Better World

Going Green For the Holidays: Best Tips For an Environmentally Friendly Family Holiday

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With the climate crisis becoming more and more urgent, plus health concerns over plastics, not to mention the rise of Kondo-ing culture, many families are becoming more thoughtful about the kind (and amount) of stuff that they buy for their kids, as well as the waste that they generate during family gatherings. For those of you trying to celebrate the year-end holidays with a smaller carbon footprint, here are some tips.

Choose eco-friendly gifts

Opt for eco-friendly materials when you buy new toys. Some amazing picks include PlanToys’ miniature furniture sets for dollhouses, like this baby nursery set and dining room set that are made out of responsibly harvested rubber wood in a factory run by renewable energy. Other sustainable versions of classic toys include Green Toys’ vehicles (like this dump truck) and kitchen toys (like this tea set), which are made in the U.S. from recycled milk jugs and come in sustainable packaging.

You can also seek out toys that encourage kids to learn about science and the Earth, to help raise the next generation of environmentalists (we’ll need them!). For younger kids, you could consider something like Melissa & Doug’s solar system floor puzzle or underwater floor puzzle. And for older kids, National Geographic’s Solar Powered Space Explorers and Coin Powered Flashlight sets make for super fun, unique, hands-on gifts that teach them about different ways to produce energy.

As an alternative to store-bought gifts, a handmade or DIY present (especially if made with upcycled materials) shows how much you care about both the recipient and the Earth. Getting your kids involved with creating special keepsake ornaments, fragrant homemade soaps, or delicious festive treats can teach them an important lesson about the environment and make the gift extra sentimental.

Pick your packaging wisely

Another way to make a positive impact is to choose toys and gifts with less packaging. Many toys come in layers upon layers of throwaway plastic, while others come in simple cardboard or wooden boxes or cloth pouches. Send a message to the toy companies by considering packaging waste as an important factor to guide you as you peruse the store.

Find new ways to reduce toy overload

Limit the number of excess toys by agreeing with family members ahead of time to only gift one item to each child. If you’ve all discussed it beforehand, no one will have to feel embarrassed about not giving or getting enough presents.

When possible, opt for “experience” gifts over new stuff. Creating memories as a family is much more important than getting new stuff, in the long run. So how about an aquarium or children’s museum membership, a gift card to a movie theater or family-friendly dinner spot, or a pass to a local arts and crafts studio or ice skating rink?

Decorate smart

Small changes to your holiday decor can add up to a big reductions in waste. LED lights are more energy efficient, so they help the environment while helping your wallet by saving usage costs — putting lights on a timer will also save both money and electricity. And speaking of lights, remember that a string of lights that doesn’t work is often due to a single burnt out bulb, so be sure to test the bulbs before throwing out the whole strand.

Use wrapping paper alternatives

Get creative with wrapping to avoid using so much throwaway material. Old maps, colorful magazine pages, paper grocery bags, and other materials can make for great wrapping paper, and making bows and tags out of recycled materials (like old holiday cards or photos) can add a lot of whimsy to your gifts. If you’re careful, most gift bags, boxes, bows, ribbons, and large pieces of wrapping paper and tissue paper can be saved to use again next year. At the very least, avoid buying new wrapping paper that’s glossy or has shiny foil designs, because it often can’t be recycled.

Don’t skip dinner

To take steps toward an eco-friendly holiday dinner, avoid disposable plastic plates, cups, and silverware. If you don’t have enough reusable dishes to serve a large crowd, ask your visitors to bring some to supplement your set. When you absolutely need to use disposables, plan ahead and seek out products like recycled paper plates and napkins, compostable cutlery, and biodegradable cups.

Offset holiday travel

Cars, trains and planes zipping back and forth across the country are great for helping us spend time with loved ones, but aren’t great for the environment due to the amount of fossil fuel pollution they produce. If you can, arrange for family members to carpool to holiday events. Companies like Terrapass, Carbonfund, and Gold Standard can help you plant trees or contribute to certified carbon offsetting projects to reduce the environmental impact of your travel.

Cut out the catalogs

Lastly, make an effort to cancel those pesky toy and clothing catalogs that come in the mail — it can help reduce a lot of waste and consumption. You can make a vow to cancel each one as it arrives, set a day on your calendar to contact all the companies to opt out, or use an online tool like Catalog Choice to cancel en masse. Bonus: having fewer catalogs of stuff around also helps decrease your family members’ cries of “I want this!” and “I need that!”

There are many small things you can do as a family to add up to a more sustainable holiday season. The best part of all is that you’ll be starting traditions that prioritize sustainability over consumption, and that let you focus on what’s really important this season: spending quality time together.

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Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.