Did you know that the American economy has depended on wastefulness since the Eisenhower administration? More than half a century of rampant waste has wreaked havoc on the environment.
Our wastefulness is even worse between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In that one month, for example, we generate more trash than any other three months. We also waste more energy and food than during the rest of the year.
As we plan to celebrate this season of giving, let’s also give back to the earth by reducing our waste. We easily can make small but significant changes toward a more sustainable Christmas celebration.
Instead of bringing home dozens of plastic or paper bags, take several reusable bags into the store with you.
If you don’t have any, now is as good a time as any to start a collection. They are easy to find and not expensive. Prefer cotton bags to polyester. They last longer. Prefer any cloth bags to supposedly reusable plastic bags.
Manufacturing cotton bags takes a bigger toll on the environment than other reusable alternatives. But if you use them often enough, it evens out.
2. Look for locally made gifts
Probably every region of the country has its own unique variety of arts and crafts. It certainly has small manufacturers of both decorative and useful items. You can find them for sale in one-of-a-kind local stores.
Besides supporting local businesses and keeping money in your community, you are getting things more likely than not made from local materials, which, of course, travel shorter distances. That means that shipping them requires much less fuel.
3. Choose gifts made from recycled materials
That familiar recycling triangle shows a closed loop. You put recyclable items in a separate container when you take out trash. Manufacturers buy them and make new products from them. Buying products made from recycled materials completes the cycle.
When manufacturers use post-consumer or post-industrial waste, it reduces the amount of virgin material that must be mined, grown and cut down, or made from petroleum. Buying these items encourages manufacturers to keep making them.
4. Give gifts that don’t require batteries
Dead batteries ought to be classified as hazardous household waste. Some jurisdictions ban them from landfills, but others recommend putting them in the regular trash. Don’t’! Using rechargeable batteries is better for the environment, but avoiding batteries in the first place is better still.
You may wonder: is shopping in person or online greener? There are advantages and disadvantages to each one. Most people shop both ways at one time or another.
5. Plan shopping trips
Do as much shopping on one day as you possibly can. Make a list of everything you want to buy in advance and take it with you. That way, you won’t have to go back to the same stores to pick up something you forgot. If possible, choose stores that are in the same direction from your house. In any case, plan a circuit that minimizes the total distance you have to drive.
6. Plan online shopping
Even most small local stores have web sites nowadays. I have already described the environmental advantages of patronizing them. You will need to think through the advantages and disadvantages of ordering from them online instead of in person.
When you order from large nationwide retailers and others that are far from your home, order early enough in the season to use ground shipping. Consider having purchases delivered to work. After all, the post office and shipping companies will be going there anyway.
Gift exchange and wrapping
7. Not all gifts have to be store bought
You can give home-made items, antiques and collectables, or even found objects.
And not all gifts have to be things. You can give experiences, such as tickets to various concerts, theaters, sporting events, etc.; or memberships to a gym or museum, etc.
You can also give services. Perhaps you could pay for some music lessons or a massage. Perhaps you can offer your own time. Family and friends might appreciate childcare, housecleaning, tutoring, or whatever else you can do at least as much as they would any material object.
8. Simplify your gift giving
If you have a large extended family, why should everyone buy something for everyone else? In my family one of my sisters keeps track of a rotation in which each family unit (including married children) gives to one other. We make gifts to charities for everyone else.
Other families draw names from a hat and keep secret who is buying for whom.
You have probably gotten very nice gifts that you don’t particularly appreciate. So long as you don’t give them back to the same person who gave them to you, give them to someone you know would appreciate them. Some families even exchange “white elephants,” including used items no longer wanted but still in good condition.
About half of all the paper we consume every year is used to wrap packages!
We can consider three broad categories:
- Shiny paper made with foil or plastic, which is neither recyclable nor compostable.
- Printed wrapping paper, which is probably recyclable, but it is made from very cheap paper. Some recycling programs don’t want it. Check for your local rules, and be sure to remove the tape. Alternatively, you can compost the paper (but not the tape).
- Plain, unprinted kraft paper. You are more likely to find this kind of paper made from recycled materials. It is the most easily recyclable option.
And why should paper be made from wood fiber? Trees are a renewable resource, but when one tree is cut down it takes many years before the new one(s) planted in its place are ready for harvest.
