As we slowly but surely begin understanding more about climate change and the environment, and most importantly - the role and impact we as humans play in all of it, it’s important to critically analyze our traditions and behaviors that, albeit mostly innocently, contribute to the adverse effects we have on our planet. Did you know that there are over 25 holidays of a variety of origins that occur between November and January? No matter what holiday you celebrate, there seems to be a consensus that this time of year is a time for gratitude, togetherness, and tradition. However, if you look past the eating, the vacation days, and the gift-giving, there are some very troubling statistics about sustainability this time of year. People typically use 8,000 tons of wrapping paper. The United States wastes 40% of its total food. The EPA has estimated that the U.S. produced 11.9 million tons of plastic packaging and over 90% of this went to a landfill after being used just once.
So as you gear up for this holiday season, think about some slight alterations you can make in your traditions to be more environmentally friendly. From finding the perfect gift to hosting, to travel, there’s something at every step that you can do to reduce your environmental impact.
Because this blog caters to adventurous souls who thrive in the outdoors, it’s especially crucial for us to think about how our actions can set an example for a more sustainable future. When thinking about giving an outdoor-themed gift, look at outdoor companies with eco-friendly agendas. All it takes is a quick google search to learn about what companies intentionally incorporate sustainability into their business plan. What you’ll find is that many of these companies come with a daunting price tag but when you learn why you might be more inclined to shell out the extra cash for your adventurous loved ones. Companies like Patagonia, The North Face, and REI are not shy about their sustainable efforts and how it impacts the quality of their products, hence the scary price tag. Research shows that Gen Z is critical of companies in which they invest their money, and are more likely to spend with companies whose values align with theirs, and this is a perfect example. Many of these companies (and you should too) see their products as a lifelong investment so should something happen to your down jacket on your next ice climbing adventure, they’ll help mend it, so you don’t have to buy a new one. If you want to stay away from more prominent corporations, dig a little deeper to buy local or find smaller companies with sustainable agendas.
If you want to take it to the next level, think about giving the gift of experience. It is true that the value of experiences only increases with time, while the opposite is exact for material goods. Let’s say for whatever holiday you celebrate you get new snow pants and a trip to the top ski resort in Colorado. What’s going to linger in your mind as you age is the experience of the journey and not the pants. The tour is going to accumulate memories which will be stories that you grow more fond of with each time you tell them. Besides, giving experience will almost always be more sustainable than a material good, so try a more unconventional approach this holiday season and give your loved ones an experience that they’ll cherish forever. It can be as simple as a treat to that restaurant they’ve wanted to try or as complex as a promise for a cross-country road trip.
Finally, when wrapping gifts get creative. Use newspapers for a vintage look or spend a few extra bucks on reusable grocery bags that are a present in themselves. I think back to my childhood and how much wrapping paper ended up in the trash just hours after being trashed, and it’s scary. Most wrapping paper is not recyclable due to the shiny finish or glitter. Get creative! Use an old map or decorate a cardboard box. It’s a gift to your loved one and the environment.
Sustainable Changes (Hosting and Travel)
What are some traditions, and possibly stereotypes associated with the holiday season? There’s always been this paradox that it’s a time of community and gratitude paired with overindulging in food, gifts, and waste. We’ve talked about the gift giving so let’s tackle the other two. I wholeheartedly believe that holiday parties are a critical aspect to this time of year. But with many things, when you take a more in-depth look, there is a hefty amount of room for sustainable improvements. It’s common that food is abundant at the end of a holiday event where it is a family gathering, a work potluck or just friends getting together. The sad truth is that while some folks eat leftovers, a good majority of the excess will get tossed. Besides attempting to provide an accurate amount of food for the number of guests, below are some ways to feel right about how you dispose of leftovers.
1. Expect leftovers and take ownership of the situation by coming to the party with Tupperware containers. Make it known that you’d like to put the leftover food to use and recruit some friends to help. I have some friends in New York City that make it a point to evenly distribute food among recycled to go containers into prepared meals and once the celebration is over, and take the food to homeless folks around their neighborhood. Sometimes they even make extra food with good intention in mind.
2. A quick google search will come up with a list of zoos which will happily take your leftovers for their animals. What better way to utilize your leftovers than to feed it to rhinos and penguins?
3. Compost! If you don’t do it at home, again, google is your friend to find somewhere that will.
When you’re hosting, think about using reusable dishes and silverware. I can’t imagine the number of plastic plates, utensils, and even serving utensils that end up trashed after a holiday celebration. If you think about how many offices, families, and sets of friends have parties, that’s an overwhelming amount of plastic finding its way to places it shouldn’t. Again, recruit friends where possible to mitigate the stressfulness of the cleaning process. Plan to leave the dishwasher empty so you can fill it right after. If this is not possible, go the extra step to find recyclable or compostable utensils. (A great stocking stuffer would be reusable utensils for a friend to keep with them all the time.)
For many people, the holidays are an extra exciting time because it's a time for travel. As someone who considers traveling a real passion, I’ve had to take some time to reflect on how my constant air travel negatively impacts my carbon footprint, and unfortunately, it’s a lot. To be transparent, I calculated what the CO₂ emission would be for my upcoming trip to Bogota, Colombia from Denver with a stopover in DC, and it will be 4,800 pounds of CO₂. According to the website where I made the calculation, myclimate, the average amount a person should produce in one year is 4,000 pounds. This number is not by any means to make anyone feel guilty about traveling to see their family, but it is an eye opener of where we are at, and where we theoretically should be. When possible, opt for car travel (which isn’t perfect but certainly better). When not possible, think about buying carbon offsets to balance out your emission. There are several websites, like the one I mentioned before and TerraPass where you can buy offsets that help fund sustainability projects dedicated to reducing CO₂ emissions and greenhouse gases to offset your travel. Whether you’re headed home or to a new place on an exciting adventure if nothing else think about how you will be affecting the planet and what are some possible ways to mitigate your impact elsewhere. I plan on asking for carbon offsets for Christmas to offset my travels. Consider doing the same ;)
The general message here is the holidays should be a time to slow down and simplify. There will always be more value in sharing meaningful experiences with the people around you than anything else. I hope this post was a learning experience and you will challenge yourself and your loved ones to take at least one step towards a sustainable holiday season. Whatever you celebrate, we wish you happy holidays!
I have not received compensation of any kind for mentioning the above websites and brands.