Dreaming of a Green Christmas: Tips for an Environmentally Jolly Holiday Season

by Sara Swenson

In October, we shared Halloween tips to lessen the waste, but still have fun. We’re back because Christmas is a festive holiday to celebrate with decorations and activities, but maybe wish we could do it with a little less waste. We can create a lot of waste in the name of celebration—shopping for new toys, running more electric lights, chopping down trees and putting them at the curb in January, but your Christmas can be merry and green.  Get started with this guide on how to reduce waste and lower your environmental impact this holiday season!


Trimming a living rosemary tree is one great way to be more environmentally conscious while celebrating this December. (Photo by Inhabitat.)


  • Recycle it!  Provide clearly labeled containers for guests to recycle their bottles, cans, etc.  You can’t have too many!  Check for local recycling centers that accept food-soiled paper products, compostable dishware, and food scraps for organics recycling.
  • Who’s coming?  If you are only having a few guests over, use your usual dishware and silverware instead of disposable party ware.  If you have more guests than dishes, look for party plates, cups, cutlery, and napkins made from recycled, sustainable, or compostable materials.


  • Be materials-minded.  The big thing to consider when buying jolly holiday decorations is what they are made of—and what that means for what will happen to them once you’re done with them.

    • One-time-use, disposable items that will not last from one Christmas to the next;
    • Non-recyclable plastics and non-biodegradable materials;
    • Wasteful and non-recyclable packaging.
    • Try:
      • Using natural materials like flowers, leaves, pine cones, nuts, berries, and fallen branches in your holiday decorating (but make sure berries are non-toxic if around children or pets);
      • Looking for recyclable decorations and packaging, or at least decorations that can be reused year after year;
      • Making your own ornaments, wreaths, candles—even Christmas trees!


  • Go live!  Do you really need a towering Christmas tree in your living that was grown for years on a tree farm using pesticides and chemical fertilizers, only to be chopped down and thrown away?
    • Try a smaller, living potted tree, perhaps a rosemary tree that can provide holiday cheer and edible herbs.  Living trees from your local region can be decorated indoors for Christmas and planted outside in the spring.
    • Another alternative to traditional trees is to look for organically grown Christmas trees.
    • Living and organic trees alike can be recycled as yard waste when the season is over instead of going to a landfill—check with your county, city, or waste service to find out where your tree can be recycled!
    • Learn more about greener tree options and choosing a living Christmas tree.
    • Choose a better artificial.  If you’d rather have the convenience of an artificial tree that can be reused year after year, avoid the cheap ones made of non-recyclable plastics and toxic materials.  You can even make your own out of wire frames, cardboard, or other repurposed items from around your home.  Get creative with your design, and your DIY Christmas tree can still be decorated with string lights and ornaments while having a smaller environmental impact when you eventually do get rid of it.  Check out some examples of handmade Christmas trees to get started!

Reuse plastic bags to make a holiday wreath. Photo credit: jeannine4021


  • DIY!  Skip the store-bought wreath for one you can make yourself with natural and recyclable materials.  Use metal hangers or wire that can eventually be recycled as scrap metal for a frame, and fill it out with natural materials like fallen branches, corn husks, pine cones, nuts, or berries or other repurposed items like yarn, ribbon, plastic bags or fabric scraps.  Make it your own!


  • Go LED!  LEDs are smaller and more energy efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs and are cool to the touch when turned on.  They may cost more than other light sources, but they will last longer and save energy.  Decorate inside and outside with LED string lights or garland, trees, and other decorations that are pre-lit with LEDs.
  • Turn it off.  Save more energy by turning off your lights during the day and when you go to sleep at night—there’s no reason to have lights running if it’s too bright or nobody’s awake to see them!  You can use timers to turn your lights on and off at specific times or get solar-powered LED lights that take in sunlight during the day and turn on automatically at night.
  • Recycle it!  Check out Recycle Your Holidays from the Recycling Association of Minnesota for local resources for recycling old holiday lights.


