Guide for an Eco-Friendlier Holiday Season

Gift Giving | Gift Wrap | Christmas Trees | Meals and Food Service | Travel

candlesAmericans throw away an additional 5 million tons of trash – 25% more than usual – between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. The reality of this is — consumer goods, packaging, food waste, and Christmas trees take a real toll on the environment. More paper production, plastic packaging, and trees means more petrochemicals are produced, the fossil fuel extraction cycle continues, and fuels the production of material like material gifts and energy, as most gifts are manufactured and transported. But the holidays don’t have to be a time of waste! We can celebrate thoughtfulness and care, in addition to celebrating the Winter season. The Ecology Center offers the following practical tips to help lighten your impact.

Gift Giving

Many unwanted gifts end up in storage or even in the landfill, and excess packaging of consumer and material also adds to the waste stream. Make your gift count by making it thoughtful and of benefit to the environment.

Follow these tips:

  • Keep it simple. One thoughtful gift is better than many wrapped packages of unwanted gifts. Draw names or share the cost of a gift with a relative or friend.
  • Make your own gifts; knit, sew, make preserves, or make art from reused items.
  • Look for gifts that are: durable; not over-packaged; energy efficient; wind-up, or use rechargeable batteries; reused (for example, antiques or used bikes); recyclable; and not made of tropical woods like teak, rosewood, or mahogany. Look for gifts that are unpackaged or minimally packaged, without unnecessary plastic wrap or cardboard backing. Buy durable gifts with long-term warranties that are repairable.
  • Look for gifts that are made of natural components, like sustainably harvested wood, natural fibers, or glass. When purchasing toys for young children, choose items that won’t impact their health. Choose dolls and stuffed animals made of organic cotton, or handcrafted toys made from wood with nontoxic paint.
  • Purchase gifts from local vendors, or that were made locally. Look for gifts using fair trade labor practices. Solicit stores like the Ecology Center store and support the work nonprofits, such as ours.

giftsConsider these ideas:

  • Give a membership or donate in the name of a friend to an organization working in a subject area of interest to them.
  • Give a gift certificate for your time – child sit, or pet sit. Offer your talents, such as photography, financial planning, or hairstyling. Make dinner for someone or cook and deliver it to them.
  • Help someone start a garden. Give seeds and tools, come check out our BASIL heirloom seeds. Help plant, weed, and water.
  • Give an experience such as tuition for an unusual class. For kids, consider giving an environmental excursion, like a whale-watching or camping trip.
  • Plant a tree in someone’s name.
  • Create a recipe book from the favorites you’ve collected.
  • Collect photos and put together a photo album. Make a calendar for the coming year using your own photographs.

Gift Wrap

Much of the additional waste headed to the landfill during the holiday season comes in the form of gift wrap and packaging. Good reused or reusable alternatives include:

  • Old maps, sheet music or colorful ads from old magazines
  • Baskets
  • Reusable tins
  • Scarves and handkerchiefs
  • Leftover fabric or fabric gift bags
  • Lightweight wallpaper
  • Pages from a child’s coloring book taped together
  • Newspapers (foreign newspapers are great) and Sunday comic pages
  • Last year’s holiday paper (warm iron if wrinkled)
  • Pictures or advertisements from magazines and catalogs
  • A plain box decorated with leftover glitter, paint, markers, etc.
  • A useable cake pan or a wooden box.

When opening presents, save the wrapping paper, boxes, tins, ribbons and bows for next year. If you purchase gift wrap, look for wrapping paper and holiday cards with post-consumer recycled content, which avoids cutting down any new trees, and “closes the recycling loop.”

snowy treeChristmas Trees

It takes 7 to 10 years to grow a Christmas tree, whose useful product life is about one month. Christmas trees are usually grown on tree farms that use large amounts of pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers. These toxic chemicals pollute the land and waterways and can poison wildlife. At the end of the Christmas season, the cut tree is disposed of either in the landfill or through a yard waste program. Find out where and how to best dispose of your holiday decor and trees on Resourceful.

A better choice is to use a live potted tree that can be used over the years or can be replanted. Lots of people also get creative by making wreaths or dressing up rosemary and other plants in place of a tree.

If you do pick a cut tree, cut up your holiday tree to fit in your green cart with the lid closed for your normal weekly compost collection. You may also choose to drop your holiday tree off at the City of Berkeley Transfer Station (1201 2nd St.) at no charge during the month of January. After January 31st, any trees taken to the Berkeley Transfer Station will be charged the minimum compost fee of $23.

Meals and Food Service

The ingredients for the average U.S. meal have traveled 1,200 miles by the time they reach the plate. All of this travel requires petroleum for transport and for refrigeration. Buying locally grown food is usually better for the environment, and it usually tastes much better too. Choosing food that is in season and that isn’t flown in from a tropical climate typically saves energy and has a smaller impact on climate change. When you shop at farmers’ markets, you directly support small family farmers, and choosing organic food reduces the use of toxic pesticides.

Another factor to consider when serving food and entertaining during the holidays is how to not produce excess garbage. Some waste-saving tips include:

  • Buy snacks and beverages in bulk, to reduce packaging
  • Try to avoid disposables when entertaining, and instead set your table with reusable plates, bowls, glasses and cloth napkins
  • Recycling cans, glass, cardboard, paper and plastic is especially important during this time since large amounts of recyclable material is generated.


In general, choosing quality over quantity and thoughtfulness over expense can be a good way to ensure that human relationships rather than consumer purchases dominate your holiday experience.

[Photo credits: Candles by HamillianActor. Gifts by LL Barkat.]