7 Tips for a Greener Holiday

By Margaret Southern, The Nature Conservancy

The holidays always conjure up a variety of sensory images. For glass-half-full people, maybe you think about the warmth of a crackling fire, the sounds of carolers singing in harmony or the smells of fresh pine. But if you have as much eco-guilt as I do, you might picture piles of discarded wrapping paper, holiday cards being thrown into trash cans or not-quite-right gifts being shoved into closets (not to mention the crowded malls, ruined diets and cold weather)!

Hopefully you fall on the glass-half-full side, but we could all stand to make our holidays as eco-friendly as possible. So, here are 7 easy tips to help make the season just a little greener.

1. Receive less
We all know it’s better to give than to receive — maybe that’s why it’s hard to convince some people not to give you any gifts. And you certainly don’t want to be the person who shows up at the family gathering empty-handed when gifts are being exchanged. The best way to get around this is to get everyone to agree on a system before the shopping season begins. Enlist some like-minded relatives to start a Secret Santa tradition — one gift given and received by everyone. And if that doesn’t work, ask for donations to your favorite charity.

2. Give wisely
We all want to give great gifts — and we can also give responsible ones. That’s what Green Gift Monday is all about. If you are crafty, try making most of your gifts this year. If you’re not (like me!), try my favorite eco-friendly gift tip: Give an experience. I hate the thought of giving someone something that would just end up as clutter. I like to give spa gift certificates, sporting event or concert tickets or an invitation to dinner on me.

3. Wrap right
According the Clean Air Council, an additional 5 million tons of waste is generated during the holidays, 4 million tons of which is wrapping paper and shopping bags. When wrapping gifts, consider using an alternative to traditional wrapping paper: the Sunday comics, magazine pages, old maps, calendar pages (you probably already have one with 11 of the months to spare!) or pieces of fabric. Even store-bought gift bags are better than paper, since they can be used again and again.

4. Switch to e-cards.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans send 1.9 BILLION Christmas cards each year. Everyone loves getting mail from friends and family, but your wishes for holiday cheer and that annual newsletter will probably be just as well-received in an inbox rather than a mailbox. And for the cards you receive, try turning last year’s cards into this year’s gift tags.

5. Spend some time in nature.
It may be cold around the holidays, but that’s no excuse to not spend some time outdoors. Getting some fresh air can help clear your head, burn off some cookie calories and can be a fun and free way for families to spend time together. Try going for a hike on a local preserve, taking your kids on a Treasure Hunt or giving winter bird-watching a try.

6. Cut the power bill.
Choosing LED lights to line your house or wrap around your tree can make a big dent in carbon emissions and energy costs. According to the Electric Power Research Institute, if all the seasonal mini-lights in the United States were switched from standard incandescent bulbs to LEDs, the energy savings would exceed $250 million and carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by 400,000 tons. Because LEDs last about 10 times longer, the lights your child sees as an infant could be the same ones he’s helping to hang up as a teenager. And an investment in a light timer will help to make sure you aren’t sending holiday cheer to a fast-asleep neighborhood at 3 a.m.

7. Buy a tree.
In the debate over whether real or fake Christmas trees are better for the environment, Conservancy Climate Adaptation Strategy Leader Frank Lowenstein comes down on the side of real. Lowenstein says that fake trees are made from PVC, which requires a ton of electricity to produce, and that 85 percent of fake trees sold in the U.S. are shipped from China. On the other hand, real trees absorb carbon from the air while they are growing, and new trees are quickly replanted for each one cut down. So if you plan to use a tree to bring some holiday cheer into your living room, make it a real one.

So, tell us: How do you plan to make your holiday season a little greener?

Margaret Southern is a writer for The Nature Conservancy. She writes about international conservation projects and also blogs on Cool Green Science about her experience going from “greenish” to “greener.” Her interests include world travel, biking, microbrews and her boxer, Lucy.