  • Avoid paraffin.  Many candles are made from paraffin, a product derived from petroleum.  Paraffin wax candles also produce potentially harmful soot when burned.  Alternatives to paraffin candles include soy or beeswax candles or artificial LED candles, which flicker just like a burning candle but don’t burn and can be reused year after year.


  • Give greener!  Giving more environmentally friendly gifts this holiday season doesn’t have to mean forgoing shopping altogether.  Be purposeful and conscientious in your gift buying!
    • Get items that you know the recipient will use, ideally for a long time.
    • Try to find gifts that are made from recycled or recyclable materials, that don’t require disposable batteries, or that come in recyclable or less excessive packaging (like Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging).
    • Shop with eco-conscious stores and companies (you can find local sustainable and green businesses in Minnesota using the Do It Green! Directory).
    • Introduce your friends and family to alternatives to the toxic and artificial items common in our lives—they may find that they like natural beauty products or organic treats more than they would have expected!
    • Give used!  Look for secondhand items at thrift stores like Goodwill or websites like eBay and Craigslist.  Re-gifting something you’ve received is also a great idea, if done considerately.  What you’re really trying to do is give an item that you don’t need to someone who could really use it!
    • Give homemade!  The possibilities for homemade gifts are endless—homemade treats especially are sure to please.  Making gifts for your friends and family yourself gives you more control over the materials they are made of and lets you make each gift more customized and meaningful for the recipient—one of a kind, made just for them!
    • Give experiences!  Does someone on your holiday gift list love a sports team or a certain museum?  Have they always wanted to take a dance class or learn a new language?  Give them a gift they can experience, not just use!
      • Tickets for the theatre, concerts, sporting events, movies, etc.;
      • Passes to a museum, science center, gym, spa, aquarium, or local outdoor activities like horseback riding, zip lining, skiing—you name it!
      • Lessons in dance, painting, cooking, language, archery—something that they’ve always wanted to do!

Wash and reuse containers as gift boxes. Photo credit: UrbanWoodWalker

Gift Wrap

  • Wrap it up nice.  Don’t put your thoughtful gift in a wasteful package.  You can keep your gift a surprise without adding to the garbage load the week after Christmas!
    • Choose wisely.  If you buy gift wrap, choose paper that is made from recycled content and can be recycled once it’s used.  Avoid gift wrap with metallic, glittery, foil, or plastic designs that can’t be recycled.
    • Repurpose.  You don’t have to buy fancy wrapping paper from the store—chances are you have colorful paper right in your house that won’t cost you a thing!  Newspapers (especially the Sunday comics), magazines, food and beverage containers and paper bags can all do the trick.  If they don’t look festive enough, you can always add your own color and designs!
    • Reuse.  Ribbons, bows, even wrapping paper from your own past gifts can be reused for a gift to someone else.  Large pieces of gift wrap, even torn, can be reused for smaller presents.  Or skip the paper and wrap your gift in cloth bags or other containers and wrappings that can be reused year after year!

All the above tips come down to very simple strategies that can be practiced all year round—be mindful of the materials you use, and moderate your use whenever possible.  Remember, too, that the most important part of the holidays is to spend time with loved ones and give back to those in need!

Share your favorite holiday traditions or your own green holiday tips in the comments section below!

Happy Holidays!

Sara C Swenson is a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities with a B.S. in Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management (concentrated in Environmental Education and Communication) and a minor in Spanish.  She has studied biology and conservation in the Galápagos Islands and the effects of tourism on coral reef ecosystems in Belize, is well-versed in Minnesota’s Environmental Review process, and has a longstanding interest in environmental policy and communication.


3 responses to “Dreaming of a Green Christmas: Tips for an Environmentally Jolly Holiday Season

  1. Pingback: You Inspire | Sierra Club North Star Blog·

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