Five Ways to Celebrate a Zero-Waste Holiday Season

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(Almost) Zero Waste Holidays: Traditions With Less Trash

We can all use a little bit of holiday cheer this year! As we’re coming to learn on our journey of becoming more sustainable, some of our traditions are more wasteful than others. Here are five ways to have a zero-waste holiday season.

1. Choose the Best Christmas Tree for You

There is a lot of debate around the Christmas tree in the sustainability community—this issue was hotly debated on our recent Instagram post! 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 family. 

Pros of Displaying a Faux Tree

Plastic trees might seem wholly unsustainable because of their main component: plastic. However, there are some situations where 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, Laura’s husband is allergic to live trees. Having one in the house means a month or two of sneezing and itching. And he’s not alone—many people suffer from Christmas tree allergies, which some medical professionals say is caused by the sap, pollen, or mold that a live pine tree introduces into your home. 

Faux trees aren’t just the best choice for allergy sufferers, though. 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 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 with a massive carbon footprint. They’re 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, try to buy a faux tree second-hand. Look at thrift stores for your next tree, as well as on community apps like Craigslist and NextDoor. Facebook Marketplace is also a good 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 all the rage 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

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. 

A live tree takes nearly ten years to reach its average home-display height of 5 to 6 feet tall. During that decade, the tree is providing a home for local wildlife. 

In addition to providing a home for local wildlife, buying a live tree means that you are 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, of course, aren’t perfect. While they are 100% biodegradable, live trees are often dumped in the trash once the season has passed. Those trees end up in landfills and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Other Sustainable Tree Options

If you choose to buy a live tree, try to buy from a local farmer. Minimize driving if possible, and participate in your area’s tree-recycling efforts. Some cities recycle live trees as mulch for their parks or use them 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 come 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. These are cheerful, reusable options that are gentler on the environment. 

2. Decorate With Zero-Waste Holiday Lights and Ornaments

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 are not only 80% more energy-efficient than incandescents, they also last 25 times longer. That means that 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 extra 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: lights cause 40% of 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 that you’re saving energy and keeping your home safe. 

Decorate With DIY Ornaments 

Hand-made ornaments are a unique and eco-friendly way to add some festive cheer to your home. We particularly love natural options such as cranberry and popcorn garlands, dried citrus ornaments, and long-lasting salt dough keepsakes.  

One of Laura’s holiday traditions is making outdoor ornaments for local wildlife. Her family would cover foraged pinecones in peanut butter before rolling them in birdseed and hanging them outside for the birds and squirrels. Another fun option is 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 and estimated to take up to 500 years to decompose. 

Thankfully, there are safe, eco-friendly alternatives to polystyrene flocking. @ourecofriendlylife has a great tutorial on flocking pinecones with just water, flour, and salt!

3. Wrap Your Holiday Gifts in Zero-Waste Alternatives

Wrapping paper is one of the easiest ways to make a sustainable switch. 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:

  • Reusable fabric
  • Leftover paper from last year (save paper each year for reuse!)
  • Post-consumer recycled wrapping paper 
  • Newspaper
  • Interesting vessels, like mason jars or baskets

4. Send Zero-Waste Holiday Cards

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, like those from Paper Culture. Try to avoid cards with a foil, glossy, or glittery finish, as you can’t put these in the recycling bin. 

One other card company that we love is Good Paper, as their cards are fair trade and support artisans worldwide. You can usually find their cards at Whole Foods if you want to pick them up close to home. 

Lastly, don’t be afraid to reuse cards that you love. Cut off the fronts of cards you’ve received and send it as a postcard! If there’s writing on the back, you can glue a piece of recycled white paper on to cover it up and use it like new. 

5. Give Thoughtfully to Avoid Returns

Shoppers return nearly $90 billion worth of gifts each holiday season. UPS has even declared January 3rd National Returns Day because almost 1.5 million return packages get shipped back on this day each year!

The 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 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, to boot). 

For sweets, we’d recommend 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 recent podcast episode about the spice trade to learn more! 

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