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6 Simple Ways to Have a Zero-Waste Holiday Season

The holidays can create a lot of waste, from cards to meals to returned presents. Learn how to celebrate an (almost) zero-waste Christmas.

Written by
Brightly Staff
It's the most wonderful time of the year again, meaning we get to celebrate the holiday season with delicious
holiday recipes
, great
, and our loved ones. But with how busy it is, sustainability probably isn't one of your top priorities. We're here to change that.
While the holidays are filled with joy, some of our beloved traditions can be wasteful. Between
food waste
, gift wrap, and
holiday travel
emissions, this season can take a toll on the environment. Luckily, there are some simple ways to celebrate the holidays and continue your beloved traditions sustainably.
Here are five ways to have a low-waste holiday season this year, from choosing the most eco-friendly Christmas tree to opting for more sustainable decorations.

How to Have a Zero-Waste Christmas

1. Choose the Best Christmas Tree for You

zero waste holidays christmas
There's a lot of debate around which
Christmas tree
is the most sustainable—so much so that we produced an
entire report around it
. Faux trees have their pros and cons, just as live trees have theirs. Let’s see what those pros and cons are so you can make the best decision for your living room. 

Pros of Displaying a Faux Tree

Plastic trees might seem unsustainable because of their main component: plastic. However, there are some situations in which a faux tree is the better choice for a zero-waste holiday season, especially if you can use it for many years to come.
For example, if you or someone in your family is allergic to live trees, having one in the house means a month or two of sneezing and itching. More people suffer from
Christmas tree allergies
than you may think, which some medical professionals say is caused by the sap, pollen, or mold a live pine tree brings into your home. 
Faux trees aren’t just the best choice for those with allergies. They’re also a more sustainable option for those who live in places where pine trees aren’t native. For example, Texans might be better off buying a plastic tree and using it for years rather than buying a live tree that traveled from hundreds of miles away. 

Cons of Faux Trees

Faux trees are made from PVC plastic, lead, and other materials that leave a massive carbon footprint. Many are also
made primarily in China
before being shipped around the world. 
Not only is faux tree production potentially harmful to workers, but the carbon footprint of the materials and shipping that go into a plastic tree is very high. 

Sustainable Faux Options

There are a few ways to have a more sustainable faux tree decking your halls. 
First, buy a secondhand faux tree. Check out local thrift stores for your next tree or check community apps like Craigslist and NextDoor. Facebook Marketplace is also a great option for finding a new-to-you tree.
Second, if you buy a new fake tree, buy a classic style that isn’t too large. Pink tinsel trees might be popular on Pinterest, but they won’t be in style much longer. Stick to a classic green tree and choose an average size so that you can keep your tree through many moves (and many years) to come. 
Lastly, pick up a tree storage bag so that your tree is protected between holiday seasons. Maintaining your tree means you’ll be able to use it again and again. 

Pros of Buying a Live Tree

On the other hand, there’s something special about the experience of choosing a live tree, whether you chop it down at a local Christmas tree farm or pick one out in the Home Depot parking lot. 
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, it can take
up to 15 years for a tree to grow
6 to 7 feet tall, and the average growing time is about seven years. During that time, the trees provide homes for local wildlife. 
In addition to providing a home for
local wildlife
, buying a live tree means you're supporting a farmer’s livelihood. Because Christmas trees are a commodity crop, they’re grown on farms. Tree farmers harvest and replant each year to keep up with the demand for live trees. 

Cons of Buying a Real Tree

Live trees aren’t perfect. While they're 100% biodegradable, live trees are often dumped in the trash once the season has passed. Those trees end up in landfills, which can prevent them from
properly biodegrading
. This contributes to increased greenhouse gas emissions. 

Other Sustainable Tree Options

If you choose to buy a live tree, buy from a local farm. Minimize driving if possible, and participate in your area’s tree-recycling efforts. Some cities recycle live trees and turn them into mulch for the parks or use the trees to combat beach erosion. No matter where you live, there should be a tree-recycling option near you. 
Another sustainable tree option is renting. Some farms will rent a potted tree to you for the holiday season, which you can then return for replanting in January. 
Lastly, consider other festive options such as a potted rosemary plant, a ladder tree, or a homemade tree from driftwood, books, or other materials around the house. These are cheerful, reusable options that are gentler on the environment. 

