gatherings without a small army of dishwashers, choose compostable plates and utensils made from bamboo or sugarcane.

Keep leftovers out of landfills

On a global scale, wasted food accounts for about 8% of all greenhouse emissions . And Americans never eat more than during the holidays. When food decomposes in a landfill, it produces significant methane, which is 28 times as destructive as CO2. Not so, in compost. According to climate non-profit Project Drawdown , a global composting practice could save as much carbon as taking 15 million passengers off the road for 30 years. Prevent food waste by freezing leftovers—and if your city has a composting option, compost away.

#3: Travel smarter

Choose efficient transportation

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA . And during the holidays, carbon emissions from planes and cars skyrocket.

According to Sustainable Travel International , some of the most effective ways to curb carbon emissions include avoiding flying to nearby destinations and instead choosing public transportation, rail or carpool—and if you’re flying—booking non-stop flights, flying economy, and packing lighter.

In a study on the carbon footprint of holiday vacations by Professor Stefan Gössling, of Lund University and Dr. Ya-Yen Sun of the University of Queensland, the authors reported that plane travel is one of the highest sources of greenhouse gas emissions—but surprisingly, it’s often outnumbered by the carbon emissions of high-emitting food products (meat and animal products) and food waste. What you eat, and how efficiently, is sometimes more significant than how you got to the place where you are eating. And according to their study, slower holidays help: travel less to fewer places, and stay longer.

sustainable travel

Consider offsets (carefully)

Carbon offsets are no match to the impact of reducing consumption and transitioning to cleaner technologies—ultimately, the most powerful decision you can make about travel is to do it less and more efficiently. But you can incorporate carbon offset into a holistic approach to consuming less by purchasing offsets for the trips that you do take. Companies like Carbonfund and Terrapass make it easy.

Bring reusables

8 million tons of plastic land in the ocean every year —and a majority comes from single-use plastic. This travel season, invest in a system of reusable, refillable travel bottles, a tote bag, a mug, cutlery, a straw, and a large water bottle. These make great gifts too!

#4: Spruce softly

Recycle or rent your Christmas Tree

When disposed of in a landfill, the average Christmas tree emits 16kg of carbon equivalents. Multiply that by millions of trees that get tossed each year and you’ve got significant emissions. Artificial Christmas trees might seem like a good alternative, but they create plenty of plastic waste when they hit the landfill (not to mention resources required to manufacture and ship them).

If you normally buy a tree, find one that’s real and pesticide-free, and recycle it. (And If you live in the San Francisco area, you can even rent one .)

For next-level sustainability, a slow-growing tree (like the Norfollk Pine) can live happily in a small apartment year round. A smaller, container-potted tree can be planted in your yard in the spring––and will continue to absorb CO2 for years.

Switch to LED

According to NASA , American suburbs increase their light intensity by 30% to 50% starting Black Friday of every year, and that brightness lasts until the new year. LED lights last four to five decades, and use 80-90% less energy than incandescent. Whether the strands are wrapped around your tree or your porch railings, that adds up fast. Extra points if you pair them with automatic timers.

Decorate naturally

Trade disposable decorations for ones you already own, and for natural ones—consider the dried orange garland, or the humble handmade wreath. Crafting at home is a festive and enjoyable bonding activity for friends and family alike.

natural decorations

The science behind making lasting changes

Finally, let’s talk about changes. When it comes to tradition and large family gatherings, changes can be hard to make. And even among folks concerned with climate, many get caught up in what psychologists call the “ intention-action gap ,” falling into ad-driven consumption patterns, even when they don’t line up with our values or intentions.

The science of habit changing tells us that major, habitual changes take time—and that meaningful changes happen incrementally, in realistically achievable steps. BJ Fogg, Director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford and author of Tiny Habits, offers these three approaches:

  1. Have an epiphany.
  2. Re-design your environment to change behavior.
  3. Make tiny changes that wire new habits in incremental ways.

In the context of holiday planning, it’s unlikely that everyone involved is having a sustainability epiphany. But that’s okay— according to studies on how groups respond to social cues , even tiny changes are influential in groups. Over time, those changes add up to lasting effects. And even individual actions can catch on, or make an impression on younger kin.

Fogg summed it up in an NPR interview . “It’s easier [and faster] to create habits and change than most people think, and it can even be fun if you do it in the right way.”

All meaningful change takes effort, patience, and a positive spirit. Celebrate small victories, and take changes in stride. Happy holidays from us at LifeLabs.