Ten easy ways to make your holiday celebrations more sustainable
Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash
With the holiday season around the corner, living sustainably might be the last thing on your mind. But you can practice an eco-friendly lifestyle even during hectic holidays with a few simple swaps. Here are ten of OHRD’s tips for a greener December.
1. Get creative with wrapping — or give unwrapped gifts
Patterned wrapping paper that comes rolled on a cardboard tube is rarely recyclable. That’s because the “paper” is actually a blend of paper and plastic, making it impossible for recycling processors to separate the two materials. Forego traditional wrapping paper, ribbon and bows and opt for a more sustainable option.
Gift bags are also usually made with plastic, but when treated with care, they can be reused for years. Another great option is to use a bonus gift to wrap up the first gift — like wrapping gifts in a scarf or placing them in a tote bag. Growing up, my uncle would always wrap my holiday gifts in the Sunday funnies, so I got a present and a chuckle. You can also look specifically for recyclable wrapping paper.
We at OHRD are big fans of unwrapped gifts, too! An unwrapped gift doesn’t have to spoil the fun of the holidays, and the loved ones receiving your gifts probably won’t think twice if you abandon wrapping paper this year.
2. Buy secondhand décor
If you’ve ever set foot in a thrift store in November or December, you know that secondhand retailers get more holiday decoration donations than they know what to do with. Garage sales, flea markets, and other consignment locations are perfect for those who want to save money, too, since secondhand stores often have steep discounts compared to buying new.
The secondhand market has huge benefits outside of financial savings. By buying secondhand, consumers can help drive down demand for new items. Plus, many area thrift stores are run by not-for-profit organizations, which means your money go towards a good cause. That’s a win-win for the giving season!
3. Go green with your greens
When it comes to Christmas trees, most of us face a choice: live trees or plastic ones. On one hand, live trees are both natural and biodegradable—that is, so long as you forego artificial snow from an aerosol can. The downside to buying live trees is that you must purchase one every season, and you can’t always confirm whether they were ethically harvested. If you end up picking an live tree this year, take it and all your other organic holiday décor to the Yardwaste Recycling Center in Springfield for composting. Make sure all décor is free of ornaments and lights. Don’t throw organic holiday décor in the trash!
Alternatively, artificial trees can be set up year after year. The downside for folks hoping to cut down on plastics is that these trees are made of PVC. These trees can’t be recycled, so the best advice for using them sustainably is to take good care of it. Store plastic trees in a dry place, cover with a bag to keep dust away, and avoid excess strain on the branches and base as you pack it away. Thrift stores accept gently used artificial trees, but broken trees are landfill waste.
4. Gift with intention
Not only is it awkward to receive a gift you don’t want, it’s also a huge burden on the planet. If we’re going to talk about sustainable holiday seasons, we need to dismantle gifting taboos and stop buying each other unwanted gifts. It takes a lot of energy, resources and labor to mine, manufacture, and ship an item—all for it to end up collecting dust in someone’s home, or worse yet, taking up space in a landfill indefinitely. Clearly something needs to change.
One of the best and easiest methods to combat giving and receiving unwanted gifts is to practice honesty. Tell your loved ones what you actually want this season, and ask them to be honest, too. You might try building a collaborative Pinterest board, Instagram page, or other digital wishlist with your loved ones. Retailers like Amazon and Wal-Mart give their website users the ability to create wishlists, too. When friends and family are giving and receiving presents that they’ll cherish for years, fewer things will go to waste.
For people who are notoriously difficult to buy for, my go-to gift is money. A gift card, Venmo payment or charitable donation in a friend’s name has always been a reliable way to put a smile on a loved one’s face. And in the case of my 16-year-old brother who’s impossible to buy for, I go for a good ol’ “Jackson handshake” — that is, handing him a crisp $20 bill. I say it’s time we dismantle the taboo that says it’s bad taste to gift money.
Plus, gifts don’t need to be physical. Consider gifting experiences instead; this will often create lasting memories and build stronger bonds among those who matter most. Before COVID-19 put a pause on my family’s typical celebrations, we’d go ice skating every Black Friday and go to the movie theater every Christmas Day. These traditions mean more to me than any physical gift.
5. Be picky about your décor
Overconsumption—buying so much that it jeopardizes the planet—is a big talking point in sustainability circles, and there’s no time of the year easier to see overconsumption in action than the holidays. This problem manifests itself in extravagant, over-the-top decorations that can engulf an entire home. One way to be a part of the solution is simply to buy fewer decorations.