With a little hunting, perhaps online, you can find wrapping paper made from hemp or bamboo. You can find recycled wrapping paper for somewhat less effort.
If you are creative enough, you can make very attractive wrapping from newspaper or paper bags. You can also put gifts in bags. You can buy gift bags at the store. Or you can buy cloth bags that the recipient can use for his or her own shopping.
10. Save and reuse wrapping paper
If you unwrap large packages carefully enough, you can reuse the paper to wrap smaller gifts another time. Keep it wherever you keep new wrapping paper. Keep and reuse gift bags, too.
11. Recycle or compost wrapping paper
You know that you can put out most wrapping paper with the rest of the recycling. You can also shred it and either compost it or use it for mulch.
12. Use as little tape as possible
The less tape you use, the easier it will be to reuse or recycle the paper.
13. Avoid metallic wrapping paper
Because of the metal content, it can’t be reused, recycled, composted, or used for mulch.
If you already have an artificial tree, continue to use it until it is no longer attractive. But if you’re buying a tree, a real tree is better for the environment. It doesn’t require metal or plastic to make it.
You can buy either a cut tree or a potted one. If you get a cut tree, prefer one from a local grower to cut down on fuel used for transportation. It will be fresher, too
You can keep a small live tree in the house year round and use it for several years. As it grows, repot it until it becomes too large to remain in the house.
Then if you can’t plant it somewhere on your own property, it should be easy enough to find another place to plant it. A friend or neighbor might appreciate it. The park district probably would, too.
15. Decorate with nature
You can make or buy wreaths made from pine boughs. An abandoned bird’s nest can also make an interesting decoration.
Wooden, metal, or cloth ornaments will last longer than plastic or the typical very thin glass.
16. Use LED lighting
Incandescent Christmas indoor light bulbs last about 3,000 hours. The electricity needed to light 500 of them for a month may cost about $18. LED lights last about 100,000 hours and electricity will cost about 19¢.
17. Reduce the size of outdoor displays
Smaller displays take less time and trouble to put up. They can be just as attractive as gaudier presentations, maybe even moreso. They also use less electricity. There is no sense in wasting even the small amount of electricity required by LEDs.
18. Turn the lights off at bedtime
Why have lights—indoor or outdoor—burning when no one is awake to enjoy them? You can buy a timer for the lights so you don’t even have to remember to turn them off.
Cooking and entertaining
19. Buy non-perishable food in quantity
The larger the container, the less volume of trash you’ll accumulate. For example, buy large bags of chips instead of many single-serving bags.
20. Make drinks in bulk
If you make large pots of hot chocolate, iced tea, coffee, eggnog, etc. and provide pitchers of water, you avoid the waste of single-serving bottles and cans.
21. Use the right size pots, pans and appliances
Using the smallest suitable pot or pan on the smallest burner requires less energy to heat and if you’re boiling or steaming foods, you’ll use less water. Speaking of water, you don’t need to cover potatoes or other vegetables with water. Once the pot starts to form steam, turn the heat down to the lowest temperature that will maintain it and cover the pot. The steam will cook the food, and the condensate will fall back into the pot.
Disposable dishes, napkins, and table cloths may be more convenient, but they create mounds of trash.
23. Dispense with disposable cameras
Now that everyone takes pictures with cell phones, people use cameras less frequently. But it you plan to use a camera—whether over the holidays or any other time—invest in a real camera. Besides reducing trash, you’ll be able to take better pictures.
As I prepared this update, I wondered if it is even possible to get disposable cameras anymore. There seems to be renewed interest in using film to take pictures, and I have seen websites that recommend disposables as a place to start.
Fortunately, users don’t actually dispose of the cameras. They send the entire camera somewhere for processing. Presumably, the processor can fill the shell with new film and resell it. If not, they probably recycle it. But still, let’s get in the habit of avoiding anything called “disposable” or single-use if we possibly can.
24. Share activities that don’t require bandwidth
Instead of electronic games, consider board games, party games like charades, sing-alongs, walks, or anything else that doesn’t use so much electricity. More people will be able to participate at once, so these activities also offer a better social experience.
After the celebration is over
Food waste is a huge problem all over the world. And Americans waste more food at Christmas than any other time of the year. Eliminating or minimizing food waste is the single most important aspect of a sustainable Christmas.
