Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Celebrating Holidays 2023

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Tweak Your Holiday Traditions to Make them Green(er)

Janis Petzel

No matter which holidays your household celebrates, the joy comes from spending time with family and friends, sharing traditions and special food, and exchanging gifts. But all of the travel and overindulgence results in waste and elevated carbon pollution, up to 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide per person each year.

One of the more distressing factoids I uncovered while researching this article is that close to half of the toys and gifts given at this time of year are broken or rejected before the spring equinox arrives. And the wrapping for all those wasted gifts? Americans send well over two million pounds of un-recyclable wrapping paper to landfills each holiday season.

There must be a better way. What could be a better gift than a cleaner environment for the people we love? Is it possible to clean up our acts for the holidays? Waste is one big culprit, so let’s start there.

Maybe kids would appreciate the gifts they receive a little more if they didn’t get so many of them? Don’t I sound old and grinchy when I say that? When my children were little, we bought them too much stuff. They would start to play with a toy and we would interrupt them to open the next thing in the pile. After everything was open, what did they play with? The boxes. Maybe that should give us grownups a clue. Children like things that stimulate their imaginations. If they like a gift, they want to spend time with it. They do not need mountains of stuff to be happy. I encourage you to shop as local as possible and avoid plastic junk as much as possible. Gifts of experiences outlast the holiday let down, especially if the child gets to spend time with you to enjoy the gift–museum passes, memberships to the YMCA pool, tickets to a concert.

To avoid paper waste, get creative with wrapping—pillowcases or kitchen towels can be used after the holidays and are a decent gift on their own. Recycled newspaper or grocery bags can be decorated for wrap. Gift bags can be re-used.

For the adults—local gifts cut down on shipping and support local businesses. If you have a big family, choosing one person to shop for allows each everyone to receive one personalized gift and cuts down on the pile of stuff no one really wants.

Christmas trees are a dilemma. There is something magical about the look on a child’s face when they see the presents under the tree on Christmas morning. But fresh trees have to be cut down after about ten years of growth, shipped to town, then disposed of later. Most towns chip the trees in the new year to use as mulch, which is a good thing. Fresh trees seem preferable to a plastic tree shipped to the U.S. from Asia. But I am afraid of fires from having a dead tree in the living room where we also have a woodstove. So, we decorate a live tree outside and enjoy it through the window. I have to admit, it is just not the same as a traditional tree. It may be possible to buy a live tree with a root ball, use it indoors for your holiday, then put it out in a hole you dug before the ground froze.

Holiday meals do not have to be greenhouse-gas nightmares. For me, meals are all about the side dishes anyway, so go heavy on the veggies and less heavy on cheese and full fat dairy products. Poultry has a lower carbon footprint than beef, especially if you buy local (venison is even lower than poultry). In New England, we are blessed with oysters and mussels, which have a low carbon footprint and clean up the water while they grow (thanks to an article in the Washington Post for this insight). Oysters make a great appetizer, much less fattening than cheese!

And be sure the hosts know you will help with doing dishes so there is no temptation to use paper plates and plastic utensils.

Here is to wishing you and your loved ones a sustainable holiday season.

Janis Petzel, MD is a physician, grandmother and climate activist whose writing focuses on resilience, climate, and health. She lives in Islesboro, Maine where she advocates and acts for a fossil-fuel free future. She serves on the Islesboro Energy Team and is a Climate Ambassador for Physicians for Social Responsibility.


Looking for an eco-friendly alternative to gift wrapping paper this holiday? Try the ancient Japanese art of cloth wrapping, furoshiki to gift goodies without adding to landfills this holiday season. (

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