Less is more: How and why you should lead a low-waste holiday season

By Julia Hall

One way to practice sustainability this Christmas is to ditch the regular wrapping paper and bows and use newspaper or eco-friendly paper instead. GRAPHIC BY HALEY KEIZUR/FOGHORN

‘Tis the season for giving, receiving, indulging, decorating… and, for Americans, taking out bags of trash brimming with unwanted delivery packages, using discount codes that influencers promoted for products you don’t need, and discarding the leftover green bean casserole your aunt made too many servings of. 

It’s unnecessary to put a halt on the holiday traditions we all love, but it’s also our responsibility to recognize and respond to the detrimental environmental impact caused by our habits around this time of year. It’s not news that our consumerist tendencies contribute to the fact that the Amazon rainforest is still in flames, or that we are well on our way towards experiencing the hottest temperatures in global history. The mere notion that our planet is dying is horrifying, but it’s even more horrifying to believe we are helpless about it.

Yes, the opportunity to overspend on will knock at your door, bombard your email inbox, and scream in your face beside Black Friday television commercials. Yes, plastic has become an omnipresent commodity available as plastic Santa ornaments to decorate your tree with, bubble wrap in every box you gift, and single-use decorated plates to dorn your holiday meal table. We have the choice to either blame our actions on the consumer industry, or to take action ourselves by reevaluate our habits. With a bit of mindfulness and imagination, it really is possible to execute a low-waste holiday season.

To start, gift experiences, not things. Memories are never wasted, nor forgotten. Technology, fashion items, and that questionable Bob Ross waffle maker you bought on Haight Street, will be. The more we buy, the more that these “gifts” become needs instead of wants, and the less satisfied we feel when we receive something. Instead of tangible items, try gifting concert tickets, a culinary class, or even a trip. In the long run, your loved ones likely will not be on their deathbed thinking about which material possessions you gave them, but they will remember the time you shared together.

Say no to the fluff. Isn’t it ironic how we intentionally buy wrapping paper, only to throw it out? Substitute crumpled up newspapers for bubble wrap, use baskets, cloth, and recycled shopping bags instead of wrapping paper, and simply don’t use extraneous ribbons, bows, and tissue paper.

This holiday season, be proactive to reduce food waste. Here are some not-so-fun facts about the reality of food waste in the U.S.: according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, we throw away about 40% of our food annually  — and on Thanksgiving, this means about 172,000,000 pounds of turkeys and 48 million pounds of sweet potatoes. This year, encourage family and friends to bring reusable containers for leftovers at holiday meals. In addition, plan ahead by estimating how much to make and truly sticking to your grocery list.

Unsubscribe to mailing lists! You know that overwhelming feeling when you click on your email only to discover multiple messages shouting, “30% OFF ANY PURCHASE” or “LAST CHANCE TO BUY EVERYTHING 70% OFF”? If it’s a brand you don’t care about anymore, scroll to the bottom and click unsubscribe. Bam. You saved yourself from a dent in your bank account — and from a plethora of plastic, styrofoam, non-sustainable packaging and materials that would otherwise end up stockpiled in your garbage bin. 

In an ideal world, the pure joy we give to one another would be enough to satisfy our hierarchy of wants and needs. But even in the materialistic, stuff-loving society we have evolved into, it’s like we’re obligated to gift things to the people we love. The key is to be intentional with what you buy; gifting homemade, handmade, secondhand, and zero-waste items is much healthier for the earth and recipient. Zesty ideas include bamboo straws, utensils, and bowls, succulents and candles, or homemade body scrubs, soaps, and shampoo bars.

Shop local. When you choose to buy locally-made products, you reduce the environmental effects of driving and delivering. Even better, haul out your reusable tote bag.

Try gifting consumables. Who wouldn’t love to receive an array of spice blends, infused olive oils, or DIY hot cocoa in a jar?

Lastly, avoid holiday scams and traps. Don’t be that person who is guilty of buying 18 sets of pots and pans just because they were on sale. Make a list of who you want to buy for this year, and set a budget so you don’t end up impulsively buying everything you are mildly attracted to.

When it comes down to it, ask yourself how much value material items really bring to your life. Low-waste shopping and living is about the exact opposite of lack and shortage: it’s about cutting out the clutter so we are able to make room for what is important.

Fulfillment does not stem from a one-click purchase, but rather from spreading ample love to the planet and people we cherish. And so, I urge and encourage you to consider what a profound change it might have, if we all lit a spark in contributing towards a more sustainable holiday season.


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