Zero Waste Holidays

It’s November, which means that the holiday season is upon us. The holiday season usually brings with it parties, gift giving, travel, and lots of food. I am sentimental and don’t get to see my family often, so I definitely get into the holiday spirit. This year, I want to celebrate consciously so that I can enjoy my time with loved ones without doing too much damage to the earth. Here are some of the things I will be considering over the coming months.

1: Travel

I live in Washington but my family is in California, so I usually fly home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. According to this website, each of my round-trip flights produces .14 metric tons of carbon emissions. According to this post on the Sierra Club website, emissions per person need to drop to 3.2 tons per person to avoid drastic overheating (Americans generate an incredible 23 tons per capita). Fortunately, I can fly nonstop between California and Washington, but if I lived further away from home it would be worth considering consolidating trips home to one holiday per year (from both a cost and environmental perspective). Rather than purchasing a carbon offset, I plan to make a donation of $10 per trip to an environmental nonprofit (on top of my monthly contribution to the NRDC). I’ve also gotten in the habit of taking public transit to and from SeaTac airport. It’s cheaper than a shuttle and a better use of natural resources.

2: Gifts

Gift giving is a huge part of the holiday season, and in recent years it seems like I am wracking my brain before Christmas trying to think of things to give my family members or to ask for in return. I plan on putting together a gift guide as it gets closer to Christmas (and Hanukah and other gift-giving holidays). But as I consider what to request for Christmas, I will be asking for experiences (like concert tickets) or home goods (like a good quality knife set) that will either give me a memory or add to my quality of life.


Concert tickets are a great zero-waste present, no concert in particular you’re looking forward to, ask for an “IOU” coupon to cover a certain amount for tickets in the coming year.

I’m hoping to avoid buying any plastic wrapped or disposable presents this year, with one notable exception. I am very involved with the local YWCA and each year, they do a holiday gift center for the families they serve. I will be buying toys for kids at their shelter and don’t plan to adhere to my zero-waste goals. I have chosen this lifestyle for myself; it would be unfair to force my lifestyle on a child I don’t even know.

3: Parties

Last year, my roommate and I hosted a Christmas party that was a lot of fun, but also very wasteful. We did a white elephant gift exchange which, while fun, also means people are giving and getting things that no one wants (like a contraption to make a spiral hot dog, still sitting unopened in our cupboard). We also used plastic cups and bought snacks that came wrapped in plastic. If we host another soiree, I’ll plan ahead so that I can bake and cook desserts and snacks from scratch. For a small gathering, you could also get beer in a growler to reduce packaging (though this may not be economical for a larger gathering). I also plan to say no to plastic cutlery, non-recyclable decorations, and, of course, plastic straws.

Just some of the disposables that ended up at our last Christmas party, including a disgusting cake that we only had one slice of before throwing away.

4: Food

It will be interesting to go home as a vegetarian since I came from a family where meat is incorporated into most meals. Fortunately, I’ll only have to pass on a few items (unfortunately also some of my favorite foods like carnitas and Yorkshire pudding), but this will also influence the amount of meat my parents have to buy to prepare holiday meals since one less person will be consuming it. Food is central to the holiday season (Americans found a way to have one holiday dedicated only to eating) and it is honestly unnecessarily extravagant. From appetizers before meals, dinners with a main course, four sides, and desserts, these meals are expensive, stressful to prepare, and wasteful. I plan to talk to my parents before these holidays (or they can make a note now while they read this) to see if we can cut back on any of the foods we normally eat. I’d rather spend time with my loved ones, rather than all of us stressing about how to time the preparation of the meal just right.

5: Avoid the sales

Sales are great on one hand, they can help us save money on things we need. Unfortunately, they also trick us into buying things we would never buy full-price. I’ve shared before that I went through a period where I bought makeup when I was sad (to avoid my feelings) or celebrate when I had a big success at work. As a result, I hit VIB Rouge status at Sephora in 2016 (meaning I spent $1,000 in a year). The VIB Rouge sale is happening right now, a lure that offers VIB Rouge members 20% off purchases. While I could use this as a chance to stock up on my most-used items, the reality is it ends up being an excuse to try new things. When sales like Black Friday and Cyber Monday hit, don’t use sales as an excuse to buy things you don’t need. Instead, make a list of things you genuinely need (in my case a new raincoat), and use sales as a way to save money on something you would buy anyway.

How do you celebrate the holidays? Are you planning how to make them zero waste?

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