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10 ways to a more sustainable Christmas

Graphic image of people carrying a Christmas tree across a tree ornament
Have a more sustainable Christmas.

It’s the season of giving. And, giving. And … giving some more. Americans give each other so much between Thanksgiving and Christmas they throw away 25 percent more waste, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

All that wrapping paper, packaging, stuff that breaks before the eggnog turns and stuff you never wanted in the first place takes a toll on the environment. It all has the potential to take up space in landfills, emit carbon dioxide (if it breaks down) and foul up flora and fauna (if it doesn’t break down).

“There also are negative environmental, and sometimes social, impacts associated with the full life cycle of all these products, from the extraction of raw materials to manufacturing and production, to transportation and eventual use and disposal of the products,” says Wes Dripps, director of the Shi Center for Sustainability at Furman University.

“Each of these various stages in the product’s life cycle requires materials, energy and water. They all generate carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, and sometimes they employ questionable labor practices. All of this contributes to the unsustainability of holiday consumerism.”

Fortunately, the Shi Center for Sustainability has come up with a few alternatives for a more earth-friendly holiday.

  1. Traveling? A round-trip flight from Greenville, South Carolina, to Grandma’s in Houston, Texas, will create about .4 metric tons of carbon. For a few bucks, you can invest in green energy or in carbon capture through a third-party company like Terra Pass or Native Energy. This New York Times story has good tips for finding the right company. Know someone who travels a lot for work? Carbon offsets are the new black.
  2. Go green and go team! With companies like UCapture, you can credit your offsets to your favorite college and keep score. The offsets are free; just add a browser extension, create an account and start racking up green points. The extension automatically credits your account without tracking your purchases.
  3. Skip the unrecyclable wrapping and tissue paper. Colorful cloth bags are easy to put together, and they’re reusable for generations to come. Google DIY bags.
  4. Go digital. Plastic gift cards aren’t recyclable; make these easy gifts easier by emailing them. Sending e-cards is faster, easier and safer than licking envelopes. Digital advent calendars are fun, interactive alternatives, and you can still eat chocolate.
  5. The yearly conundrum: fake tree or real? It depends. Current science leans toward real tree because of artificial trees’ non-recyclable
    Photo of someone planting a small Christmas tree.
    Worker plants a young tree in the garden. Small plantation for a christmas tree. Picea pungens and Abies nordmanniana. Spruce and fir.

    and non-biodegradable materials, short life spans, foreign manufacturing and shipping of artificial trees. If you go for a real tree, shop at a local tree farm that uses sustainable growing practices and choose a small tree with the root-ball, so it can be replanted, or repurpose the tree as compost, mulch or erosion control. If you do go artificial, plan to use it at least five years.

  6. Going to a white elephant party? Don’t buy something new. Gifts are just as fun, and sometimes funnier, when they’re re-gifted from last year or come from the attic.
  7. Stocking stuffers have high potential to be, well, junk. Stuff your stocking instead with something edible, or at least something useful.
  8. LED lights save energy and they’re super bright. Plug them into a timer or a remote controlled outlet to save even more.
  9. What do you do with the leftovers? First, store them in reusable containers! But after you’ve eaten all the sandwiches and turkey tetrazzini you can stomach, be sure to compost all those coffee grounds and fruit and veggie scraps; avoid adding animal products to home compost bins. Consider it a gift to the earth. Don’t have a compost bin at home? Some cities distribute them for a nominal fee or have curbside compost pick up or independent companies that can provide the service.
  10. Give less stuff and more time. Have an adventure. Create an experience. Give passes to state or national parks and get outside.
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