The Ultimate Guide to a Sustainable Holiday Season


October 20, 2023
Modern, light, festive, cozy kitchen interior with Christmas and New Year decorations, kitchen table, utensils, copper pans on wall and big Christmas tree with presents.

As enjoyable as the holiday season is, it’s also a time when waste soars to alarming levels. Household waste increases by 25% between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day in the United States alone—that’s about 5 million tons of garbage produced.

“This overconsumption of goods and services leads to an overuse of natural resources, such as the materials needed to make and package the goods we consume as well as the fuel we use to transport it,” says Dr. Susan Spierre Clark, assistant professor of environment and sustainability at University at Buffalo.

It’s essential to be mindful of the environmental impact our festivities can have. We spoke to two sustainability experts who offered their insight into how we can consider the environment during holiday celebrations. From mindful gift-giving and eco-friendly decor to low-waste feasting and impactful traditions, we’ll explore how to make this holiday season not just special but also sustainable.

How to Have a Green Halloween

Halloween is the unofficial kickoff to the holiday season, and millions look forward to dressing up and attending festivities each year. But between disposable decorations, hundreds of pounds of candy, and store-bought costumes, this holiday generates a lot of waste. Here’s how to make your Halloween greener:

Thoughtful Costumes

You can find a sustainable costume in secondhand stores or in your or your friend’s closet. 

Eco-Friendly Decorations

Transforming your home into a spooky, sustainable haunted house is much easier than you imagine. Here are some things you can use:

Responsible Party-Planning Strategies

Planning a green Halloween party extends beyond decorations; it also includes what you serve to your trick-or-treaters.

How to Have a Waste-Free Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving represents gratitude and togetherness, so it’s a great time to show appreciation for planet Earth. Use these tips for sustainable cooking practices and simple ways to reduce waste.

Mindful Meal Planning and Feasting

When hosting Thanksgiving, it’s easy to get carried away and make more food than everyone can consume. And while washing dishes is a hassle, single-use plastic and paper dining products create unnecessary waste. Here are some tips for a thoughtful feast:

Thoughtful Decor and Gratitude

As much fun as shopping sprees can be, buying brand-new decor every year is not sustainable. Consider these eco-friendly decorating tips:

Responsible Gathering and Eco-Friendly Traveling

Increased travel around the holidays is a huge contributor to pollution. Barnett says to reduce reliance on your car as much as possible and to opt for carpooling and public transportation when possible. When hosting an event, suggest your guests carpool with friends and family to reduce emissions. Try to knock out all your holiday errands in one go instead of making multiple trips.

Give Back to the Community

Supporting your local community is one of the best ways to show gratitude during the holiday season.

How to Have an Eco-Conscious Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa

As we approach the festive trifecta of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, there’s an opportunity to embrace the spirit of giving without taking too much from our planet.

Tips for Green Holiday Shopping

Between bags, boxes, and packages, holiday shopping is a huge waste generator. Consider these alternatives for a greener holiday:

Eco-Friendly Decor and Festive Ambiance

The holidays are synonymous with tasteful decorations. Like with Halloween and Thanksgiving, there are plenty of sustainable practices to enlist this season:

Wrapping and Packaging Alternatives

Gift-giving means wrapping paper, bags, and tissue galore. Consider these alternatives:

How to Clean Up After the Holidays

The holidays can leave behind a lot of clutter and mess, making it a crucial time to focus on sustainability through cleanup. Here are some expert tips:

As you clean up, keep a record of what you need and what you can go without in the new year. Donate or recycle what you can, and responsibly dispose of the rest.

You can also use this time to learn how your habits affect the environment and resolve to be less wasteful in the new year. “Take advantage of tools online that can help you assess what your biggest impacts are so you can more mindfully reduce them,” says Clark, noting that there are online resources that help you calculate your personal carbon footprint. “There are also many free courses on sustainability available out there,” she adds.

How to Donate to Organizations and Charities

Reducing waste during the holidays can involve supporting charities and organizations dedicated to environmental conservation. Here are some causes you can contribute to this holiday season.

Where to Donate for Halloween

The Halloween Candy Buyback Program focuses on improving children’s health while giving back. It’s an annual program organized by various dental offices, health care providers, and charitable organizations to encourage children to exchange their excess Halloween candy for incentives such as money, toothbrushes, or toys. Many participating dental offices send the collected candy to troops stationed overseas as part of care packages. Some organizations donate the candy to local charities and shelters.

Where to Donate for Thanksgiving

If you have nonperishable, unopened, and healthy food items left over after Thanksgiving, donate them to your local food bank. Examples of donation-worthy items include canned pumpkin (and other canned vegetables), boxes of stuffing, gravy mix, shelf-stable salad dressing, dry pasta and rice, and instant mashed potatoes.

Where to Donate for Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa

Consider donating books, clothes, toys, decor, and more to your local thrift store this holiday season. Call ahead to find out if there are any donation restrictions. You can consider donating money in someone’s name to a charity close to their heart as an alternative to a physical gift. In addition, programs such as Toys for Tots let you donate gifts to families who can’t afford them.

In Conclusion

The holidays are a time full of giving, appreciation, and love, but shopping, cooking, decorating, and hosting are huge drivers of the growing amount of pollution plaguing our planet. “Because we often rely on fossil-fuel sources to generate electricity to manufacture products and rely on gasoline or diesel to transport those goods, our overconsumption also leads to increases in the amount of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere, driving much of the changes we are experiencing and will continue to experience with our climate system,” says Clark.

Following these sustainable holiday practices allows you to transition from the holiday season to the new year with a greener footprint (and possibly a cleaner conscience). While they seem like small efforts, they can make a big difference in reducing waste and conserving resources.

Our Experts

Expert: Dr. Susan Spierre Clark, Assistant Professor of Environment and Sustainability, University at Buffalo

Dr. Susan Spierre Clark is an expert on sustainable development and the impact of climate change on society. Her research focuses on the sustainability and resilience of critical infrastructure to climate change, including water, energy, and transportation systems. Among other topics, she has investigated the social burden of power outages caused by natural disasters and other extreme events. At UB, Clark has served as director of sustainability graduate programs in the College of Arts and Sciences, collaborating with faculty and professionals across the university to advance sustainability scholarship, education, and practice. She has taught and developed curriculum and tools for resilience and sustainability education, including a course on the fundamentals of sustainability.

Expert: Brittney Barnett, Sustainability Manager at PwC’s U.S. National Sustainability Services

Brittney is a sustainability manager in PwC’s US National Sustainability Services practice. She brings more than eight years of experience providing general advisory services for sustainability program development, management, compliance, and reporting. She has experience assisting both public and private sector clients spanning numerous industries, including real estate, hospitality, energy, utilities, consumer products, and other sectors.