Hidden ways vacations harm the environment and how you can reduce waste

The table is set. The decorations are up. The holidays are here and it might be helpful to know how all that Christmas cheer is affecting the environment and greenhouse gas emissions being released into the atmosphere.

Household waste increases more than 25 percent from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, according to Stanford University’s Waste Reduction, Recycling, Composting and Solid Waste Program. The additional waste — in the form of food, shopping bags, packaging, wrapping paper, bows and ribbons — contributes to an additional million tons of waste entering landfills each week during that time period, the report said.

Research shows that consumers prioritize sustainability when deciding what to spend their money on.

A 2021 survey by the IBM Institute for Business Value found that 93% of global respondents have changed their opinion on sustainability following a pandemic, and more than half of global respondents in a survey conducted in February this year found that environmental sustainability is more important to them today than it was a year ago.

Consumer spending habits are starting to match their intentions. Half of consumers surveyed in 2021 said they were willing to pay a premium for a sustainable brand or sustainable products, according to IBM.

But people can still enjoy the magic and wonder of the holidays by staying informed to better evaluate their consumption decisions, Kate White, senior associate dean of equity, diversity, inclusion and sustainability at the University’s Sauder School of Business, told ABC. of British Columbia. News.

“All of this isn’t really to make people feel guilty, but maybe people are considering different options,” she said.

Artificial Christmas trees are for sale at a Walmart in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles on Black Friday, November 29, 2013.

Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Here are some of the ways the holidays affect the holidays:


The “stuff” consumers buy around the holidays, namely gifts, is where most of the trash comes from, White said. This is especially problematic considering how many gifts people get that they don’t like or don’t intend to use.

“Maybe some of them aren’t necessarily wanted,” White said. “And so a lot of things end up in landfill. So thinking about how we can reduce things is probably important.”

Stanford University has suggested giving away durable, reusable items and resist the latest “fad” at the mall, like pet stones, mood rings and cabbage dolls.

Gifts that carry a message of conservation and environmentalism could also be useful, according to the university, such as a book on nature, a refillable thermal bottle, a canvas bag, a charger or items made from recycled materials. In addition, solar-powered gifts, instead of battery-powered products, or gifts that don’t require any power should also be considered.

Other sustainable gifts can be donations to significant charities, home-made goods — such as baked goods, knitwear and ornaments — or experiences, such as movies, spa days or other activities, White said.

The process of returning gifts is also bad for the environment. The returns shipping process emits approximately 16 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, and e-commerce returns produce 14 percent more waste than in-store returns, according to 2020 research by Environmental Capital Group. According to the report, approximately 5.8 billion pounds of returned inventory ends up in landfills each year.

The materials used to wrap gifts also have an immense impact on the environment.

About 8,000 tons of wrapping paper, the equivalent of about 50,000 trees, are used to wrap gifts each year, according to the Clean Air Partnership, a non-profit environmental organization.

Gift givers and gift recipients can also recycle wrapping paper. One ton of recycled wrapping paper is equivalent to the energy of 185 gallons of gasoline, the nonprofit said.

About 2.65 billion greeting cards are sold in the United States each year—that amount could fill a 10-story football field, according to Stanford.

The Clean Air Partnership has suggested that gift givers and receivers recycle wrapping paper to reduce waste. If every American family wrapped just three presents in repurposed materials, such as magazine or comic book pages, old maps or brown paper bags, they would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields, according to Stanford.

White also recommended wrapping gifts with materials that can be reused, such as a tea towel, a bandana, or a reusable jar or container.

The nonprofit also suggested sending e-cards or using recycled cards instead of traditional greeting cards made with glossy paper and glitter. Stanford said serious recyclers can also save the front of the cards they receive each year and send them as “postcards” for future holidays.

PHOTO: People visit the Dyker Heights Christmas light district on December 12, 2021 in Brooklyn.

People visit the Dyker Heights Christmas light district on December 12, 2021 in Brooklyn.

Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images


Christmas decorations are also among the most expensive.

25 to 30 million Christmas trees are sold in the United States each year, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

And while plastic Christmas trees may be appealing to those looking to reuse them year after year, the materials they’re made from may not make them a better option.

A 2009 study by Ellipsos, a Canadian sustainable development consultancy, found that plastic Christmas trees contain PVC, a toxic carcinogen that is difficult to dispose of.

The problem is, once the trees are disposed of, the plastic will likely take thousands of years to break down, as Christmas tree farms absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release clean oxygen, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Your best option is to find a Christmas tree farm that rents potted trees and then replants them at the end of the season, White said. But if a plastic Christmas tree works best for your needs, White suggested keeping it for at least five to 10 years.

White suggested finding a holiday tree composting program once the real trees have dried out, most of which turn the trees into mulch for use around local green spaces.

The millions of additional twinkling lights can also be an environmental detriment. White cautioned against leaving the lights — both those outdoors and those on the Christmas tree — on all day and night, despite how beautiful they might be.

Households can reduce the energy consumption of Christmas lights by switching to LED lights, which use up to 95% less electricity than traditional lights, according to the Clean Air Partnership.

Holiday enthusiasts can also choose decorations that are natural and biodegradable, such as cranberries, popcorn, live flowers and greenery, according to the nonprofit.

PHOTO: Heavy traffic moves along the 101 Freeway November 23, 2022 in Los Angeles.

Heavy traffic moves along the 101 freeway November 23, 2022 in Los Angeles.

Mario Tama/Getty Images


Transportation is the No. 1 source of vacation-associated carbon emissions, White said. More than half of Americans plan to travel during the 2022 holiday season, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ annual Holiday Outlook, released in October. That’s a huge increase from the 33% of people who planned to travel on vacation in 2019, before the pandemic, according to PWC.

People concerned about their carbon footprint should consider which method of transportation best suits their needs and releases the least emissions.

Driving has less impact than air travel, while bus and train travel has less impact than driving, White said.

White suggested limiting holiday driving as much as possible, urging people to “stack” their visits to places that may be farther away.

“If you’re going to visit family or a group of friends, visit everyone on the same trip,” she said. “Don’t make three or four trips.”

If every household in the United States reduced gas consumption by 1 gallon, or chose to drive 20 miles less, it could lead to 1 million tons of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Clean Air Partnership.

PHOTO: A holiday meal featuring a roast turkey is seen in this undated photo.

A festive meal featuring a roast turkey is pictured in this undated photo.

ACTION PHOTOS: Alvarez/Getty Images


The other main factor in the increase of CO2 emissions during the holidays is the increase in food consumption,

Food typically travels about 1,500 miles from farm to plate, on average, according to the Clean Air Partnership, which has suggested that vacation guests serve organic or locally grown foods and prepare only as much food as needed.

White suggested consumers consider how far food comes from and what is being served to reduce emissions. Beef has by far the highest carbon footprint, followed by poultry, fish and vegetarian meals, she said.

Americans waste between 30% and 40% of the food supply each year, but that amount increases by 25% during the holidays, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Any uneaten food that has gone bad should be composted, according to Stanford University.

Waste can also be eliminated by using reusable glassware, cutlery, tablecloths for dishware and napkins for holiday meals. Hosts should provide recycling bins for aluminum and glass beverage cans and bottles, according to the Clean Air Partnership.

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