How to Have a Sustainable Christmas

Wintry night

It is, according to Andy Williams, “the most wonderful time of the year”.  It is the time we start thinking about setting aside time to spend with family.  It is also the most wasteful time of the year.  Just the thought of all the travel, the gift buying, the packaging, the wrapping, the cooking and all the food consumed and wasted (kids can be picky eaters – so can some adults!).


It is estimated that $75 billion will be spent on gifts this season.  1.9 billion cards will be sent and 20.8 million trees will be cut down in the U.S. alone for this holiday.


That’s a lot of impact on our blue and green marble.


However, it is possible to make your holiday celebrations more environmentally friendly.


Do I really need to wrap 20 presents in glossy foil, gold lined wrapping paper?


Do you?  No.  Actually, you do not.  There are plenty of options when it comes to wrapping paper, and plenty of sustainable ideas.  Glossy foil or metallic wrapping paper are hard to recycle as they often have heavy metals, which make them of less value for recycling or using as mulch.


There are the obvious solutions – wrapping a gift in newspaper (I liked getting gifts wrapped in the comics when I was a kid.  I’d read my gift first, then open it), or even paper shopping bags (if you have some – not every store still has paper).


You can purchase reusable gift bags from most retailers now.  With a little tissue paper (or even better, craft paper, which is more easily recycled) to wrap the gift, and then putting the gift into a cute bag that the receiver may want to reuse (I’ve given baby gifts with a receiving blanket as the “tissue paper” inside a reusable bag, and the blanket wrapping the actual gift).  Some retailers even make their bags with the intent of them being reused.


Of course, if you’re really craft-inclined – or you are Martha Stewart – you could even use scrap material to make your own reusable gift bags.


But what about my tree?  I use a plastic tree, so I’m environmentally friendly, right?


Oddly enough, you would think that a plastic tree that can be used year after year is environmentally friendly.  In fact, a live tree is actually more environmentally friendly and sustainable.  A plastic tree is generally made up of petroleum products (PVCs) and use resources to be produced and shipped.  Theoretically, they last forever, but people tend to throw away their plastic trees once they aren’t “pretty” anymore (funny – I always thought it was the decorations that made the tree pretty)


If you buy a tree in a pot, which means it retains its root system, you could use that tree for up to three years – and maybe even longer, if you continue to replant it in larger pots so it doesn’t become root-bound.


When it becomes too large to be your holiday tree (if you have to use a machete to cut it back so you can watch the Super Bowl, it might be too big), you can replant it in your yard.  Now you’ve actually made that pretty much eco-neutral!  And if you didn’t buy a tree in a pot, and one that has been cut – many communities have free services that will chip and mulch the tree for you, or will use it in a municipal program that will use the mulch and chips for playgrounds.


 “Okay, so I’m getting a real tree and I’ll try using more sustainable wrapping – but what else can I do?”


What is the true meaning of Christmas?  Is it about the presents?  Or is it about the time spent with family and doing good things for our fellow man?  I hear a lot of people talking about the long list of people they have to buy gifts for and I have to wonder – Why?  Why do you have to buy gifts for so many people?  Often, in conversation, I hear that people buy gifts for people they only see at Christmas and I can’t help but think “what a waste”. The materialism of Christmas has really taken over the true meaning of the holiday.  So what are some ideas that can make this part of the holiday just a little less stressful and a little more eco-friendly?


If you feel you have to buy for everyone on your list, consider making a donation to a charity that either you or Uncle John are passionate about, in Uncle John’s name.  Some of the best gifts are actions.  This is especially important at this time of the year, when those less fortunate are often forgotten.


You could also completely simplify the whole gift giving process by doing a gift-go-round.  Think “secret Santa”.  All the adult members of the family put their name in a hat and then they all draw one name.  Set a price limit and now your gift giving list of extended family members is down to ONE!!  And that gift you buy – it doesn’t have to be store bought.  You could share favourite family recipes, put together in a cookbook (on recyclable paper with eco-neutral ink!).  You could put together an album of favourite family moments featuring your gift recipient.   Maybe you have a family heirloom that they might appreciate that you don’t use or have any need for.  Passing along family memories is always a gift no one else can give, and that can’t be purchased in a store.


Gift cards and certificates are always a good plan, as well.  Some people may think they are impersonal, but you can personalize gift cards by purchasing them from stores and services where you know your gift recipient would love to spend money.  Perhaps you have an avid reader – get them a gift card to a local bookstore – or if possible – to a small, independent one that they might not think of otherwise.  Perhaps you have an aspiring chef on your list.  Why not a gift certificate for cooking lessons, or to a kitchen supply store where they might be able to pick up that crème brulee torch they’ve always wanted.


Coupled with gift cards and gift certificates, you can always buy an experience.  There are packages you can purchase for experiences, such as cooking classes at cooking schools specializing in one type of food (sushi, French cuisine, Italian provincial), or perhaps the opportunity to drive a luxury car – maybe a racecar, even – around a track.  There are all sorts of experiences that money CAN buy.  Sometimes the experience is more memorable than a gift that came wrapped in a non-sustainable package with a ribbon that can’t be recycled and then gets shoved in a drawer.


Sustainability comes not only from being aware of the materials we use but also, the impacts that our gift-giving and holiday Snowmanpreparations can have.  By minimizing even just one impactful item, we can increase the sustainability of these holidays over time.  If you make just one change this holiday, consider it one giant leap for mankind (sorry, Neil Armstrong, I had to).


What changes are you willing to make for the holiday season?  Tell us in the comments.



Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year from your friends at Strategies for the Environment!!  All the best for 2016!!

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