(Image: Presents. Credit: thehoneybunny/Flickr through a Creative Commons license)


Jondra Montague
Jondra Montague5 years ago

I give funny holiday cards to my family, but instead of writing on the envelope and card I use sticky notes. On the message sticky I explain that the card can now be reused for someone else. This lets me find the fun cards but know they may find a second, or possibly third life.

Laura S.
Laura S5 years ago

Last night, I was at the "home improvement store", looking for a wreath and some evergreen roping to hang outside. I did buy the wreath, made of fresh assorted evergreens tied to a wire frame. (I'll keep the frame after Christmas and, next year, I can make my own.) But as I debated options for roping and swags, I kept looking at the huge pile of tree trimmings that they had iinside a small corral. "What happens to those?", I inquired. The woman pointed at the small dumpster by the door. "They go in the trash." What...?!?

Well, I just wish I'd had more room in my car, as she allowed me to have as many of those trimmings as I wanted. All I need now is some wire and for the snow to hold off for another day.

It's a shame that Lowe's stores can't be bothered to chip those trimmings into mulch or compost. There's a tree-recycling program for the residents here. You'd think there could be something similar for the retailers. At the least, Lowe's should realize that appearances are everything. They could be making more of an effort. (They usually do. They take back plastic plant containers for recycling, offer collection points for CFLs and batteries, and recycle old appliances at no extra charge with the purchase of a new one. So, this surprised me.)

Anyway, that's what I'm doing this year to make a "greener" holiday. And next year, I'm going to have more space in my car!

Annemarie W.
Annemarie L5 years ago


Alicia N.
Alicia N5 years ago

I don't buy paper cards and my family knows that I just don't do it.

For presents: recycle paper with a nice hand-made ribbon (invented one with natural things)
and also used ones from others X-Mas years. Presents sometimes are donations (I mentioned the person's name)

No trees (real or fakes)

For me the best thing about X-Mas is, when it's over.

Eric Concannon
Eric Concannon5 years ago

Excellent list - on the subject of what we're doing (or not doing), we're not using any lights. This saves ALL the energy used even in using LED lights and reduces our consumption of all sorts of not-so-friendly materials in the lights and packaging - styrofoam or plastic packaging trays (and possibly worse), plastics in the wiring insulation and lights/sockets, lead to stabilize the wiring insulation (which ends up on your hands when you hang the lights, then in your mouth as you eat you cookies and enjoy the glow), copper wiring, mercury in the LEDs, not to mention the pollution generated in making and transporting the lights from parts unknown (mostly China). Better off just collecting all the floor and table lamps in the house and surrounding the tree with them, honestly. I would rather do candles, but the fire hazard of open flames near a drying real tree is too great. So, we appreciate our tree when we are in the room with the room lights on (or off - it smells so great!) and that's it. We don't fret over attracting the attention of others to our tree or to our home during the holidays.

Magdalena K.
Past Member 5 years ago


Nicole G.
Nicole Gorman5 years ago

Plain recycled materials box with a nice cloth ribbon/bow that can be reused is always a classy and attracive way to go, and much better for the environment!

Victoria Pitchford
Vicky P5 years ago

thanks but one thing, I find e-cards are impersonal.

iii q.
g d c5 years ago

or wrap in a sweaster or scarf or table cloth or napkin... instant double gift too! :-)

Carol P.
Carol P5 years ago

I think people make too much fuss about the wrapping paper, though there are ways to choose more wisely.

When we think of it being thrown in the trash, we imagine the big trash bags full of crumpled up balls. If that paper were flat, you'd realize that it's mass isn't all that much at all. Most wrapping papers are thin and flimsy. But you can make a difference.

• Skip the foil papers that actually contain metal.

• If you can't reuse the paper, make sure it goes in the recycling bin.

• Skipping papers that are printed with thick glossy coatings or foil stamping cuts down on the wastes of additional printing processes and the toxins that may come with them, and makes papers easier to recycle.

• Pay attention to where you paper was made. Buying paper made on the other side of the world means it may have come from a country that doesn't have good forestry practices. Look for recycled symbols and try to buy papers made in countries that do have forest protection laws so you aren't wrapping your presents in what used to be a rain forest.