From ribbons to wrapping paper to product packaging to single-use decorations, the sources of holiday-specific waste mount up fast. According to the EPA, Americans generate 25% more waste between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day compared to the rest of the year.

Some of the most commonly-used holiday items have important impacts on the environment, but here are ways to make use of them more sustainably.

The Hickey household buys a real tree every year: picking one out and decorating it is an annual family tradition, and the smell of the tree really brings the holidays to life for the whole family. Jordan Hickey / North by Northwestern

Christmas trees

A misconception exists regarding real Christmas trees according to Jim Johansen, the previous owner of Triumph Plant who has decades of experience in horticulture.

“It’s a crop and it’s not hurting the environment any more than [...] cutting down corn plants,” he said. He also mentioned that Christmas trees take an average of 13 years to grow on a farm before they can be harvested. During that time period, they’re absorbing carbon dioxide in the same way any other tree would, reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Johansen also said that for every Christmas tree that’s harvested, two more are planted.

Real Christmas trees, which are usually evergreen conifers, are biodegradable and recyclable. While the trees are sourced from forests on rare occasions, the vast majority of Christmas trees in the U.S. come from Christmas tree farms, meaning they don’t contribute to deforestation or the destruction of natural habitats. That being said, many real trees end up in landfills, where they can add to greenhouse gas emissions as well as energy and water use.

Artificial trees, on the other hand, are usually made out of metals and plastics. The more times they’re reused, the less waste is created by the tree’s owner, but when they do eventually get disposed of, they can have lasting environmental effects. Like all plastics, they take a long time to break down and can exist in the environment for long periods of time. The manufacturing of fake trees, most of which occurs in China, can further contribute to emissions through the trees’ fabrication as well as through their transportation.

The debate of artificial vs. real trees is still ongoing, but many experts and scientists agree that real trees don’t have the negative environmental impact most people think they do. In fact, generally speaking, they’re actually better than artificial trees.

Wrapping paper

Sara Smith, founder of Wrappily, faced a conundrum. She’d saved all the tissue and wrapping paper she’d accumulated from birthday parties, weddings and other celebrations, but she couldn’t find anywhere to recycle it or dispose of it sustainably.

“I just would lament,” she said. “I felt the burden over what to do with it.”

Most conventional wrapping paper patterns aren’t recyclable —  they’ve been dyed, laminated or supplemented with materials such as glitter or foil that make them impossible to break down and reuse (unlike a material like newsprint with a chemical makeup that can be recycled).

While limiting use of wrapping paper and ribbons as much as possible would be the most sustainable option, there are ways to keep using them while still reducing waste. Wrappily is just one example of a brand that offers a variety of recyclable wrapping paper patterns. Wrappily utilizes local newspaper presses as opposed to paper mills to generate its product, further limiting additional emissions that might come from shipping wrapping paper overseas.

Triumph Plant offers another sustainable alternative: wrapping paper you can plant. Triumph Plant makes wrapping paper out of recycled tissue paper and incorporates flower seeds into each sheet. All consumers have to do is lay the sheet of wrapping paper where there’s soil, water it, and flowers will grow. The tissue paper naturally breaks down in the process. If you live someplace cold, you can save the wrapping paper and plant it once the weather gets warmer, or use it to create an indoor flower garden.

According to Johansen, this kind of wrapping paper adds an additional and special element to a gift.

“If I give you a shirt, and I wrap it in this paper, you’ll love the shirt, but then you’ll forget about it,” Johansen said. “But you’ll have a perennial garden that will give you enjoyment year after year.”

Books, since they’re sold without additional packaging, could be an eco-friendly gift option. Jordan Hickey / North by Northwestern

Gifts and packaging

Almost all new objects come packaged in cardboard, paper, plastic or some other environmentally-damaging material. The amount of these materials that individuals throw away and waste can quickly add up if multiple gifts are being exchanged among family members. To limit waste, Sarah Tulga, program assistant of sustainNU, advises choosing reusable gifts such as water bottles or houseware (she advises purchasing them in-store if possible to further reduce packaging waste) or simply reducing the number of gifts given.  

“[Buying] one or two more high-quality, thoughtful presents versus buying a ton of things [a person] may or may not like or use, like stocking stuffers, does help to cut down the waste with gift-giving,” Tulga said.

Packaging of objects aside, Tulga also emphasized the varying impacts of online shopping as opposed to buying gifts from local businesses in-person. Online shopping, she said, can produce carbon emissions through the travel costs of shipping as well as the cardboard boxes used to ship items.

Driving to malls or other stores to shop in-person, though, also generates emissions. But according to CNN, despite the greenhouse gas emissions that can stem from a drive to and from a store, this option is still more eco-friendly than ordering online. When people shop online, they frequently shop for individual products that each require separate transportation and packaging, as opposed to taking one trip to a store or a mall for multiple purchases.

Graphic/GIF by Jordan Hickey / North by Northwestern


Decorating for the holidays may not be important to everyone, but those who are into bringing the holiday spirit into their homes often go all out.

“There are times of the year when it’s worth it to put in a little bit of extra effort and be thoughtful because that evokes something pretty wonderful,” said Vilma Gonzalez, Instagrammer and blogger at @vilmairisblog.

For Michelle Hsu, a full time home decor influencer at @astoldbymichelle, it’s about tradition. Her parents always decorated, and she wants to bring that same togetherness and joy to her family and home in Texas.

As pretty as it may look, decorating does have substantial environmental impacts, namely in electricity usage and waste. According to observations by NASA satellites, nighttime lights shine between 20% and 50% brighter in urban and suburban areas in the United States between Black Friday and New Year’s, largely as a result of the addition of holiday lights to homes. Decorating can also create more waste, especially if products are used once and then thrown away.

To prevent such excess waste, Gonzalez stresses the importance of reusing items as opposed to cycling through new decorations every year. Hsu has similar priorities, and when she does purchase new items, she tries to find them second-hand.

“A lot of vintage items are making a comeback, so there are a ton of thrifted items that fit in really well with my style,” Hsu said.

The holiday season is often a time of decadence and excess that can result in a dramatic increase in waste production but it doesn’t have to. Sustainable alternatives exist and are accessible. In other words, greener holiday celebrations are easily within reach.