The rest of the year, you buy Swedish dishcloths and compost religiously. But when it comes to the holiday season, you find yourself with paper towels and trashcans full of food waste. You are an imperfect environmentalist.
And you are not alone. From feeling the need to decorate to the nines to giving presents to everyone we know, the span of six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is one of the most wasteful periods in the United States.
However, maintaining traditions does not mean committing to waste. Tackling small aspects of travel, food and gift waste can mean big steps toward a green holiday season.
Transportation accounts for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the year including vacations, shipping of goods, and business trips. This year, almost 63% of Americans are predicted to travel for at least one holiday between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. These are the highest numbers since before the pandemic began, and many people will be flying despite cancellations and delays.
We’re not going to stop traveling! Despite the headache and the money, traveling is a key part of the holiday season whether you are going to see family or friends or just getting away. Traveling sustainably, however, is another piece of the puzzle. It requires pre-planning, but if the plane has not taken off yet, you still have time.
Offsetting the cost of a plane ride can seem daunting, but reusing Ziploc bags or investing in reusable silicon bags such as Stasher or Zip Top allows you to go through TSA with your liquids secured — without trashing the planet. They can also be used to store snacks for road trips and take leftovers home. Water bottles and reusable wine cups help you stay hydrated and have fun without the use of a plastic cup, too.
While you’re gone, make sure all the lights in your house are turned off and as many electronics are unplugged as possible. Lower the thermostat during the day for the extent of your time away. It’s up to you to make small changes to help reduce your carbon footprint. These passive actions make a difference.
Food waste is one of the biggest landfill contributors throughout the year, constituting about 24% of all solid waste year-round — a number that rises by 25% during the holiday season. This is especially true when you’re cooking for more people than usual. Not knowing portion sizes, the number of guests or dietary restrictions means you’ll probably make too much food.
If you are cooking any meals this season, ask about your guests’ diets and confirm the number of people attending before you shop. If you have a better idea of who is coming and what they eat, you are less likely to make dishes people will not eat. Try to shop locally and in-season to reduce the food’s travel time and increase freshness.
Year-round, the most eco-friendly meals reduce or eliminate meat and dairy. The average American Thanksgiving meal — which includes turkey, stuffing and pie — costs about 103 pounds of CO2 to produce. But what are the alternatives to an entirely animal-free holiday meal? Take out one or two meat dishes and replace them with meatless ones. For example, if you put bacon in the mashed potatoes, try herbs. If you like gravy, make it with mushrooms. Or you can make smaller dishes with meat and cook a plant-based main course.
Lastly, it is important to compost food scraps and send guests home with leftovers. If you are a guest, bring your own containers to take food home and encourage others to do the same.
The average American also throws away 25% more trash during the festive season than any other part of the year, which adds up to about 25 million tons of additional waste in the six-week period. This waste includes greeting cards, wrapping paper, plastic toys and so much more. The long and short of this shopping season: the more you buy the more carbon emissions rack up.
Aside from the eco-alternatives you can buy, a crucial step in combatting the consumer holiday is to communicate your environmental goals. Quietly assuming you can strong-arm your family, their gifts, activities and meals into a sustainable holiday will not work. Instead, openly express your desires.
One big producer of greenhouse emissions is shopping. Unneeded gifts are often made with plastic or transported far distances, racking up CO2. Talk to family and friends about what they really want, buy them things that will last and they will actually use or suggest a collective experience such as a ski trip or a day of family bowling. Where gifts are inevitable, use paper bags and newspapers; reuse old wrapping paper; maybe even invite folks over for a wrapping party where everyone can share material.
We all are trying out best to be eco-friendly, but do not let the environmental impact of the most wonderful time of the year drag you down. The holidays are about family and friends, gratitude and fun. By refocusing on these core elements, they can also be more sustainable.
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