The holiday season brings with it a myriad of festive traditions, from gift-giving and family gatherings to Christmas trees and oversized feasts. But there’s an unintended side effect of the season that many people are unaware of: the holidays are also a time of excessive generation of solid waste and consumption of natural resources.
The average American household generates 25 percent more trash during the holiday season. (Need proof? Look at your neighborhood’s overflowing garbage cans on the first collection day after Christmas.) Between all that extra trash, thrown-out leftovers and the carbon footprint of holiday travel and entertaining, this time of year can be rough on our natural resources. The 2.65 billion holiday cards sold across the United States, for instance, could fill a football field 10 stories high, according to Recycle Works.
With that in mind, sustainability experts at Vanderbilt University have put together a list of 12 steps, big and small, that everyone can take to reduce holiday waste and make the season a little greener.
Food and Entertaining
• Plan a meal with a lower carbon footprint and a lower impact on the environment by serving food that is locally and sustainably grown. Visit your farmer’s market to get fresh meat, produce and breads for your holiday feast (and help keep your local farmers in business).
• Cook less to minimize food waste and have a solid plan for repurposing leftovers. Research your recipes in advance and remember to freeze some of your leftovers right away—or the next day—so they don’t go bad before you can finish them.
• Send e-cards and e-vites or make holiday phone calls instead of mailing paper greetings and invitations.
• Use reusable, recyclable and/or recycled plates, napkins, cups and utensils.
• Provide recycling containers for your guests. Recruit the children to collect and sort items.
• Carpool, encourage guests to carpool and offset the carbon footprint of any air travel at carbonfund.org, coolpass.com or e-bluehorizons.com.
• Turn your thermostat and water heater down when you are out of town.
• Purchase a live tree with a rootball and replant it after the holidays, if you can. Or recycle your tree into mulch—many cities and towns offer chipper service after the holidays.
• Decorate using items you already have or items that can be reused and enjoyed after your event, such as whole fruit, small plants, herbs and pinecones. Swap ornaments with friends and family instead of buying new ones.
• Decorate with fewer lights—consider festive alternatives like popcorn strings. If you do use lights, put them on a timer. When buying lights, choose LEDs, which use less energy.
• To reduce gas consumption, order gifts online or carpool and consolidate trips to the mall. When possible, buy locally produced gifts—they have a much lower carbon footprint than goods manufactured overseas (and it supports your local economy).
• Consider enclosing gifts in packaging that can be reused, such as baskets or fabric. Or choose recycled wrapping like newspaper or last year’s gift bags. (Here are some really great tips for eco-friendly gift-wrapping).
For more information on how to have a sustainable holiday season, check out the Vanderbilt University Sustainability and Environmental Management Office’s Holiday Greening Guide.