Guess what. It’s December. Holiday season!

By Islabella de Goeij

A time of celebration, reflection, and giving. The holidays are commemorated in a variety of unique ways all around the world. I grew up in a household that celebrates Christmas and many people I know consider this one of the best times of the year. But for our planet, it’s the opposite.

Imagine this: It’s 6 AM on December 25, 2006. 10-year-old Isabella and her three younger siblings are wide awake, examining the shape and weight of the exquisitely wrapped presents underneath the Christmas tree. There’s counting involved. Who received the most presents? Who got the heaviest one? The biggest one? Yet there was a catch – we weren’t allowed to open the presents until our father finished the morning milking shift on the dairy farm. So, while the snow fell softly outside through the dark and chilly Alberta air, we would sit and wait on the living room floor quietly laughing, arguing and excitedly whispering under the dim glow of the lights on the tree.

Around 10 AM my dad would come in, my parents would tell us to eat breakfast first (I’m pretty sure they just enjoyed watching us squirm), and then finally it would be time to open those presents. Back to the living room floor we would go. Growing with each unwrapped gift was a pile of wrapping paper and ribbon, which was thereafter joined by the cardboard and plastic packaging that further encased the gift. As a child on Christmas morning, I didn’t really think about that pile. All my attention was garnered by the fun new toys in front of me.

I failed to truly notice and think about the waste produced during the holiday season year after year until I had grown older. That big garbage bag full of wrapping paper, ribbons, cardboard boxes and plastic wrapping wasn’t only showing up in my house. This was happening all over the place. The amount of garbage and food waste we humans produce, which increases significantly during the holiday season, is an important global issue that I am now conscious of.

I’d even say that my family is on the conservative side of being wasteful.

Approximately 540,000 tonnes of wrapping paper and gift bags are thrown out in Canada, while the United States sees about 4 million tonnes of these items end up in landfills each year. The amount of ribbon thrown away in North America equates to 38,000 miles – enough to wrap around the planet.

My mother saves and reuses practically everything, from elastic bands and Ziploc bags to cutting tubes of toothpaste in half so that we can scrape out every last bit. To this day, she tells us to unwrap presents carefully and slowly peel the tape off so that she can reuse the wrapping paper. But even so, we usually end up with a decently large heap of waste on the living room floor.

So, starting this holiday season I want to see if I can decrease the amount of garbage my family and I throw away. How am I going to do this? Well, I’m glad you asked. I did some digging and found some useful tips on reducing this type of waste during the holiday season.

1. Think about how you wrap presents

Make your own wrapping paper, use more eco-friendly materials, or forget about wrapping paper completely. The majority of wrapping paper isn’t even recyclable. If it contains materials such as foil, wax, sparkles or glitter it will be sent straight to the landfill. Ribbon and tinsel are also generally sent to landfills because of the materials they are made of and the complications they can cause in sorting machines while being recycled.

While wrapping paper can add flair to any gift, is it really worth purchasing just to be used once and then ripped off again? There are many alternatives to wrapping paper that can still enable you to wrap a gift without placing strain on the environment.

  • Use recycled brown wrapping paper or newspaper. You can make it look more festive by adding a sprig of evergreen, a slice of dehydrated orange, a stick of cinnamon, or even drawing on the paper.
  • Wrap the gift in a tea towel or scarf, making the cloth an additional element to the present. You could even make a set of cloth bags with drawstrings that can be used year after year, making the wrapping process quick and easy.
  • Reuse the ribbons and bows that you purchase. We reuse Christmas tree ornaments, why not reuse these items as well!

2. Give eco-friendly gifts

For those that celebrate Christmas, think about the presents you may have received that were enjoyable for a little while and then lost their novelty, only to end up in the trash. Many of us constantly feel pressure that we have to buy stuff for everyone but there is a way to give presents and not create near as much waste!

  • Give the gift of experience. Take someone to a concert, plan an outdoor experience, or partake in a cooking or dancing class together. By doing this you are showing affection to the people in your life by spending quality time together without having to buy more stuff.
  • Homemade gifts. There are so many items you could make from home that mean so much more than going out and buying the same thing. Consider making some ornaments, picture frames, candles, or even just some classic baked goods.
  • Locally made gifts. Seek out some sustainable products in your community and support your local economy all while benefiting the environment.
  • If you do buy something, try to make it an investment. An item that will benefit the receiver for a long time or be useful to them in some aspect of their life. For example, a new camera lens or a high quality suitcase that the person can enjoy for years to come.
  • Donate to a charity! Many charities will provide you with a certificate of your donation which you can then present as a gift. This year TripLit is supporting Room to Read!

3. Reduce food waste

Food! Another key part of the holiday season. But did you know that wasting food is an enormous contribution to our greenhouse gas emissions? Not to mention the millions of people that do not have access to a sufficient amount of food. Yet worldwide we waste about 1.3 billion tonnes of food each year. The amount of brussel sprouts thrown away in the UK alone could power a home for three years! However, simply taking care to not waste food can be one of the easiest ways to address climate change. To reduce the amount of food waste you create this holiday season you could:

  • Use the “ugly” fruits and vegetables. Just because one apple looks more pristine than another apple doesn’t necessarily mean that it will taste better. It’s dark inside your stomach anyways!
  • Cook only as much as you need. This may require more diligent planning and cooking only for the approximate number of people that are coming instead of going all out and overboard.
  • Share your leftovers with family, friends, and strangers! As long as the food is still good, you do not have to throw it away.

4. Offset holiday travel

If you are someone who travels a lot throughout the holiday season whether it be going on vacation or going home to be with family, consider offsetting the fossil fuel pollution generated regardless of your method of travel. These are some websites I found where either you as an individual or as a business can donate to offset your carbon emissions:

5. Dispose of trees wisely

By the time New Years Day rolls around, a lot of people who celebrated Christmas will already have taken down or thought about taking down their Christmas tree. Depending on whether or not your tree is real or artificial will determine the most eco-friendly way of its disposal. If you use an artificial tree, try to get as many years out of it as you can. If you use a real tree, here are some ways you can get rid of them without contributing to the tree pile in the landfills.

  • Recycle your tree. Many cities have a curbside recycling program where they will collect trees at certain times during the weeks following Christmas. Or, just bring your tree to a recycling center that accepts them.
  • Make firewood or mulch from the tree so that it can be used to fuel your fireplace or improve the soil conditions in your yard.
  • Be creative and make wood coasters by cutting up the tree trunk.

There you have it. Five practical suggestions that I am personally going to use during the holidays this year to see if I can make a difference in the amount of waste I produce.

Now, I’d like to challenge you. I propose that you think about not only the festivities this season, but also the waste. If you utilize some of these tips, you could make a difference in your own life, and perhaps even influence a change in the consumption habits of your family. Even the smallest of efforts can lead to beneficial changes. What are you waiting for?