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8 Ways to Have a Sustainable Holiday Season

Zero Waste Holidays

Last Updated on December 6, 2023

The holidays are a time when we indulge our families and friends with food, gifts and cards. But it can also be a time of stress, excess and waste.

That’s why making the right choices is important: They can minimize the impact on the environment while celebrating with the ones we love.

8 Ways to Have a Sustainable Holiday Season

This post was sponsored by the Paper and Packaging Board’s How Life Unfolds® campaign. All thoughts and opinions are my own; for more information please see my disclosure policy.

I like to take a slower approach to the holiday season. Making Christmas cookies from scratch, hanging up some dried citrus garlands for decoration, and making the house smell amazing with festive simmer pots are some of my favorite holiday traditions.

If you’re looking to slow down and really experience all the delights of the holiday season, here are some of my favorite tips on how to spread joy and do it sustainably!

how does the holiday season affect the environment?

During the holiday season, household waste increases by more than 25% from Thanksgiving to New Years. 

The average American produces ~5 lbs of trash per day, but during the holidays that rises to 6.25lbs. With a population of 331.9 million people in the U.S. alone, that’s ~2,072,375,000lbs of trash generated per day during the holiday season.

So, where’s all this waste coming from? It’s from all the additional excess food and packaging that does not get recycled. However, please note that when you recycle or reuse things like paper shopping bags, wrapping paper and fancy ribbon, that’s not considered waste.

how can we be sustainable during the holiday season?

Having a sustainable holiday season doesn’t have to be hard. Here are some tips, tricks and ideas to inspire you.

8 Ways to Have a Sustainable Holiday Season

1. recycle (and upcycle) your paper

A papertarian is a fun term coined by the Paper and Packaging Board to highlight someone who lives a paper-based lifestyle. It’s about opting for paper packaging, and then recycling it when you are done! 

With the holiday season here, you might be ordering more packages than usual. If you’re wondering what to do with all those shipping boxes and packaging paper, don’t. 

Paper and boxes are some of the most recycled materials in the U.S. and can be made into new products up to seven times!

In 2022, 93.6% of corrugated cardboard packaging and nearly 68% of paper was recycled in the United States. Approximately 80% of U.S. paper and packaging mills use some recovered paper fibers in their products, and most corrugated boxes are made from 50% recycled material.  

Recycling keeps paper and boxes out of landfills and makes the most of our natural resources because it can be recycled up to seven times. But before you recycle your paper, you can find festive ways to reuse or upcycle it.

Here are some fun ways to upcycle paper this holiday season:

  • Make some star ornaments out of toilet paper rolls.
  • DIY some paper snowflakes for holiday decor or DIY ornaments.
  • Use cardboard tubes as gift tags, napkin rings, or gift pouches.
  • Save cardboard boxes to reuse for gifts.
  • Use brown paper from shipments over the year to wrap Christmas presents. Decorate them with festive stamps and ink for more pizazz.
8 Ways to Have a Sustainable Holiday Season

2. choose sustainable wrapping

Did you know 4.6 million pounds of wrapping paper is made in the U.S. each year and half of it (that’s 2.3 million pounds!) ends up in landfill.

When wrapping gifts, it’s a good idea to opt for wrapping paper that has no glitter or foils to make sure it’s recyclable. Always double check your local recycling rules though, as they can vary from state to state. 

I love to utilize salvaged packaging paper to wrap gifts too. Last year, I saved up all my brown paper, then got rubber stamps and ink to create really cute homemade wrapping paper. 

To secure your gifts, use paper tape to cut back on plastic. Or, simply use compostable twine or upcycled ribbon. For finishing touches, tie on some dried citrus or pine sprigs. 

3. opt for a sustainable card

Making cards is one of my favorite traditions. I love receiving physical cards, and have a whole box of sentimental cards that I’ve kept over the years from early birthdays, graduations, my wedding etc. It’s so nice to be able to pull these out and read the words from my loved ones, especially loved ones who’re no longer with us. 

I’m a big fan of the tactile nature of cards, but whether you make them yourself or you get them from a store, it’s your personal message that really warms the heart. I always opt for a 100% paper-based card because it comes from a renewable resource, and they’re recyclable. To make your own, grab some drawing paper and get creative.

Paint on it, or draw on it with markers, crayons, or colored pencils. Or make it a family affair: Grab your partner and/or kids and give them a card to write out. They can choose who they want to address it to and personalize it their own way!

You can also make a stamp from a potato in the shape of a tree, then use plant paints instead of ink so your card is completely plastic-free. 

8 Ways to Have a Sustainable Holiday Season

4. gift consciously

It’s so important to gift consciously. You can do this by choosing gifts your loved ones will adore and actually use. 

