Ask Eartha: Tips for a more sustainable Christmas |

Ask Eartha: Tips for a more sustainable Christmas

If each family in the U.S. wrapped just three presents in reused material, we’d save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields.
Courtesy Getty Images | iStockphoto

Dear Eartha,

I took your advice and cut down my own holiday tree, but as I was decorating the rest of my house and placing presents under the tree, I wondered if there are any other ways to make the holidays more sustainable. What tips can you share?

— Emily, Frisco

During the holidays, it’s easy to be distracted by all the parties, the decorating and the gift giving (or maybe it’s just the eggnog) and forget to keep your environmental values in check. In fact, this most wonderful time of the year is also the most wasteful: between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Americans throw out an extra one million tons of trash per week. The 2.6 billion Christmas cards we buy every year could fill a football stadium 10 stories high. And those beautiful lights adorning houses across the country? In the U.S., energy consumption from holiday lights alone is greater than the entire annual electricity use of some developing countries.

Pretty staggering, huh? It’s almost enough to make you say, “Bah-humbug!” and give up on overt displays of holiday cheer altogether. But infusing your holiday season with a healthy dose of sustainability doesn’t mean you must become a Scrooge and skip the celebrations. With some careful planning, you can ensure that your inner holiday elf doesn’t happily trample all over your environmental best intentions. Here are some easy suggestions for a season full of warmth, togetherness and sustainability:


When you’re trimming your tree and decking your halls, look for inspiration from the natural world. Craft a wreath out of pinecones or fragrant herbs. String together a garland of dried orange slices, fresh cranberries and rosemary, or showcase your favorite memories by creating a garland of photos. Get creative with table centerpieces by upcycling empty wine bottles into candle holders. If you do purchase evergreen decorations, compost them after the season has ended.

There are hundreds of ideas online, so find something that appeals to you, invite friends over, and spend quality time together as you create holiday cheer.


Wrapping paper and ribbon are holiday traditions, yet these items are typically used once and then thrown away. If each family in the U.S. wrapped just three presents in reused material, we’d save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields. And if we all reused two feet of ribbon every year, we’d save enough to tie a festive bow around the Earth. Green your gift giving by using newspaper or old maps as wrapping. If you do buy gift wrap, look for rolls that contain recycled content. Some local thrift stores sell half-used rolls, too. Whatever you use, if you wrap with paper, make sure it ends up in your recycle bin rather than the trash. As long as you can see paper fibers when you tear it, it’s recyclable. Keep in mind that metallic foil (which doesn’t tear easily) is not paper and therefore cannot be recycled. As for ribbon and bows, look for natural fibers like jute or cotton. You can find tutorials online for making bows out of newspaper.

Of course, you can always gently unwrap your presents to reuse the paper and bows the following year.


As with wrapping paper, purchase cards that contain recycled content. Upcycle old cards by turning them into gift tags, garlands or even wreaths. And once you’re ready to toss them out, don’t forget that they’re recyclable.


The holidays are a time for giving, but it’s easy to become caught up in the commercialization of the season. When shopping, look for durable, reusable items made locally or regionally. Support companies with good environmental and social policies. Conversely, don’t give stuff at all. Rather, help your loved ones create lasting memories by gifting an experience — whether it’s tickets to a local film festival, a membership in a composting program or a donation to an organization in honor of a loved one, memories last a lot longer than most things you can buy at a store.


With the new year just a week away, it’s time to start thinking about resolutions. If you find yourself thinking that you should recycle more, use your travel mug more often or start composting, now is a great time to make the commitment. Encourage your family and friends to make eco-minded resolutions as well so that you can support each other’s goals.

Holiday sustainability requires us to be mindful of our decisions, and during this often-hectic season, mindfulness can be tossed aside in favor of convenience. Because of this, the holidays are an opportune time to practice being more conscious of the people and things that matter most in our lives. From the Steward household to yours, we wish you happy holidays and a sustainable start to the New Year!

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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