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:
You can find a sustainable costume in secondhand stores or in your or your friend’s closet.
- Thrifted or secondhand costumes: Many thrift stores offer seasonal items, including Halloween costumes. Clark recommends shopping for used or refurbished items rather than buying a new costume each year.
- Homemade costumes: Making your own costumes or repurposing items from your closet reduces the need for store-bought, single-use costumes. For example, repurpose a black cocktail dress to create a witch costume or utilize a flannel and blue jeans for a DIY scarecrow. If you have kids, old bedsheets can become ghost costumes, and cardboard boxes can be transformed into robots or other characters.
- Costume swap with family or friends: Many people celebrate Halloween at multiple parties and events. Ask friends or family members if you can swap costumes with them for the different soirees you attend.
Transforming your home into a spooky, sustainable haunted house is much easier than you imagine. Here are some things you can use:
- Energy-efficient lighting: Swap out incandescent lighting with LED string lights, which consume less energy and last longer than traditional bulbs.
- DIY and upcycled decor: Use household items, such as mason jars, tealight candles, old blankets and sheets, and even scrap paper to make DIY Halloween decor. You can utilize nature by incorporating fallen leaves, pinecones, and branches.
- Virtual effects: Instead of purchasing and hanging up disposable decorations, such as fake cobwebs, use virtual projections of spooky scenes to create a chilling environment that’s both creative and waste-free.
Responsible Party-Planning Strategies
Planning a green Halloween party extends beyond decorations; it also includes what you serve to your trick-or-treaters.
- Bulk candy: Halloween candy produces hundreds of tiny plastic wrappers that end up in the trash. Consider purchasing candy in bulk to reduce packaging waste, and use reusable containers to collect treats instead of additional plastic bags.
- Low-waste drinks: Halloween parties mean serving dozens of people beverages, resulting in bins full of plastic bottles and cans. Opt for drinks in glass jars instead, or create mixed beverages in bulk instead of purchasing single-serving containers.
- Pumpkin carving and cooking: It’s almost impossible to celebrate Halloween without pumpkins, but they usually end up going to waste after the festivities end. “After Halloween, your carved-up pumpkin is a great addition to a compost pile, and the seeds (and pumpkin pieces) are a great bird seed mix supporting biodiversity in your community,” says Brittney Barnett, sustainability manager at PWC. You can also use pumpkin flesh to make delicious recipes, such as roasted pumpkin soup or pumpkin pie.
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:
- Local and seasonal delights: Shopping at a large supermarket is convenient but supports production practices that contribute to environmental pollution and waste. This year, make a point to support local farmers and choose organic, sustainably sourced ingredients.
- Waste reduction and composting: Everyone loves Thanksgiving leftovers, but a lot of food can end up in the trash. Instead of tossing food that’s past its prime, set up a composting station to recycle your food scraps into fertilizer for new vegetation.
- Reusable tableware: Opt for reusable dinnerware and cloth napkins instead of disposable options to reduce the pile-up of plastic and paper products. Then, store leftovers in reusable glass containers rather than single-use plastic ones to keep them fresh and curb additional waste.
- Shopping list: Instead of buying as much food as you can fit in your cart, create a well-thought-out shopping list and calculate the necessary number of servings based on the size of your guest list. You’ll save money and reduce food waste.
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:
- Repurpose old decor: Trends change, but that doesn’t mean your existing decor has no use. Incorporate timeless classics, such as wreaths and table runners, and look for inspiration online on how to style your existing pieces to keep with design trends.
- Incorporate natural materials: Use pumpkins, gourds, and squash as centerpieces. Burn beeswax or soy candles for a cozy ambiance, avoiding petroleum-derived wax for a more eco-friendly option. You can also incorporate fall leaves, pinecones, acorns, and branches into your decor for a natural touch that can be composted after use.
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.
- Volunteer: Barnett suggests incorporating volunteer activities into your holiday celebration, such as giving your time to a nonprofit that supports the environment or organizing a beach clean-up. Donating unused, nonperishable food to your local food bank is another way to support your community during the holiday season while making sure no meals go to waste.
- Support local businesses: Local businesses often prioritize seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. By choosing these, you support sustainable farming practices rather than rely on food shipped from distant regions. Plus, you’re lifting up the local economy, advises Clark.
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:
- Experiences over things: “Experiences over physical items are often the most thoughtful gifts,” says Clark. Consider gift options such as a spa day, cooking class, or weekend getaway. These create lasting memories without contributing to clutter.
- Online shopping hacks: Today, most people shop online. To reduce waste, bundle your online purchases and look for retailers that use minimal packaging or eco-friendly packing materials.
- Quality over quantity: Consider the quality and usefulness of the gifts you buy rather than focusing on how many you give. Invest in gifts that are built to last, reducing the need for replacements and ultimately cutting down on waste.
- Thrifting over buying new: Thrift stores, vintage boutiques, and consignment shops can make great places to purchase gifts. From decor to clothes and shoes to like-new toys for kids, these businesses have tons of valuable inventory. Some even donate proceeds to worthy causes.
- Conscious food shopping: Choose locally sourced, organic, and seasonal ingredients and meats for your Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa meals. Consider reducing meat consumption and incorporating more plant-based dishes.
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:
- Upcycled ornaments: Before buying new decorations, take inventory of what you already have. Old decorations can be spruced up or repurposed with a little creativity.
- Sustainable lighting: When using lights to spruce up your windows and landscaping, opt for energy-efficient ones. For example, LED lights use up less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs and last significantly longer. They are available in various colors and styles, so you won’t have to compromise on a festive look.
- Eco-friendly Christmas tree: If you opt for a real tree, ensure it’s sustainably sourced and consider replanting it after the holidays. Alternatively, choose an artificial tree made from eco-friendly materials that you can use for many years. Make it a habit to turn off your Christmas lights before bedtime to save energy.
Wrapping and Packaging Alternatives
Gift-giving means wrapping paper, bags, and tissue galore. Consider these alternatives:
- Reusable or biodegradable gift wrap: Skip traditional wrapping paper, which often can’t be recycled due to dyes and additives. Opt for reusable alternatives, such as cloth bags and scarves or biodegradable products.
- DIY wraps: Make your own wrapping paper using materials you already have, such as old maps, sheet music, newspaper, or even children’s artwork.
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:
- If you have leftover decorations or gifts from last year you still haven’t used, consider donating them to a local thrift store rather than throwing them out.
- “Donate any packaged leftover foods to your local food pantry and try to compost all expended food waste,” offers Barnett.
- “If you have a real Christmas tree, consider composting it,” notes Barnett. Many communities offer Christmas tree recycling programs. Alternatively, you can mulch the tree yourself to use in your garden.
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.
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.
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.