Think about what they truly want or need: What can they use right now? Practical gifts are always a safe bet, like a coupon to a car wash or a magazine subscription?

Ask them what they need most, or listen to what they talk about the next time you’re together. Are they always talking about getting new baking sheets? Have they voiced how hard it is to afford something you could help put money towards? PJs or thick wool socks?

You can also donate to a charity or volunteer time in their name. This is even more impactful when it’s something they strongly believe in, like environmental or social causes. 

Lets also normalize re-gifting: If you have something you know someone else would want, and aren’t using yourself, why not re-gift it? It’s better than gathering dust on your shelf.

Of course, when in doubt, money will always be appreciated and never goes to waste. 

5. protect your ornaments without the plastic 

Reusing the same ornaments each year is a great way to reduce waste. Always use what you already have.

Plus, many ornaments can be (or become) family heirlooms with a lot of sentimental value. My mother still has some ornaments from her grandmother’s time and they are so precious to us – we decorate the tree with them every year.

It’s important to make sure you put them away safely after the holidays are over. I recommend upcycling a cardboard box and wrapping fragile items in upcycled tissue paper, crinkle paper or kraft paper. Even old newspapers can suffice in a pinch.

This will ensure you can easily pull it out of storage and look forward to making more holiday memories next year.

8 Ways to Have a Sustainable Holiday Season

6. choose the right tree

Did you know that real trees are better for the environment than fake plastic trees?

All real Christmas trees are grown on farms. In fact in the U.S., 350 million trees are grown on Christmas tree farms, so you don’t have to chop a tree down from the forest to get one.

Christmas trees are grown like crops on farms, so the farmer will generally plant 3 seedlings whenever one gets picked.

Plus, when Christmas ends you can recycle it at the end of its life by turning it into compost or mulch. 

Many big cities and towns have curbside pick-up options along with drop off centers for recycling. 

For example, Mulchfest in NYC is a huge event where they’ll chip your tree into wood chips and use it to nourish trees around NYC. More than 58,300 trees were recycled last year alone.

An even more eco-friendly option yet is to find a place that lets you rent out a living tree for the holiday in a pot with its roots intact. 

At the end of the holiday season, they’ll come and pick it up and return it to their forest nursery, where the trees will continue to produce oxygen, contribute to the ecosystem, and serve as wildlife habitat.

However, if you already have a fake plastic tree, continue to use it to prevent waste. Plastic trees cannot be recycled with curbside recycling. When it’s ready for retirement, consider getting a real tree in its place.

8 Ways to Have a Sustainable Holiday Season

7. reduce food waste

Who doesn’t love to indulge in good food during the holidays? Between cookies, cakes, mains and sides, the options are endless.

But Americans waste around 30-40% of the food supply, and that amount rises by 25% during the holidays – aka Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. 

Here are a few ways to reduce food waste this holiday season:

  • Ask your guests to bring their own containers so they can take some leftovers home or provide some paper to-go containers.
  • Actually eat your leftovers! Here are some creative ways to use them up.
  • Compost any food/cooking scraps you have.
  • Don’t over-cook: Focus on making enough for the people you’ll be serving. Meal prepping and planning in advance can help with this.
  • Prepare only what you know your guests will like so it all gets eaten (try to avoid any foods they’ve expressed strong disdain for).
  • Make sure to honor dietary restrictions! Make sure to talk to everyone about their diets before you plan to cook.

8. quality time

Above all else this season, spending quality time with your loved ones far outweighs any possession you can get them. 

We’re often bombarded by ads this season telling us to buy more. This leads to overconsumption, stress, panic-buying and a lot of waste during the holidays. 

But what if we just slowed down? What if we took the time to focus less on quantity, but quality? 

Here are some ways we can enjoy time with our loved ones:

  • Grab a coffee at a local cafe and catch up (bonus points if you challenge each other not to check your phones!)
  • Host a girl’s night, order pizza and get crafty
  • Watch a cooking class and eat the spoils together when done
  • Sign up for a guided nature walk or foraging tour together
  • Complete a puzzle or board game (Scrabble is always fun!)

You could also potentially ask for experience gifts. Even better, ask for an experience you can share together, like a concert, movie tickets, musical, or play.

Or ask for no gifts at all, if you’d rather just make the holidays a bit simpler and already have what you need. That will free both of you to just focus on creating fun memories together.

And, a huge thank you to How Life Unfolds®  for sponsoring this post. Be sure to visit to learn more about having a sustainable holiday season. Don’t forget to also take the Papertarian Pledge!

Also, feel free to visit their Instagram handle @howlifeunfolds and participate in their  #GoPapertarian campaign.

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