Your cheat sheet for a sustainable holiday season | U.S. Green Building Council
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For many, the holidays are one of the most anticipated times of the year. They're when we liven up our spaces with our most festive decorations, bring friends and family together over delicious meals, and express our utmost appreciation for being able to surround ourselves with those we hold dear. 

Of course, all of this merry-making involves a lot of materials and behavior that can leave our planet feeling a bit less cheerful. We generate eye-opening amounts of waste and ratchet up our energy use, two things that seriously contribute to the degradation of our environment. 

Now, I certainly don't want to "bah humbug" your merriment; I love the holidays as much as the next gal. No, what I want is for all of us to celebrate this time of year to its fullest and feel good knowing that we've done it in the most environmentally responsible way possible. To that end, here are a few ways you can make this holiday season a more sustainable one for you and yours:

Giving the green way

Recycle your wrappings: If every American family wrapped just three presents in reused materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields; old newspapers are a classic, but magazines work too! Or, if you're a master of carefully unwrapping gifts, save the paper and use it on your next gift-giving occasion. At the very least, we're all pretty capable of saving gift bags, tissue paper and ribbon for future use.

Be conscious with your cards: Try to find cards that are printed with soy inks on FSC-certified paper. Even better (if you're like my mom, and you have boxes them tucked away on a shelf somewhere) give holiday cards you've gotten in years past new life by cutting select sections of them into tags for your gifts—it adds a great personal touch!

Give to people, not to landfills: We can all think of that one gift (or two, or five) we've received and appreciated but never really got around to using, until it eventually finds its way into a dumpster somewhere. Don't let that be your gift this year! When working through your gift-giving list, ask yourself these questions:

  • Would this person enjoy an experience rather than a material thing? After all, these are the gifts that keep on giving through fond memories of whatever activity you pick out for them.
  • Is the key to their holiday heart really through their belly? Recipes in a jar are always a classic, but offering to making someone's favorite dish is never a gesture that goes unappreciated. Or, if you're skilled in the kitchen, teach them how to make it themselves!
  • Speaking of, do you possess a certain skill or talent this person has always wanted to master? Gift them some lessons! They'll not only be super grateful for their newly acquired ability, but you'll get to enjoy each other's company too.  

Decking the halls and decreasing your carbon footprint

Select string lights that save: String lights are my personal favorite part of the holidays; they're just all-around fun. That being said, they can also suck up a bunch of greenhouse-gas-emitting energy. When trying to choose what lights most speak to you this season, opt for LED lights, which are incredibly more energy-efficient than traditional string lights. Also look for ones with self-timers, that way when you fall into a food coma on the couch after three-too-many cookies and copious amounts of eggnog, you can rest assured that your lights will turn themselves off, saving you energy and money! 

Trim a sustainable tree: When picking your tree, there's always the question of going artificial or au naturale. If a live tree is your thing, think about how it can be useful after the holidays. A potted evergreen can add a nice touch to your outside space after all the ornaments have been taken off. Or maybe you're into gardening, and will need some mulch come springtime—you've already got the basic materials! Here are some more ideas on how to recycle your tree.

If you're going artificial, be sure to consider what your potential tree is made of—some plastics can have negative health impacts! Also be sure to choose a tree you'll be willing to stick with for years to come (you know, that whole reducing waste thing again). If you want your tree to come pre-decorated with lights, make sure those lights are LEDs. 

Choose your candles carefully: Many conventional candles contain paraffin, a petroleum-based ingredient that the EPA says can negatively affect your indoor air quality. Soy or beeswax candles don't contain paraffin, so look for those whenever possible. Also make sure your candle wicks are lead-free—many consumers don't realize how common lead actually is in candle wicks! 

Reuse, repurpose, upcycle: Show off your creative, crafty side by festooning your home with decorations made from recycled materials. Newspaper snowflakes hanging from twine have a cool rustic look, while old wine bottles with tiny LED lights on a wire add some chic sparkle to any room. Want a festive candle holder? Stack some old ornaments inside an upside-down wine glass et voilà: elegance, done with ease.

Entertaining like an environmentalist

Wine and dine with less waste: Reusable plates and cutlery are a must for any gathering aiming to be sustainable. Having a big event and need lots of dinnerware? See if there are local vendors in your area that rent out reusable dishes. If you absolutely have to use disposable table settings, look for ones that are compostable or made of recycled content. Also be sure you make it easy for your guests to dispose of these properly, whether that's through composting or recycling.

Spread some cheer, share your leftovers: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the typical American wastes roughly 30% of the food they purchase. Don't be a typical American! Send your guests home with some delicious leftovers for later; encourage them to bring containers to the party for sustainable good measure. Or, give to those who are less fortunate by donating extra food to homeless shelters or food banks in your area. Still left with more than you can eat? If you live near one of these zoos, give those adorable animals some holiday cheer by sharing some select items from your festive feast!

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Past (2012) NY Upstate Chapter Chair, Past CSC, and Director of Sustainability Programs, DASNY
We have bought a "root-balled" tree for nearly 15 years, and planted them all, with a 60% success rate. Our first is now nearly 30' tall! If you don't have the room, arrange with a local school or community site to donate the tree to them after the festivities. Make sure they have a hole ready. A root-balled 5ft (including ball) tree in our area costs about $100 dollars (up from $80 last year).

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