25. Use bones to make broth
Once the bones have been picked clean, they still make excellent broth, which you can freeze in one- or two-cup containers and use instead of canned broth.
26. Freeze leftovers and be sure to eat them
It amazes me that some people refuse to eat leftovers. If they make more of something than they eat, they throw it out.
Eat leftovers! Send them home with your guests! Some things actually taste better the second time around. Whatever you won’t eat over the next couple of days, freeze it, perhaps in single-serving containers. Then you can plan days when you don’t have to cook. Just take the leftovers from the freezer and put them in the refrigerator the day before.
27. Compost food scraps that can’t be used for leftovers
Except for bones and meat scraps, it is far better to put scraps on a compost pile than in the trash or garbage disposal. Composting saves water and landfill space. If you don’t want to bother with a compost pile, you can bury the scraps.
If you use real dishes, you’ll have a mound of dishes that need to be washed instead of a mound of trash.
So make it a rule that people who don’t participate in cooking clean up afterward. Many hands make light work, as the saying goes.
(I’m assuming a family gathering. I wouldn’t require guests to help clean up, but I would welcome them if they want to.)
Scrape what’s left on the plates, etc. into a container you can take out to the compost pile. It shouldn’t be necessary to rinse the dishes, but if you want to any way, don’t use running water. Put water in the sink or a large bowl and use that.
29. Run the dishwasher only when it’s fully loaded
It takes just as much water to run the dish washer when it’s less than full, so use it to best advantage.
30. Add the cloth napkins, table cloths, dish cloths, and dish towels to the laundry
Depending on how many people attend your meal, you may or may not need to wash these items in a separate load.
31. Recycle the tree
Cut Christmas trees are biodegradable. They should be returned to the earth. This tip is easy. Many municipalities offer curbside collection of Christmas trees during the two weeks after Christmas. Others offer a chipping service where you can receive your tree back as mulch or use it for their own planting. In some counties it is necessary for you to transport your tree to a recycling center or chop it into pieces suitable for yard waste collection.
Don’t burn Christmas tree branches in your fire place. The creosote that will build up in your chimney is a fire hazard.
If you have an artificial tree that you don’t want to use again, it’s probably trash. Check locally to see if you can take it to a recycling drop-off center. Better still, donate it to a thrift store. Someone else will be glad to have it.
32. Reuse or recycle packing materials
You can flatten cardboard boxes and store them for when you need a box. Or put them in your recycling container. Save and reuse bubble wrap, too. You can take foam packing peanuts to shipping stores like UPS or FedEx.
33. Recycle old electronics
If you want to get rid of old electronics devices, remember that they’re hazardous household waste. It’s illegal to put them in regular trash. You may be able to find a business or charity that refurbishes old electronics. Check Earth911 for possibilities. Otherwise, you need to take it to a hazardous household waste drop-off location.
34. Donate unwanted old clothes
If you have to get rid of old clothes to make room for the new clothes you got for Christmas, take them to a thrift shop. Even if they’re in poor condition and can’t be put out for sale, the store can see that the fabric is recycled. It can be used for rags or broken down into fibers that can be used to make something else.
Good Will, and maybe some other large organizations, participates in fabric recycling. I know from experience that Good Will collects materials from smaller thrift shops that they can’t sell.
Keeping your sanity throughout the season
35. Slow down
Christmas preparations can be hectic, but you don’t have to run in circles. Keep your planning as simple as possible. If you accept too many holiday invitations, chances are you won’t enjoy any of the gatherings. Trying to put up too many Christmas decorations eventually gives a room a cluttered look.
36. Connect with the season
Keep in mind what you’re celebrating. The decorating, shopping, and entertaining are not ends in themselves.
37. Connect with others
You don’t have to do all the preparations yourself. You can involve your children in baking and/or organize gift wrapping parties. Turning your Christmas preparation into some kind of social time makes it fun instead of an extra chore.
Green Christmas. Some rights reserved by dahon
I am not a plastic bag. Source unknown
Gift wrapping.Some rights reserved by torbakhopper
Potted Christmas tree. Some rights reserved by Christmas Stock Images.
Christmas dinner table / photo by Miia Ranta. Pubic domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Washing dishes by hand. Some rights reserved by VSPYCC