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5 Holiday Traditions That Are Hard On The Planet & How To Clean 'Em Up

Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."
Overhead Photo of Sustainably Wrapped Holiday Presents
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As Greta Thunberg heads home for a much-deserved break after snagging the Time Person of the Year distinction for her environmental activism, this December feels distinctively greener than ones prior. While it's hard to say what a Thunberg family holiday looks like, it's probably missing some of the season's more resource-intensive traditions.

While reconsidering these five things may not land you a magazine cover, it'll definitely give you the satisfaction of knowing you're helping out the planet:

1. The tree

If you put up a Christmas tree every year, the real vs. artificial debate has probably played out in your head before. In turns out, most families (about 81% of them, according to Nielson data) are now opting to open presents around artificial trees. Fake trees are certainly easier to manage than their natural counterparts—but are they also easier on the planet?

The answer, it turns out, is complicated. Considering that artificial trees are usually made from virgin plastics (unless you go with a recycled option) and constructed overseas, they are more resource-intensive to source and ship than most real trees. The advantage of a fake tree, though, is that you can keep it year after year. So if you're going to go this route, make sure you find a tree that you'll stick with for the long run to whittle down its overall footprint.

If you move homes a lot or don't have room to store a fake tree, go with a real one and just make sure to dispose of it properly. According to a report from the Carbon Trust, trees emit a fair amount of harmful methane gas when they decompose in landfill piles that are low in oxygen. Avoid this trashy fate by poking around for tree composting or recycling programs in your community. Here in NYC, for example, many holiday trees can be turned into wood chips to cover public parks.

You can also buy a live tree that still has its root system in place and can be replanted after the holidays. These are hard to come by depending on your climate, but check out The Living Christmas Company if you're in California, Potted Christmas Tree in Oregon, and Swansons Nursery in Washington state.


2. The traveling

Airline travel is notoriously carbon-intensive, and it probably accounts for a sizable chunk of your annual carbon footprint. Flying out to spend time with family this year? Consider buying some carbon credits to offset all of those emissions. For less than the cost of a sad airport salad, you can invest in carbon sequestration initiatives like reforestation or solar farms through organizations such as The Gold Standard and Cool Effect. And if you can get away with swapping your plane for a train or automobile this year, do that instead!

3. The gifting

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Not to be a Grinch, but some holiday gifts just don't need to be given. When surveyed 2,279 American adults after the holidays last year, 61% of them said they received at least one "unwanted" item. (Interestingly enough, clothing and accessories were the least desirable presents by a landslide.) While a very small percentage of these unwanted presents were actually thrown away, they still would have gotten better use in another home. This year, try to give presents you know the other person actually needs and will get use out of. That may sound like a simple (and somewhat boring) gifting strategy, but according to Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist who studies the drivers of human happiness, practical gifts and experiences actually tend to be the most joy-inducing in the end.

More thoughtful gifting inspiration: This year, environmentalist Gay Browne is planting trees for loved ones in lieu of physical stocking stuffers. You can take her lead or check out mbg's top picks for experiential presents for everyone on your list.

If you do go with a tangible present, make sure to wrap it in eco-friendly paper or fabric. Think newspaper, magazines, maps, or calendars you have around the house, or reusable fabric wraps like Bobo Wrap and the new kid on the block, Bestow Gift Wrap, made from scraps from the fashion industry.


4. The décor

Festive string lights spread enough holiday cheer to be seen from space. (Yep, their bright bulbs are detectable in NASA imagery!) Needless to say, covering your home in lights requires a fair amount of electricity, so consider switching over to LED bulbs and only turning them on for a few hours each day. Incandescent lights use 175 watts of electricity and cost $15.12 to run over the course of a season while LED ones only use 2.4 watts and cost 21 cents over the same time period, according to an analysis in the Washington Post.

When your outdoor lights are sorted, you can turn your attention inside and ask if you really need to buy yet another holiday figurine this year. If the answer is no, consider making your own displays out of natural treasures. According to Joanna Maclennan, the photographer behind the book The Foraged Home, winter is a great time to forage your own pine cones, chestnuts, and berries for a thoughtful DIY wreath. "You can really collect this all from nature and create something unique and individual," she tells mbg, adding that wreath making is a fun activity for kids too. She recommends checking out designs from Kate Brew, Tracey Deep, and Layla Robinson for inspiration.

5. The menu

Holiday feasting leads to full bellies, happy hearts, and plates upon plates of leftovers. Cut down on your food waste this year by keeping a few recipes in your back pocket that will use up the odds and ends from your meal—be it a broth from vegetable and meat scraps or a cocktail made from citrus stalks. Or, take a cue from Henry Rich, the owner of zero-waste catering company Purslane, and display unused fruits and veggies as festive holiday table centerpieces before you cook them up at a later date.

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