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8 fun and caring ways to have a sustainable holiday season

The holiday season is here, and the excitement in the air is certainly understandable. However, such joyous occasions can also result in a lot of wastage. So, it becomes important to work toward making this holiday season sustainable, which helps not only the environment but also everyone involved in the festivities.

Christmas and New Year’s are two of the biggest celebrations during the holiday season. The joie de vivre can be felt everywhere as people become eager to spend some quality time with loved ones or travel to some of the most amazing winter destinations to create unforgettable moments.

Exchanging gifts, lavish dinners and jet-setting trips are part of the activities centred around the holidays. But these things often become a burden on nature.

Here’s how you can turn the holiday season into a sustainable one

The environment

The environment
Image: Courtesy Angela Benito/@angelareinosa/Unsplash

Travelling irresponsibly can damage the environment. A recent instance was highlighted by a Member of Parliament from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India.

Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, the elected representative from Ladakh — hailed as one of the most pristine places in the country — posted a tweet on 23 November, 2021, through which he drew attention to the littering along the banks of the River Indus by visitors during a festival.

Similar incidents take place at many such prominent places around the world. Mount Everest has been given the ignominious epithet of “the world’s highest garbage dump” by concerned voices because of the accumulated trash left by mountaineers.

Not just travel, individual celebrations at home can also contribute to the total waste in the environment. Beedie School of Business, the business school of Simon Fraser University (SFU), says that Canadians produce 300,000 tonnes more waste than usual between mid-November and New Year’s Day. Part of it is because of items such as wrapping paper and gift bags ending up in landfills.

The US is a bigger contributor to the environmental damage during this period.

“Typically, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day we see about a 25 percent increase in volume or about 1,000 pounds of extra waste per household,” Jeremy Walters, sustainability ambassador for US recycling and non-hazardous waste firm Republic Services, told NBC News in December 2019.

Thus, it is important to organise a more sustainable holiday season this year and in the years to come. Among the many ways this can be done are lowering the energy pressure on the environment by picking the right holiday lights, opting for sustainable produce for dinners and luncheons and selecting an actual Christmas tree over the fake ones.

Choose eco-friendly holiday dishes and drinks

eco-friendly holiday dishes
Image: Courtesy PHÚC LONG/@phuclong/Unsplash

An eco-friendly feast is one of the best ways to feel the festive vibes while caring about the environment.

It begins with sourcing — buying fresh produce from local farmers who are engaged in sustainable farming.

A lesson or two can be learnt from the likes of farm-to-table hotels such as Belle Mont Farm in the Caribbean island nation of St. Kitts and L’Andana in Tuscany, Italy. They have organic farmland and source what they need locally, or do both.

Though it is best to consume plant-based dishes over meat (beef is the most carbon-intensive of all foods), local farmers can also grow sustainable meat. So, there is no dearth of produce that would be needed to make any of the wide range of delicious holiday dishes that fall under vegan, vegetarian and non-vegetarian fare during the season.

If more things are sourced locally, it will lessen the impact on the environment as a result of the reduction in carbon footprint because of decreased transportation of produce from far away and reduction in burning fossil fuels.

Further, sourcing locally, not just food but any other item, also helps smaller- local businesses flourish and keeps the money flowing within the community. This is especially important for the sustainable growth of everyone in times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wines, liquors and other brews can also be obtained in the same way — from local wineries, vintners, distillers and brewers engaged in sustainable practices.

Cutting down food wastage is perhaps one of the best ways to promote sustainability. For instance, instead of throwing away the leftover turkey post-Thanksgiving dinner, it is better to use it to conjure delicious dishes of all sorts. Additionally, it is a great way to find solace in food.

Pick a real Christmas tree

Christmas Trees
Image: Courtesy Josh Bean/@jtbean/Unplash

Fake Christmas trees are often made from plastic. They won’t degrade and decompose for hundreds of years, thus becoming a burden on the environment. However, there are many benefits of having an actual tree.

