Thanksgiving has come and gone, making it official: it's the holiday season. Listening to Christmas music is now socially acceptable, and the wreaths, bows, and fake snow that have been displayed in stores since before Halloween are finally seasonally appropriate. Full disclosure here: I love Christmas. But I also recognize that it can be a season of overabundance and overconsumption, a season of excess and waste. And, like many people, I also love the environment. I want to protect it as much as I can, even as I also want to string up lights, decorate a tree, and exchange gifts with loved ones. Here are ten tips for celebrating the holidays in slightly more environmentally friendly ways: 

1. Use Recycled or Recyclable Wrapping

Handmade gift wrap

erika g. on Flickr

If you were to look back at my family's old pictures from Christmas morning, you'd see my brother and me sitting in the middle of a sea of ripped-up wrapping paper. As pretty as holiday gift wrap can be, it's usually torn off in a few minutes and quickly discarded. Whether you wrap your presents in newspaper or put them in personalized reusable gift bags, there are many ways to package your gifts that don't produce as much waste.

2. Give Recycled and Repurposed Gifts


Aleksi Pihkanen on Flickr

The holiday season is a time for gratitude, joy, family, and overconsumption. While flashy advertisements and built-in obsolescence are designed to encourage us to buy the latest new products for our loved ones this holiday season, it's more environmentally friendly—as well as much more affordable—to upcycle items and give them a new life as gifts. Ideas are everywhere for cute, fun crafts that divert items from landfills and make thoughtful, affordable presents.

3. Serve Meatless Main Dishes

paella, tomato, onion, meat, vegetable, pepper, curry, peppers, tofu, vegetarian, pan, skillet
Julia Gilman

One of the best things an individual can do to shrink their negative environmental impact is to cut meat from their diet, or at least to eat less of it. Americans eat a lot of meat, and the production and consumption of this meat does major damage to the environment. Particularly as vegetarianism and veganism become more mainstream, there are plenty of  meatless salads, sides, and main dishes to be found out there that even carnivores will love. Plus, desserts are generally vegetarian anyway, so don't worry—you can still have your gingerbread and pumpkin pie, and we all know that's what really matters. 

4. Get a Real Christmas Tree 

Image from WikiCommons

Image from WikiCommons

Although artificial trees can last multiple years, they're not as environmentally friendly as many might think. Artificial trees are made of unnatural, un-recyclable, and often harmful chemicals such as PVC, and they are frequently shipped thousands of miles from their manufacturing sites to the stores that stock them—shipping that comes at a high environmental expense. Some studies have shown that you would have to keep your artificial tree for ten or even twenty years for it to be a more eco-friendly choice than a real tree.

On the other hand, the trees grown on Christmas tree farms benefit the local environment until they're cut, serving as wildlife habitat as well as producing oxygen. After Christmas, they are recyclable and biodegradable. On balance, real trees are a more eco-friendly choice.

5. Shop Local for Gifts and Food

Nyc, Holiday Market, holiday markets, Christmas, Christmas markets, Winter, winter market, Christmas Market, holidays, Market, night, Night Market
Denise Uy

There are many benefits to shopping local. In addition to supporting small businesses and your local economy, doing your holiday shopping close to home—whether for groceries, gifts, or both—is more environmentally friendly. Locally produced items don't have to travel so far to reach the store, and locally purchased products don't have to travel so far to reach your home. Minimizing travel distance cuts down on the air pollution caused by long-distance shipping and trucking.

6. Bundle Up Before You Turn Up the Heat

One of the best things about the holiday season is the coziness. Even as the temperature drops and the snow falls, you stay snuggled up inside, nice and warm. Rather than cranking up the thermostat if you're a little chilly, grab a blanket or put on some fuzzy socks. Paired with a mug of hot cocoa, adding layers is a way to keep warm while saving the planet, spending less on your heating bill, and enhancing the cozy vibe of Christmas.

7. Don't Buy More Food Than You'll Eat

Fresh Food In Garbage Can To Illustrate Waste

USDAgov on Flickr

With large holiday gatherings and food-centered celebrations, it's easy to buy and prepare way more food than you'll need—you know, just in case. Planning ahead to buy and prepare only as much food as you think you'll really need helps minimize food waste, saving the environmental impact of producing, transporting, and ultimately throwing away unnecessarily large amounts of food.

8. Use Your Leftovers, or at Least Dispose of Them Properly

sandwich, bread, cheese, tomato, meat
Ethan Cappello

Of course, you can't always perfectly predict how much food you'll eat, especially with a large party. Rather than letting extra food go to waste, save that food to eat later (whether you repeat your meal exactly or get a little more creative). If you know you won't eat everything, then send guests home with leftovers. And if even your entire group won't finish the leftovers, then try to compost the extra food to use it productively instead of sending it to a landfill. 

9. Avoid Using Disposable Place Settings

Christmas Table Setting

nick.amoscato on Flickr

Holiday gatherings can mean feeding large crowds, and feeding large crowds can mean going through large numbers of plates, cups, silverware, etc. While single-use dishes that can be thrown in the trash are certainly convenient, the bit of clean-up time saved pales in comparison to the amount of time that paper and plastic spend in a landfill. 

8. Avoid Expedited/Overnight Shipping

File:Container ship Cosco Shipping Virgo at the turning maneuver in the Port of Hamburg (3) (cropped).jpg

Image from WikiCommons

One- or two-day shipping is super convenient, especially for last-minute gift-buyers like me (maybe if I didn't have finals until December 20, I would be more on top of buying holiday gifts...). As is so often the case, though, that convenience comes at an environmental price. Sending items as quickly as possible often means doing so inefficiently, with boxes—and even trucks and planes—sent out before they're anywhere near full. Selecting more flexible, less rushed shipping times allows for more efficient, environmentally-friendly transportation. 

9. Burn Greener Fires in Your Fireplace 

It Burns Us

Uncle Catherine on Flickr

Listen to almost any Christmas carol and it will tell you that you're not truly in the holiday spirit unless you're snuggled up by a crackling fire. Cozy as fires may be, however, burning wood is not so great for the environment or for your health.

Thankfully, there are alternatives (and don't worry—my recommendation is not to just watch a video of a fireplace). Try eco-friendly alternatives such as java logs, which are made of recycled coffee beans and burn much cleaner than wood, or wood pellets, which would normally go to a landfill. These options make your fire a little more environmentally friendly, so you can be comfy and toasty as well as green.

10. Minimize Packaging

Christmas, starbucks
Maddie Ricci

The environmental impact of shopping goes beyond the resources used to create a product itself; the things we buy come with increasingly excessive plastic, styrofoam, and other forms of packaging. Rather than buying food that comes wrapped in plastic films and insulated in styrofoam packaging, try to shop for items that come with less packaging, and bring reusable shopping bags when you do.

Look for nearby winter markets; farmers markets often sell items with less packaging (and bonus—going to farmers markets also means shopping local). And, cute as they are, try to avoid those Starbucks holiday cups in favor of a reusable mug. 

Particularly given that our government hasn't demonstrated commitment to green policies (and side note, while it's easy to blame the current administration, Democrats also can and should be doing much better), it's important now more than ever for us as individuals to be conscious consumers and make environmentally-friendly choices when possible.

Of course, it's important to remember that that can be hard, and that there may be reasons why certain choices are or aren't feasible for each of us. So do what you can, and then sit back and enjoy a holly, jolly, environmentally-friendly Christmas.