2. Decorate With Zero-Waste Lights and Ornaments

zero waste holidays christmas
In addition to a tree, there are many other festive decorations we tend to use during the holiday season. Here’s how to make your other decor more sustainable, too. 

Make the Switch to LED Lights

If your holiday lights are past their prime, buy LED lights instead of traditional incandescent lights. LED lights use about
75% less energy
than incandescents, and they also last 25 times longer. That means you’ll save on energy when you choose LED lights and have to replace them less frequently. 

Turn Off Your Lights and Use a Timer

Part of having an almost zero-waste holiday season is minimizing energy consumption. Holiday lights use a lot of energy, so turning them off before you go to bed will help. It’s also good to turn off lights for safety reasons. According to the
National Fire Protection Association
, about half of home Christmas tree fires involved electrical or lighting equipment. And decorative lights started about 1 in 5 Christmas tree fires.
If you’re worried about forgetting the lights, set up an automatic timer that will turn off the lights at a specific time. That way, you can sleep easy knowing you’re saving energy and keeping your home safe. 

Decorate With DIY Ornaments 

DIY Christmas ornaments
are a unique and eco-friendly way to add a festive flair to your home. We particularly love
natural options
such as
cranberry and popcorn garlands
dried citrus ornaments
, and long-lasting
salt dough keepsakes
You can even make outdoor ornaments for local wildlife. Cover foraged pinecones in peanut butter then roll them in birdseed and hang them outside for the birds and squirrels. You can also make baked birdseed ornaments, which are extra pretty if you cut them out with holiday-themed cookie cutters. 

Use a Safe Alternative to Flocked Snow

The flocked snow on your tree might look pretty, but
it’s not good for the environment or your health
. It’s made from polystyrene, a known carcinogen that can take centuries to decompose. 
Thankfully, there are safe, eco-friendly alternatives to polystyrene flocking. All you need for flocking pinecones is water, flour, and salt.

3. Wrap Your Holiday Gifts in Zero-Waste Alternatives

One of the easiest ways to make a sustainable choice this holiday season is to swap out your wrapping paper for a more
eco-friendly wrapping paper
option. If every American family wrapped just three gifts in reusable materials, the paper saved would cover 45,000 football fields.
Some easy gift-wrap alternatives:
  • Leftover paper from last year (save paper each year for reuse!)
  • Post-consumer recycled wrapping paper 
  • Newspaper or magazines
  • Interesting vessels, like mason jars or baskets

4. Send Low-Waste Holiday Cards

zero waste holidays christmas
Greeting cards
are a thoughtful way to stay in touch during the holiday season. If you choose to send them, buy cards made from recycled paper or opt for a
, which can be used as a Swedish dishcloth after it's enjoyed as a card. Try to avoid cards with a foil, glossy, or glittery finish, as you can’t put those in the recycling bin.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to reuse cards you love. Cut off the fronts of cards you’ve received and send them as postcards. If there’s writing on the back, you can glue a piece of recycled white paper on it to cover it up. You'll have a brand-new card in no time.
If you're still not sure where to begin, check out our list of
greeting card alternatives

5. Give Thoughtfully to Avoid Returns

are a huge problem, with shoppers returning nearly $90 billion worth of gifts each holiday season.
most returned items
fall into three categories: clothing, kitchen items, and sweets. Clothing is hard to buy for others because of personal tastes and sizing, so opt for a gift card and a thoughtful note instead. For kitchenware, don’t be afraid to ask the recipient if they already have what you plan to buy. It’s better to ruin the surprise than give them something they have to return (and saddle them with the carbon footprint of shipping it back).
For sweets, we recommend buying longer-lasting food items like olive oil or spices. Be sure to buy single-origin ones, if possible, because the farmers are more likely to be fairly paid, and the items will be fresher. (Listen to
our podcast episode about the spice trade
to learn more.)
If you're still struggling to buy gifts for your loved ones, don't be afraid to ask people for wishlists. It's better to get an idea of what your friends and family are asking for rather than taking a guess. You can also give your family your wishlist to be sure you won't need to return any of the gifts you receive this year.

6. Protect Your Decor With Upcycled Materials

Avoid having to rebuy holiday decor year after year by taking good care of what you already have. There's nothing worse than opening a box to find shattered ornaments.
The longer you can keep your current decorations, the less waste is sent to landfills. One pro tip that works like a charm? Using upcycled materials to wrap up your breakable items between holidays. Newspaper and
plastic grocery bags
are great for protecting anything delicate—plus, it gives them another life.