An evergreen conifer, such as pine, spruce and fig, can be used as a Christmas tree. After Christmas, the tree can be reused as mulch or wood chips. It can even be replanted in some cases.

Again, one of the best ways to get it is from a local Christmas tree seller. However, one must also note how the trees are grown.

Before making a purchase, it is necessary to ensure that the Christmas tree was grown at a sustainable tree farm, using best practices, as they are planted in larger numbers than are cut down each year.

It should also be a pesticide-free tree, as a chemical-laced tree might not only be harmful to the tree and the environment but may also adversely affect people and pets in the household where it is planted or used for decoration.

Sustainable holiday season with LED

sustainable holiday season
Image: Courtesy Jamie Davies/@jamie_davies/Unsplash

What is a holiday season without lights? From Christmas markets to historic buildings and churches, all places are adorned with twinkling lights of varied colours, designs and sizes. As it snows, beautiful cities, such as Paris and New York, turn into magical wonderlands particularly because of the Christmas lights.

Yes, conventional holiday lights do not consume too much electricity, but when seen from a macro perspective, the impact of everyone decking up their homes and Christmas trees with lights can be better understood.

In a December 2020 report, Forbes underlined the massive impact of normal Christmas lights on the environment and people’s pockets.

According to the report, American energy company Arcadia calculated that the use of lights in US homes where Christmas is celebrated leads to a total consumption of 3.5 billion kWh. The total energy bill for running the lights comes to USD 645 million; so, every household with Christmas lights pays an additional USD 12 on average for December.

Besides, two million tonnes of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere while generating power for the lights.

Citing the Department of Energy, Forbes reports that using LED holiday lights in place of the conventional ones results in a 75 percent reduction in power drawn by the lights; this means lesser carbon emissions and a reduced power bill.

The other advantage of LEDs is that they are pretty much long-lasting and release less heat than conventional lights. More power can be saved by regulating the time when the lights are on. Keeping them turned off during the day and even the wee hours of the night is an ideal way to use energy sustainably.

In fact, not just for holiday season decorations, LED lights should be used for all normal lighting purposes in households throughout the year. It is one of the best ways to save energy and the environment while reducing personal expenditure on power.

Giving away eco-friendly gifts

sustainable holiday season
Image: Courtesy Kira auf der Heide/@kadh/Unsplash

Gifting is an integral part of any festivity. However, the wastage that follows is certainly a problem for our planet.

Finding a suitable gift at the local market is a more sustainable option. Special attention should be paid to handcrafted gifts. All this is necessary to help the local community.

However, the best option is to make a gift at home. Sustainable materials for the gift can be sourced locally and from sustainable makers. It could be simple homemade ornaments, picture frames or skincare products such as soap bars, or hair oil.

If the ideal sustainable gift is not available locally or cannot be made at home, the right way is to buy products from places that pay attention to environmental concerns.

Despite all efforts made to choose a gift with some utility, they might end up getting discarded. So, a great way to prevent gifts from ending in the dustbin and create memories is to adopt some more alternative gifting ideas.

These could be in the form of tickets to a popular nearby destination, gift cards, a subscription for a piano class, tickets to a football game or even a theatre show.

Inviting a family over for dinner at home is also an option. No need to throw lavish parties; just simple treats, homemade delicacies and the warmth of your home should be enough to create memories.

Love and support in times of COVID-19

sustainable holiday season
Image: Courtesy Tom Parsons/@tomzzlee/Unsplash

The best way to spread the festive spirit and kindness during the holidays is by donating to the poor, homeless and anyone in need.

According to the Institute of Global Homelessness (IGH), there are 100 million homeless in the world. Data from the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) as of October 2020 states “an estimated 1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing globally, of which 1 billion live in slums and informal settlements.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has rendered more people hungry and poor in 2020 than predicted in the pre-pandemic year of 2019. Researches conducted by prominent bodies have indicated that the poor have been the worst hit.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to push an additional 88 million to 115 million people into extreme poverty this year, with the total rising to as many as 150 million by 2021, depending on the severity of the economic contraction,” World Bank predicted in October 2020 in its report ‘Projected Poverty Impacts of COVID-19’.

