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3 Tips for a Waste Free Holiday

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You can reduce the footprint of a medium-sized live tree by donating it to elephants at a local zoo, like this African elephant pictured above. eans / iStock / Getty Images

The holiday season is supposed to be about giving and sharing, but often it is actually about throwing away. The U.S. generates 25 percent more garbage between Thanksgiving and New Year's than it does during the rest of the year. That's around one million extra tons per week, according to National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) figures reported by The Associated Press.


Waste is a big part of the major environmental crises currently harming life on Earth. Around 8 million metric tons of plastic pollution end up in the oceans each year, where they kill 100,000 marine animals and around one million seabirds a year, according to Ocean Crusaders. And Project Drawdown found that reducing food waste was the third most effective solution for reducing the amount of planet-warming greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and fighting the climate crisis.

So how can you celebrate without ending up on Earth's naughty list? Here are three tips for a holiday season that honors nature's gifts.

1. Make Your Own Tree

There's an ongoing debate as to whether it is more ecologically friendly to buy a natural tree every year or reuse a plastic one. But neither option is climate neutral, according to Omni's Christmas Tree Footprint Calculator.

This tool helps you calculate the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a variety of Christmas tree options and disposal methods so you can make the greenest choice you can. A natural tree thrown in a landfill burns 21.02 kilograms of carbon dioxide, a landfilled plastic tree burns 35.16 kilograms and a replanted potted tree burns only 1.64 kilograms. But only one option emits zero carbon: making a tree of your own from items already in your home.

In addition to calculating carbon footprints, the tool also gives you instructions for making trees from books, cans, floating baubles, cardboard or succulents. Compared to a plastic tree, a book tree can save the amount of carbon dioxide generated by 84 miles of driving.

But if you really crave that pine-needle smell, you can reduce the footprint of a medium-sized live tree down to 5.724 kilograms of carbon dioxide by donating it to the elephants at your local zoo.

2. Give Up on Gifts

More and more people are turning away from the tradition of exchanging store-bought presents. This is especially the case for the younger generation, Waste and Resource Action Programme campaigner Richard Clapham told The Independent in November.

"They're increasingly looking for experiences rather than 'stuff.' I think this is partly driven by their concern for the planet but also because they already have so much stuff," he said.

If you opt not to buy things, there are still many creative ways to tell loved-ones you care. The Peninsula Sanitary Service and the Stanford Recycling Center have several alternative gift suggestions including trips to museums or parks, certificates to help with chores around the house or handmade presents. You can also make a donation in your own or someone else's name.

Jane Ruessman, a 58-year-old translator from the UK, told The Independent that she banned presents from her family gathering. Instead, everyone gets a handmade paper hat.

"Getting together at Christmas was initially a bit of a nightmare as we all felt that we should bring along a present for all those who were coming," she said. "It was nice but pretty stressful and we would end up spending a lot of money and going home with an awful lot of stuff that we generally didn't need at all and didn't know what to do with."

And that's the last thing the planet needs.

3. Make Your Feast Last

Americans toss an extra five million pounds of food on average between Thanksgiving and New Year's, MarketWatch reported. But it doesn't have to be that way.

There are plenty of delicious strategies for making your holiday meal last as long as possible. If you served meat, you can use it for soups or stews, or toss it in dishes like lasagna. Leftover vegetables are great in frittatas or omelettes. It's also important to freeze leftovers before they go bad. The Hartford Climate Stewardship Initiative recommends keeping enough in your fridge for three days of leftovers and freezing the rest immediately.

You can also give your food away. Ask your guests to come with their own to-go containers and send them away with the next day's lunch. Unused canned or dry food can be donated to a food drive.

It's also a good idea to reflect after this year's meals, assess how much you actually ate, and plan to make less next year.

"If everyone had their fill, and you still had leftovers, maybe during the next round of holiday shopping you think about the excess you had and say what if you purchased the same amount and only prepared half of it?" Lisa Sposato, director of food sourcing at New York charity City Harvest, told MarketWatch.

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