Remaking Holidays for Sustainability: Ways to Improve Any Holiday

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Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, the Fourth of July, and other holidays all have a few things in common: they tend to involve travel and special meals or feasts. For many extended families, like mine, these kinds of occasions are the only times during the year we all have a chance to see each other, yet travel and food are two of the four biggest ways individuals and households contribute to global warming*. So our choices are to give up on sustainability over the holidays, to give up on the holidays, or to find ways to the holidays more sustainable, starting now. These posts are focused on that last option.

The way I propose we look at cutting any emissions is “biggest impacts first.” We often look for the easiest, most obvious ways to act more sustainably, but the truth is that there are so many low-impact things we can do, we can easily spend all our time on those and never get to the good stuff, the major savings. That’s where the Big Four offer a starting point. With those in mind, here are some tips for the making the largest possible savings in emissions at the holidays.

Rethink air travel: Flying around the country and even the rest of the plant has become relatively inexpensive and easy, but unfortunately it’s one of the worst offenders in terms of emissions. Not only do planes burn a lot of fossil fuels, they push out their exhaust at altitudes where their bad effects are at least doubled compared to what they would be on the ground. It’s not up to me to tell you or your family members not to fly, but there are ways to fly less, for instance driving together in an efficient car, taking a bus or plane or boat, or making one longer visit instead of two shorter ones. For more information on flying, see “You Want Me to Stop Doing What?”

If the trip is very important to you and you can’t find any way to make it other than air travel, you can consider making a donation to offset the climate impact. For example, Cool Earth is a non-profit organization that does excellent work preserving forests, which is one of the best possible ways to help slow climate change (even better than planting new trees). Donations to organizations that make a smaller or less direct impact would have to be proportionately larger.

The cost of offsetting a flight depends very much on how long the flight is. For a transatlantic round trip, an offset donation to an organization like Cool Earth would be only $20.90. A short round trip, for instance between Niagara Falls and New York City, would be only about $2.50. (Source: How Bad Are Bananas by Mike Berners-Lee)

Not making the trip in the first place is certainly the ideal way to go, but offsetting is a decent alternative if you are having trouble finding away around flying.

Use food well: According to, between 25% and 40% of all food produced in the U.S. will never be eaten. Take a moment to reflect on that with me: At least a quarter of all our food, and possibly closer to half, goes completely to waste! Meanwhile, much of this food is produced with energy-intensive methods that burn many tons of fossil fuels; methane from ruminant livestock (cows, sheep, and goats) that is more than 20 times as potent in damaging the climate than carbon dioxide; and chemical fertilizers that release Nitrous Oxide (NO2), a greenhouse gas more than 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Careful attention to what and how much food we buy and how we serve and store it can cut our personal food waste to far below the usual amount.

Time permitting, I’ll be posting further ways to transform the holidays over the coming weeks. A happy and sustainable holiday season to all!

Photo courtesy of Emily Barney

* The other two are heat/hot water and electricity.

Waste Not, Wassail More: Green Holiday Ideas

Members and friends of Williston Green Initiatives contributed these ideas for making the holidays more sustainable.

First, some great ideas for sustainable wrapping. The carbon footprint of the presents themselves is still the main show, but you can reduce carbon footprint and waste while putting environmental consciousness at the fore in a positive way with these creative ways to wrap.

Wrapping with old maps

Also, there are ideas there that are much cooler than normal wrapping paper. Do I wish I had saved my old maps now? Oh indeed I do! Though we found our own solution to the problem (reclaimed rolls of paper and ink stamps).

Second, here are some waste reduction tips from Chittenden Solid Waste District:

LED lights

photo by Richard Masoner

Third, many thanks to Clare Innes, again at the Chittenden Solid Waste District for allowing us to post this information from their monthly email news flash:

Seven ways to keep your holiday spirit out of the landfill

1. Say NO! to artificial Christmas trees. Here’s why:
— The average artificial tree lasts 6 to 9 years but will remain in a landfill for centuries.
— Think a real tree poses a greater fire hazard? Think again. Artificial trees are made with polyvinyl chloride, which often uses lead as a stabilizer, making it toxic to inhale if there is a fire.
— Every acre of Christmas trees produces enough daily oxygen for 18 people. There are about 500,000 acres of Christmas trees growing in the U.S.
— Because of their hardiness, trees are usually planted where few other plants can grow, increasing soil stability and providing a refuge for wildlife.
— North American Christmas tree farms employ more than 100,000 local people; 80% of artificial trees worldwide are manufactured in China.
— Make a day of it and go to a local tree farm where you can cut your own, or purchase a potted tree and plant it in your yard after the holidays. You’ll also take home some sweet memories.

2. Declare your tree a tinsel-free zone — and just say NO to spray-on snow!
Tinsel and spray-on snow are big no-nos when it comes time to say goodbye to your tree. It’s nearly impossible to get it all off, and we can accept natural trees for free recycling only if they are completely free of anything Mother Nature herself didn’t install! Otherwise, those nasty additives make that tree fit only for the landfill, at a fee of $1 per foot in height at CSWD Drop-Off Centers.

3. Use recyclable or reusable wrapping paper.
In Chittenden County, wrapping paper is recyclable UNLESS it is printed with metallic inks or made of foil or plastic. The best material to use for wrap is something your recipient can reuse, such as a bandanna, a tea towel, a reusable cloth gift or shopping bag … the possibilities are endless.

If you still want to use wrapping paper, complete the recycling loop by purchasing wrap made with recycled paper. Let your favorite retailer know you’re looking for it and they’ll know that there’s a demand for it.

Recycling tip: Speedy recycling starts on your living-room floor on the Big Day: Sort recyclable paper into your recycling bin (NOT in a plastic bag). Put trash — ribbons, plastic and metallic paper and wrappings — in a trash bag, and you’ll get ‘er done as you go!

4. Use recyclable, reusable, or biodegradable gift decorations.
Ribbons and bows are big no-nos. Most are made of plastic and cannot be recycled. A better option would be to tie on an ornament that can be used on your tree, a knick-knack that will be enjoyed for years, or pinecones that can be composted or returned to the forest after use.

5. Regift!
Save gifts that aren’t quite what you need for someone who will appreciate them. If you can’t think of anyone you can pass it on to, bring it to a local charity or resale store, or a ReUse Zone at a CSWD Drop-Off Center and someone else will be glad to make use of it.

6. Don’t scrap your food scraps.
After your big meal, keep your plate scrapings and prep scraps out of the trash and stash them instead in a FREE food scrap bucket available at all CSWD Drop-Off Centers and Green Mountain Compost. When the bucket is full, bring it back in and we’ll use your scraps to make compost. We accept all types of food scraps: meat and bones, veggies, dairy products, egg and seafood shells — anything edible. And it’s FREE! Toss in greasy take-out pizza boxes as well. Stop on by any Drop-Off Center or Green Mountain Compost and we’ll give you a kitchen counter-top pail to peel your carrots into, and a 4-gallon bucket for bringing it to a Drop-Off Center or Green Mountain Compost — all for free!

7. Remember: “The best things in life aren’t things.”
Instead of giving an object, give an experience, such as a horseback-riding jaunt, skateboard lessons, movie tickets, or a promise to spend time together doing something you know your recipient loves to do. An online tool called offers fun ways to make gifts more personal and timeless.