Dec 11, 2020 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Leah Thayer | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian

It’s the season of giving – the most wonderful time of the year – but what does that mean for the environment? Each year, increases to waste production, energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions are a byproduct of the holiday season.

The amount of waste produced in the U.S. increases by 25% between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day – that’s one million extra tons of garbage each week. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Energy, the energy cost of holiday lights alone in the U.S. adds up to 6.63 billion kilowatt hours of electricity – a number greater than the national yearly energy consumption of the entire country of El Salvador. Travel, whether by car, bus, train, or plane, accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and much of that typically happens during the holidays. Overall estimates say each American produces an additional 0.7 tons of carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions during the holidays. However, in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are not able to travel as they normally would, and we must wait and see if and how this alters emissions.

So, what are some practical ways to be sustainable during the holidays?

First off, you can lessen the energy costs of Christmas lights by switching from incandescent lights to more energy efficient LED lights. This simple switch can save an estimated 15,963 watts of energy, in addition to $270.58 per household on winter energy bills, lessening the impact on the environment and on your wallet.             

Even your Christmas tree can contribute significant costs to the environment. The carbon footprint of a Christmas tree varies depending on whether it’s real or artificial. If you’re planning on having a real Christmas tree, the important things to keep in mind are where the tree is coming from, the transportation costs, and where it’s going after you’re done with it.

Don’t throw away your real Christmas tree; recycle it instead! According to the BBC, chipping and reusing your Christmas tree as mulch or compost can reduce its carbon footprint by up to 80%, as opposed to if it’s disposed of in a landfill. Buying artificial Christmas trees – made of a combination of metals and plastics and largely produced in China – produces a carbon footprint equivalent to driving the average passenger car 135 miles, or 55,485 grams of CO₂. If you do choose to use an artificial tree, you can still reduce that carbon footprint by reusing that same tree every year. Experts say it takes about 10 years of repeated use to cancel out the emission costs of producing and distributing an artificial Christmas tree.

Wrapping paper is one of the biggest sources of increased waste produced over the holidays. So how can you give meaningful gifts while skipping the waste? Similar to the case with Christmas trees, the answer takes us back to the tried and true mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle. Recycling old newspapers to use as wrapping paper is one of the simplest ways to accomplish this. Even better, remove wrapping from the equation completely by giving gifts that don’t require wrapping – experiential gifts.

Colorado College environmental science professor Miroslav Kummel shares his thoughts on the compelling value of the experiential over the material, both for your loved ones and the environment. “I would encourage people to give opportunities to spend time together and opportunities to be creators rather than consumers. Gifts like these will peel us away from the consumer culture and help us create special times and special memories while being much gentler on the planet,” says Kummel.  

Instead of the season of “giving,” it’s clear the holidays have become a season of over-consumption. Not only is it over-consumption, but it’s unnecessary consumption that comes at a price for our planet. There’s no doubt that 2020 has been a year of unique challenges, making it harder than ever to take an extra moment to think about the environment, but in spite of that, let’s do our part for the planet to make this a true season of giving rather than a season of consuming.

Happy holidays everyone!

Leave a Reply