How to Entertain Sustainably During The Holiday Season

As the days get shorter and the nights longer, it’s a joy to invite friends and family into our homes to share meals, gifts, and stories. But our holiday parties can take a severe toll on the planet if we’re not careful.

We may find ourselves returning to the grocery store for the fourth time in a weekend to pick up more decorations, napkins, or a forgotten ingredient. There’s pressure to host gift swaps or serve more food than we need. It seems like we never have enough.

What if we kept things simple? Using what we already have reduces stress and environmental harm. There are many ways we can transform our holiday celebrations to have more joy and meaning with less materialism and waste.

Give Gifts of Experience or Secondhand Gifts

Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Americans throw out 23% more trash than during the rest of the year. That’s an additional 5.8 million tons of trash, including wrapping paper, plastic packaging, and even brand-new gifts. With 90% of Americans saying they wish the holidays were less materialistic, it’s time for a change.

A recent report by the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, found that there’s broad interest in alternative gifts. More than half of respondents in a national survey we conducted said they are likely or very likely to give gifts of time or skill (59%), give secondhand gifts (56%), or make their own handmade or DIY gift (69%).

Gifts of experience, like tickets to a concert or sports game, are another option for those who want a change from holiday materialism. With experiential gifts, the joy is doubled. There’s the excitement when you receive the tickets, and then you have the second joy of seeing your favorite musician or sports team perform.

Gifts of experience are especially nice for the people in our lives who are used to doing most of the planning. It can be a relief to receive a pre-planned adventure or have someone else set aside an evening for a new experience. Choosing to give alternative gifts can be hugely rewarding.

Secondhand gifts can be great alternatives, too. Passing down beloved jewelry, pottery, or clothing from one generation to the next has long been a way to give gifts full of meaning. Similarly, more people are turning to secondhand shopping to find treasures for their friends and family. The stories that come with these pre-loved items add value to them.

Decorate Sustainably

Decorating can be the kick-off to the season and a way to honor our holiday stories, customs, and values. However, the commercialization of holiday decorations and their cheap plastic imitations can be at odds with the spirit of our celebrations.

It’s worth asking: Do these decorations honor our holiday traditions, or have they become them? Each holiday season is an opportunity to reconsider what feels right to hang on the walls and place on our mantels. The latest statistics about plastic production are nothing to celebrate, so it’s time to turn to something else.

Consider starting the holiday season with a new tradition: a crafting party.

Reclaiming our decorations from materialism and plastic pollution can be a joyful act. Start the holiday season with a new tradition: a crafting party. Invite your friends and family over to make decorations from leftover crafting supplies. All ages can be a part of the fun, and guests take home their decorations.

Choose Reusable Dishware, Utensils

We might think of the holidays as a time to buy unique holiday plates and utensils, but there can be less stress and a lot more joy in seeing your everyday dishes and flatware in a new light. And it’s more sustainable.

Disposable plastic cups, for instance, come with serious hidden costs, including exposure to microplastics. One study estimates that people who regularly use plastic cups consume tens of thousands of microplastic particles, which can damage the gastrointestinal tract, respiratory, and reproductive systems.

The alternative – using glass cups – is far better. After just 32 uses, a glass cup has the same carbon footprint as a disposable plastic cup. A glass used daily for just one month is more sustainable than disposable plastic cups.

Plastic utensils also expose people to microplastics, not to mention the environmental toll that comes from producing them. Stainless steel utensils are more sustainable than plastic utensils after just two to 17 uses. Even the high end of this estimate means that stainless steel utensils win out after just a week of use 3 times a day. Use what you already have and savor the extra time you spend with your loved ones instead of running to and from the store buying new products.

And when it comes to napkins, we’re much better off with reusables. One hundred disposable napkins contribute 495 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Producing paper napkins also contributes to deforestation, which harms biodiversity and emits carbon when those trees are logged, contributing to the climate crisis.

Set the table with cloth napkins instead. Just one reusable cloth napkin used a hundred times contributes only 7.05 lbs. CO2 to the atmosphere. The more we reuse our belongings or choose secondhand instead of purchasing new ones, the better it is for the environment.

Take Extinction Off Your Plate

Animal agriculture is responsible for at least 16.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions — and Americans consume two to three times more meat than the global average. Serving plant-based meals at your holiday celebration — or moving the meat from a main course to a side dish — helps prevent biodiversity loss, pesticide use, habitat destruction, and water pollution.

Plan and finalize your menu early. Knowing precisely what you want to make and how many people to expect will minimize last-minute grocery store runs and reduce waste. If you have extra food after your holiday gathering, encourage guests to pack the leftovers in reusable containers they bring from home. This reduces food waste and provides friends and family with a quick, nourishing meal as they recover from the holiday rush.

It may be a change from what we’re used to, but alternative gifts, DIY decorations, and simplifying how we entertain will add tremendous joy and meaning to holiday celebrations.

About the Author

Malia Becker is an organizer at the Center for Biological Diversity, where she leads the Simplify the Holidays campaign to encourage less wasteful holiday traditions.

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