The winter holiday season, while being “the most wonderful time of the year,” is also the most environmentally destructive. It’s easy to lose a little bit of holiday joy and sparkle when you think about the way your celebrations are impacting our planet. But do not despair; turn that sad mood into motivation to do better this holiday season!
One of the easiest ways to be a little more friendly to the planet over the holidays is turning off your Christmas lights during the day. Leaving house and/or tree lights on all day is an enormous waste of energy. Turn your outside lights on when it gets dark out (which is pretty early on winter days), so your neighbors and passersby can enjoy them, then turn them off before you go to sleep. Not only is it bad for the environment to leave lights on during the day, it is also oftentimes useless, because you can’t see them shine. If you have lights up indoors or on your Christmas tree, turn them on when you are in the room. My family puts up our tree in the living room, so we only turn the tree lights on when we’re all in the room to enjoy it, or when hosting guests.
Christmas trees are a big part of the holiday season, and many might think that the industry of chopping down trees only to throw them away in a few weeks is detrimental, but that is not the case. From sapling until disposal, the life of a Christmas tree helps out the environment quite a bit. While the tree is growing on the farm it can absorb up to one ton of carbon dioxide over the course of its life. After the trees are cut down, more are planted for the next year, and after Christmas is over, disposed Christmas trees are recycled into mulch. Just check to make sure the farm you go to is free of pesticides and/or other chemicals to reduce environmental harm. Chemical free farms typically list so on their website. Fake trees are not nearly as good for the environment, but because they are reusable, they are not something you need to buy every year. Keeping the same plastic tree for as long as it will last is a great way to do your part for the planet!
Wrapping paper is another wasteful aspect of the holiday season. Using wrapping paper is okay, but you should check your wrapping paper to ensure it is recyclable. This should be indicated on the package by a recycling symbol. Typically, wrapping paper that has glitter, is metallic, or is holographic is not recyclable. Making your own wrapping can be a fun and environmentally friendly alternative. You can deconstruct paper grocery bags to use as wrapping paper, and decorate them with crayons, markers, or ribbon to add more festivity. Using cloths that the receiver of the gift can keep and reuse the next time they give a gift is another great option. Newspapers also make excellent wrapping paper. If you are crafty you can crochet, knit, or sew bags to put your gifts in, and then it’s like two presents in one!
If you are anything like me, you start to feel very disheartened after hours of mall shopping for gifts that are all mass produced and definitely cheaper than they should be (looking at you Forever 21). “If you’re a working class person, ethical consumption can be really hard. So I would just say, if you’re going to buy something, just make sure you’re really gonna use it,” said Maia Kleinberg (12). “Make sure you’re gonna love that item and really get use out of it, because ethical labor is expensive and the stuff that’s good for the environment is expensive.” One way to help with consumer guilt during the holidays is to shop at local businesses or make handmade gifts.
Portland has a lot of great local businesses to shop at. Streets like Hawthorne and Division have a lot of options. If you prefer online shopping, Etsy is a wonderful option. There are tons of independent shops that sell anything from personalized Christmas ornaments with a portrait of your pet, to earrings made out of upcycled book pages. Shopping second hand is also a great option. Portland also has a lot of secondhand shops that are often more cost effective because they sell used items. Pre-loved books and records make excellent gifts. Or you could handmake gifts! I like to hand make gifts such as crochet hats and mittens, as they are quick to make and seasonally appropriate. But whatever craft strikes your fancy will do, whether that be baking, sewing, knitting, embroidery, etc. Another great option is experiences; it reduces the amount of petroleum/plastic products you are buying. Tickets to a museum, play, movie, or concert are all awesome carbon-emission-free gifts.
People tend to buy a lot of food during the holidays, which is great, but it is important to be mindful as to whether you are going to use all of it or not. Take a count of how many people will be attending your celebrations and plan accordingly to minimize the amount of food that will get thrown away. Are you having five vegetarians over for Christmas dinner? You probably don’t need a whole turkey, and I promise you don’t need that much eggnog for a family of four. Meat and dairy are some of the most environmentally destructive industries. Kleinberg, who celebrates Hanukkah as a vegan, says, “We make latkes and we usually make them from scratch, they’re just like potato pancakes; for latkes it’s pretty easy to make them vegan you really just need to omit the egg.” Paper plates and plastic utensils, while convenient for parties, are very wasteful. So this may be the year to just suck it up and wash the dishes.
The main points to take away for the holidays are simply be mindful, and use what you already have. You don’t need to stop celebrating winter holidays, stop giving gifts, or throw away all your non-eco-friendly decorations (please don’t, that is extremely counterintuitive) in order to make a difference this holiday season.