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Celebrating the Holidays Sustainably: Part 1

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

Although the “Holiday Season” seems to start somewhere around August these days, we can all agree that by November, it is upon us. The Holidays are a time of joy, family & friends, celebration, stress, giving, and…waste. Many of us get so wrapped up in the excitement and excesses of the season that we forget about the impacts that our actions can have on the environment. So, as we turn our eyes towards the chaos and magic of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the New Year, it is important for us to look for ways that we can celebrate both the holidays and the Earth. Many of us embrace family traditions during this time, but we must recognize that some of our traditions have taken a toll on our environment. As Christmas has become more commercialized, its impacts on the planet have also increased. In 2018, Americans discarded about 95 billion pounds of edible food; almost 27% of the US food supply (CalRecycle), and this waste increases dramatically during the holiday season. The EPA estimates that an increase of 25 million tons of garbage is generated during the weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year (EPA, Stanford). That is about 1 million extra tons per week entering landfills (Stanford).

Those of us who care about preserving or improving the state of our planet have many options for reducing both our carbon footprint and our generation of waste during the holidays while enjoying all of the joy and festivities. While some of the suggestions below deal specifically with Christmas (such as trees), most of them are applicable to celebrations in any faith tradition. There are 3 areas where our actions can have the most impact: food, décor, and gifting.


Food brings people together. It is the centerpiece of many holiday traditions and a celebration of abundance. But in our society of plenty, a celebration of abundance can turn into a display of wastefulness. Additionally, our food system generates a lot of carbon dioxide emissions, from its growth and transport to its processing and packaging. In order to minimize both waste and our carbon footprint, consider these suggestions for your holiday entertaining:

  • Buy locally and seasonally. Small local farms are more likely to practice sustainable farming practices, especially if they are growing seasonal produce. Staying close to home also eliminates transportation costs, and supports your local community.

Local Farm Stand in San Juan Capistrano | Photo Courtesy by The Ecology Center
  • Look for organic and sustainably farmed options. While there are many similarities between these two designations, they are not always the same. Organic means grown without inorganic pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers, but regulations on organic labeling have been relaxed over the years, so the label alone isn’t always a guarantee that the food is responsibly sourced. Sustainable farming focuses on maintaining healthy soils, preventing erosion, and maintaining natural resources (Escoffier Culinary Institute). Both are important in reducing pollution from runoff, eliminating harmful chemicals from food, and preserving soil fertility.

  • Reduce or eliminate meat consumption, or buy humanely-raised meat. There is no question about it; meat production is bad for the planet. Meat production uses many times more water, fossil fuels, land area, and other resources than plants. It has a massive carbon footprint. Replacing some or all of your holiday meat with plant-based versions is the best option. Numerous meat alternatives are available to replace your Thanksgiving turkey, such as premade meatless “roasts” and also thousands of recipes for meatless main dishes to make at home.

Vegan Thanksgiving Roasts for the Holidays | Photo Courtesy by Vegan Yack Attack

If you absolutely must have meat at the table, opt for humanely raised meats. These can be hard to find, but the effort is worth it. Not only are you supporting humane animal practices, but the meat itself is healthier because there are no hormones or antibiotics used. The animals are fed a diet that resembles what they would eat in the wild, and allowed to engage in species-appropriate behaviors such as grazing. This makes a healthier animal, which makes healthier meat. Look for a certification like “Animal Welfare Approved,” “Global Animal Partnership Step 5+”, “American Grassfed”, or “Certified Humane Raised and Handled”. For more on this, check out Greener Choices.

  • Don’t throw away scraps or leftovers. If you know you can’t eat all of your leftovers, plan ahead to share them with guests. You can ask guests to bring a take-home container, or wash any plastic or glass containers that your ingredients come in (think sour cream tubs or pasta sauce jars) and send them home with your guests. Any scraps or non-edible leftovers should be composted. In parts of Orange County, we have green waste bins that will take food waste to the municipal compost facility. For the gardeners out there, start your own compost pile or worm bin to elevate your soil and boost crop yield.

Photo Courtesy by the Department of Public Works & Engineering of the City of Dana Point
A china set is a great way to set the mood for the holidays, and a way to pass down the memories from generation to generation | Photo Courtesy by Jessica W.
  • Say “NO” to single-use plastics and paper goods. If you are entertaining lots of guests and don’t have the dinnerware for it, you have a couple of options. First, you could ask your guests to bring their own plate, silverware, and even cloth napkin (they can bring it in a reusable bag with their leftover container). This makes for a fun mashup of colors and designs, and might spark some interesting conversations. If you host every year, or just entertain a lot, you may want to invest in a set of china. But don’t go buy it at the department store! Consignment stores carry an amazing selection of beautiful vintage sets of china and silverware at a fraction of the cost.

I hope this discussion has given you some ideas to try this holiday season. Please stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, which will focus on decorating sustainably.

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