(855) 321-7473

M-F 9am-5pm Eastern

holiday season climate action

How to Take Climate Action at Home this Holiday Season

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Dec 17, 2019

With the end of year holidays just around the corner, millions of families across the country are rushing to decorate their homes with a bit of festive cheer. From Christmas lights to tinsel and garland, Christmas trees to door wreaths, chimney stockings, and Santa setups, our homes, neighborhoods, and businesses indeed undergo quite a transformation this time of year.

Holiday decorations do add to the festivity, joy, and spirit of Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, and other end-of-year celebrations. However, they also come with quite a substantial environmental footprint. Anyone who has loaded up dozens of garbage bags of empty boxes, torn-up wrapping paper, and discarded bows and ribbons once the festivities are over should understand what we're getting at.

Caring about the environmental impact of your holiday celebrations, however, doesn’t mean that you have to settle for a colorless, austere, and dreary home. Below, we offer a few ideas and suggestions that will allow your “white” Christmas to also be “green.”

solar christmas lights
Photo Credit: Qedertek

Choose Your Lights Carefully

According to one recent study, “American household Christmas lights, a favorite holiday tradition, use up more electricity than some poorer countries—such as El Salvador or Ethiopia—do in a year. Bright lights strung on American trees, rooftops, and lawns account for 6.63 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity consumption every year.”

That's certainly a lot of electricity. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) greenhouse gas emissions equivalency calculator finds that our annual Christmas lighting leads to 4,688,411 metric tons of emissions. That's equivalent to almost one million passenger vehicles driven for one year.

We have written extensively about the benefits of changing out your old incandescent light bulbs for LEDs. Switching to LED lighting can save you money in the short term while dramatically cutting back on your overall energy usage. Today, LED light bulbs are cost-competitive and adaptable to virtually any lighting fixture. And yes, that also includes LED Christmas lights.

Instead of going all out on the holiday lights (think Clark Griswald from the movie “Christmas Vacation”), a few strategically placed strands of LEDs can bring your home the festivity that it needs while still limiting excessive electricity consumption. For households that want to go even further, dozens of solar-powered LED Christmas lights are on the market today. These unique lighting options include mini solar panels that will charge the lights during the day. Not only will you radically reduce the environmental footprint of your Christmas lighting, but you will also be able to avoid the struggle of trying to figure out how to wire and connect dozens of strands of lights on your roof and across your yard.

christmas tree farm
Photo Credit: The Dorman Tree Farm

Christmas Tree Options 

People have been bringing evergreen trees into their homes to celebrate the holiday season since at least the 16th century. The smell of pine, cedar, or fir trees inside the house certainly brings a sense of warmth and holiday ambiance. A Wall Street Journal article finds that “Americans cut down 15,094,678 Christmas trees in 2017. Growing all those trees requires about 19.7 square miles of land.”

That certainly might seem like a lot of deforestation to bring a small tree into our home for a few weeks each year. The alternative of plastic Christmas trees, however, is not much better. In terms of carbon footprint, research from the British Carbon Trust discovers a natural Christmas tree that ends up as splinters for woodwork or burnt as firewood has a 3.5 kg CO2 carbon footprint. Artificial Christmas trees, almost always made from plastic, have carbon footprints that reach 40 kg of CO2. You would have to commit to using your plastic Christmas tree for at least 12 years to make it comparable to a natural tree.

The best option for families with a little bit of spare space in their yard would be to spend a little more money purchasing a balled-in burlap Christmas tree. Instead of being cut down, these trees are dug up from the roots. The roots are subsequently enveloped in a burlap sack. Once Christmas is over, the tree is planted in a yard or tree line to continue to grow and sequester carbon over its lifetime. How cool would it be to say that your home has a “carbon-positive” Christmas tree decorating your living room?

birdseed christmas ornaments
Photo Credit: One Little Project

If You Must Decorate Choose Natural Decorations 

Tinsel is one of the most common decorations used for Christmas trees, wreaths and to add a bit of holiday charm to the bare walls of our home. What few homeowners stop to consider, however, is the environmental impact of this common Christmas decoration. Tinsel was originally made of shredded silver, which was a great way to reflect the lights from candles and add a bit of cheer to pre-electricity Christmas decorations.

Silver decorations for the Christmas tree aren’t affordable for many homes. Up until the 1970s, many manufacturers made tinsel from lead, essentially creating a toxic hazard where children would open presents on Christmas morning. Today, modern tinsel is typically made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) film coated with a metallic finish: not exactly the “greenest” silver decorations for your tree.

If your great-grandma passed down the family line some of her original silver tinsel, then certainly go ahead and use it to decorate your tree. For other households, however, avoiding tinsel, plastic garland, and other decorations made from petrochemicals is a great way to reduce the environmental impact of your celebration. Instead of hanging oil-based products on your tree, head out to the woods with your children to collect pine cones, acorns, and dried flowers to add to your tree.

Christmas ornaments made from dried oranges and cinnamon sticks are a beautiful, natural addition to your tree and add pleasant smells instead of VOCs to your home. A simple basket of pine cones brightened with some LED Christmas lights is another natural option that brings an earthy feel to Christmas. You can even consider spending a cold, pre-Christmas morning making natural birdseed ornaments for your tree that can subsequently be hung around your yard to attract wildlife in the cold of winter. Making it a priority to avoid the cheap, uninspiring, plastic Christmas decorations is perhaps the best thing homeowners can do to make their celebrations a bit more environmentally friendly.

christmas food waste
Photo Credit: Karen Halley, GreenUP

Be Ready to Compost Your Food Waste 

Environmentally-conscious homeowners should also be prepared to compost the inevitable food waste that comes with large family dinners. In the U.K., households consume at least 80 percent more food over the Christmas season than during the rest of the year, and the same holds true this side of the Atlantic. Even if you genuinely try to limit food waste during the Christmas season, it can be close to impossible to eat your 6th slice of pie after a huge turkey dinner.

Food waste is an enormous contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, as it can lead to methane escaping from our already-overfilled landfills. Project Drawdown estimates that “if 50 percent of food waste is reduced by 2050, avoided emissions could be equal to 26.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide.” The Christmas season is by far the best time of year to conscientiously reduce organic waste in landfills by creating and utilizing a backyard compost pile.

Check out our other resources on composting kitchen scraps, and if you're in colder climates and worry about how to compost in winter months - well, we also have an answer for that too: vermicomposting.

The festivity and cheer of the holiday season should undoubtedly continue to enliven the dark days of the end of the year. These four simple tips can help homeowners enjoy holiday decorations while drastically reducing the negative environmental impacts.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-11-22T01:57:20+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.