When I think about holiday overconsumption, I’m reminded of the 2006 movie “Deck the Halls” starring Matthew Broderick and Danny DeVito. In the film, the two neighbors spend the days leading up to Christmas swept up in a bitter rivalry, racing to be the home with the most lights. By the end of the movie, their homes are so comically illuminated that they can be seen from space! Even though most people aren’t taking holiday decorating quite that far, it may still be the case that we can get away with less.
Instead of going overboard with decorations that don’t “spark joy,” consider paring down your collection to just a few items that truly hold sentimental value. A home can still feel festive with just a couple decorations. But when you declutter your décor, be sure to donate the items you don’t want. Instead of ending up in the landfill, someone else may be able to give them a second life.
6. Embrace winter smells naturally
Nothing takes me out of the holiday spirit quicker than the artificial scents of cheap aerosols, plastic outlet plugins, and chemical-filled candles. Have you ever noticed these holiday scents never quite smell as good as promised?
There are plenty eco-friendly alternatives to get your house smelling like the North Pole.
Instead of making a trip to Bath and Body Works to get your long-awaited seasonal scents, take the opportunity to get smells the long way by baking gingerbread or sugar cookies yourself. Not to mention the added bonus of a delicious treat to sweeten the deal!
Stovetop potpourris are a great way to bring olfactory delights into your home. Simply heat a small pot of water on the stove and add in your favorite holiday aromatics, like citrus, mint, pine needles, cinnamon or cloves. If you have a wood-burning stove in your home, you can skip the stovetop altogether and save energy by letting the hearth warm your ingredients. This way you can combat the winter dryness, too. Stovetop scents help humidify a space and can help keep runny noses at bay.
The giving season doesn’t always mean you need to give gifts—you can also give your time. Springfield especially has lots of nonprofits that are always looking for volunteers, and there’s nothing better for the planet than helping your fellow human beings. For the last several years, my mother and I have volunteered with the Downtown Springfield Association to help prep the annual Christmas Parade route around the square. It’s a ton of fun so long as I remember to bring my mittens.
The website VolunteerMatch is a good place to start if you don’t already have a favorite not-for-profit organization to support.
8. Shop local
When you shop local, you keep more money in your economy. Materials travel fewer miles, local employees get paid, and you can help keep local artists doing what they love to do.
Not all your holiday shopping needs to happen in November and December, either. Visiting farmers markets and craft fairs in the spring, summer and fall is great for finding one-of-a-kind, meaningful gifts made by folks in your neck of the woods.
Some of my favorite gifts I’ve ever received are from right here in the Ozarks—like a jar of Mexican Villa’s sweet sauce, Springfield-themed stickers from Five-Pound Apparel, a handmade wooden bookmark from a craft vendor at the Farmers Market of the Ozarks, and plants from Schaffitzel’s.
9. Up your storage game
A few years ago, my mother misplaced our Christmas tree, and it was only after she bought a new one that we found the missing tree in the back corner of the attic. Keeping items organized, reusing bubble wrap and packing peanuts from your latest online shopping delivery, and labeling your boxes will save you both time and energy. You’ll save money when you don’t have to re-purchase decorations, too.
After the holidays are over, carefully pack away decorations and label your containers. Solid plastic totes generally go on sale at the beginning of every year—last time I was able to snag a few for $2 apiece. These hold up well year after year and can withstand the temperature fluctuations in my attic, whereas cardboard boxes (while recyclable) tend to break apart after a few uses and don’t keep items safe from moisture.
When things DO break, which is inevitable, know where you can take them. Not all broken items are trash. Keep an eye out for a plastic recycling label, and take advantage of local recycling centers for glass, paper and metal recyclables. Broken string lights can be recycled by dropping off at the Computer Recycling Center.
10. Skip the holiday-themed merchandise
The problem with holiday-themed sweaters, mugs, hats, or pens is that they’re likely to be used only a couple weeks out of the year.
The first two times I volunteered for the Christmas Parade at the DSA, they gave me Christmas-themed sweaters. The sweaters are adorable, but I feel silly wearing them anytime outside of December because it’s out of season. (The third year I volunteered, I politely declined a sweater.)
This year, instead of buying those Rudolph-patterned PJ’s, opt for the ones with plaid, snowflakes or a solid color. This way you can keep wearing them all winter long. Getting more wears out of clothing is always the more sustainable option!
About the Author
Diana Dudenhoeffer is a multimedia journalist from Springfield, Missouri. She studied journalism, sustainability and documentary storytelling at Missouri State University. She is the current media intern at OHRD, writing blogposts like this one.