Thus, many charitable and non-governmental organisations are trying to help the poor to get back on their feet. Donating to such groups is perhaps a ‘gift’ that has no parallels. However, it is best to do proper research on the organisations and learn about how they help, their previous work and the success of their work in this direction before donating.

Sustainable wrapping for a great festive season

sustainable holiday season
Image: Courtesy Lynda Hinton/@lyndaann1975/Unsplash

Packaging is another major contributor to the holiday season waste. Cardboard boxes, cellophane wrapping paper, fancy envelopes, shiny ribbons, bubble wraps and even bottles mostly end up in landfills.

So, saving gift wraps and bows received among other packaging materials and reusing them to pack gifts at home is the best way to reduce environmental impact.

The best gift wrapping materials are those made from 100 percent paper, which can be obtained from newspapers and magazines. It is a great way to be creative, like wrapping gifts meant for children with glossy pages from old comic books.

Clean but old clothing items such as bandanas and scarves can also be used for packaging. And if fabrics are the gift, one of the best ideas is to ditch packaging altogether.

Reusing cardboard boxes in which online retailers deliver goods can also be reused. These are mostly undamaged and sturdy even after unpacking. Sustainable inks and colours can give packages and gift wraps an artistic touch.

In case the gift wraps and packages cannot be reused, it is best to hand them over to recyclers. Materials such as cardboard, cans and plastic are recyclable. Glass, too, can be recyclable in some cases.

Travel responsibly

sustainable holiday season
Image: Courtesy Ibrahim Rifath/@photoripey/Unsplash

Post-COVID-19 travel has resumed in several countries and has been a lifesaver for hundreds of thousands whose livelihoods depend on it. The theme of this year’s World Tourism Day, celebrated annually on 27 September by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), was Tourism for Inclusive Growth.

Underlining its meaning, Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary-General, UNWTO, said in an official message, “By celebrating this day, we state our commitment that, as tourism grows, the benefits that come will be felt at every level of our broad and diverse sector, from the biggest airline to the smallest family business.”

Thankfully, the pandemic has resulted in more people becoming aware of sustainable travel. According to CNBC, a study conducted by American travel company Virtuoso found that 82 percent of respondents were more eager to travel responsibly post-pandemic and 72 percent agreed that travel should support local communities, protect the planet’s future and preserve cultural heritage.

But how to travel sustainably? There are many ways, and most of them can be easily practised without compromising on excitement that comes with travel. These include staying in eco-friendly accommodations and packing for the trip sensibly, including items that can be reused.

A great way to ensure sustainable travel is to visit tourist destinations in the off season. This not only helps reduce pressure on the ecosystems and infrastructure but also helps local businesses earn money in a time when income is low.

At the same time, the mode of travel is perhaps one of the most important things to consider. Even though air travel is the fastest mode of transport, several studies have revealed that it comes at the cost of the environment.

Swedes have a word —”flygskam”, which in English translates to “flight shame”. It is a term used to refer to the shame of damaging the environment by flying.

The alternative is to take the train or car (if it’s electronic, even better!). However, international destinations are mostly connected by air. So, to reduce the harm done to the environment, take a single, long vacation instead of several short ones.

Sustainable travel — one that includes tourists caring about the destination as much as locals — is, therefore, one of the best ways for both tourism and the planet.

Hero and Featured image: S Migaj/@simonmigaj/Unsplash

Manas Sen Gupta
Manas enjoys reading detective fiction and writing about anything that interests him. When not doing either of the two, he checks Instagram for the latest posts by travellers. Winter is his favourite season and he can happily eat a bowl of noodles any time of the day.
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