If the visions dancing in your head this holiday season are of safe toys, minimal plastic packaging, and fewer trips to the mall, this guide is for you. We’ve put together some eco-friendly ideas to prep your house for entertaining and fill it with seasonal spirit and natural scents. We’ve also gathered tips for choosing and wrapping green gifts that minimize waste, expense, and stress, and maximize your time to enjoy the holidays.
Give the House a Green Cleaning
The holiday season is a time of cozying up in the house, so it’s also a good time to clear the air inside of toxins as well as dirt and dust. Use mild, biodegradable natural and non-toxic cleaning products. Look for ones that don't contain harsh chemical solvents, chlorine, ammonia, or synthetic fragrances. Baking soda or vinegar mixed with a little water make good multipurpose cleaners.
While cleaning -- and every day, if you can -- crack the windows a little to let toxins out and fresh air in.
Getting the Greenest Christmas Tree
Avoid artificial trees that are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Fresh trees have these benefits:
- Live, potted trees are reusable. After the holidays, you can plant your tree or leave it potted in your yard and use it again next year.
- Freshly cut trees are recyclable. Look for a lot that sells trees grown locally (not trucked in from miles away) and without pesticides. Chopping down a tree at a local organic tree farm is one way to ensure you’re getting both.
When the holidays are over, don’t put your tree out with the trash where it will end up in a landfill. Instead, see if your community has a tree-recycling pick-up day. Recycling services turn trees into compost or mulch for community parks and other public areas. Visit earth911.com to find a tree recycler in your area.
Natural Holiday Fragrances and Decorations
Instead of heading to the store for decorations, go for a walk. Berries, flowers, and evergreen branches are beautiful decorations and, like a fresh tree, fill the house with real seasonal aromas. Incorporate some of the special beauty of your area of the country -- such as seashells or magnolia leaves -- into your decorations.
Add seasonal scents by baking gingerbread cookies. Or make a fragrant holiday potpourri by simmering ingredients such as lemon or orange slices, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom, and nutmeg.
Instead of buying new decorations, reuse vintage ornaments from your family attic or a thrift store. Or help your children make ornaments from homemade clay, scraps of fabric, old holiday cards, and nontoxic paints and glue.
Children can also help make snow globes in watertight recycled jars. Instructions are easy to find online, and several snow globes displayed together on a table or mantel make a winter wonderland.
Candles and holiday lights are part of the season for many people -- after all, Hanukkah is known as “the festival of lights.” But electric holiday lights consume a lot of energy and standard paraffin candles are made from petroleum products.
To conserve energy if you are stringing up lights:
- Turn them on only at night.
- Use LED lights. They are brighter than standard mini-bulbs and use one-tenth the energy, so you’ll also save on your energy bill.
When it comes to lighting a menorah or a tabletop, buy candles made with natural ingredients such as palm oil, soy, or beeswax. Electric menorahs are another option.
Party Without Being Trashy
Americans generate a lot of garbage during the holidays, and one of the big culprits is holiday entertaining. Plastic cutlery can hang around a landfill for thousands of holidays yet to come, and even paper plates aren’t earth-friendly if they’re coated in petroleum-based wax.
Biodegradable cutlery and plates are one alternative. Better yet:
- Use cloth instead of paper napkins. Reusing is always better than recycling, and napkins won’t take any more energy, soap, or water to wash, because you can throw them in with your regular laundry.
- Borrow plates and silverware. If you’re short, ask a few friends to bring a set of each.
- Rent dinnerware.
Come party time, keep recycle containers in clear sight in various rooms to make it easy for your guests. Use microfiber cloths or tea towels instead of paper towels to clean up spills.
Send Green Greetings
The holidays are often the one time of the year that people reach out to their extended network of family and friends to say hello, send best wishes, and give an update about how the year’s been. After a few short weeks, most of those greeting cards end up being thrown away. Conserve resources and reduce pollution by sending green greetings.
- Send an electronic greeting using one of the many services online. Often, you can easily add photos or even video to the message, making it more personal.
- Buy greetings cards made from 100% recycled paper. You can even find options that have seeds embedded in the fibers. Your recipients can plant the cards and the resulting flowers will remind them that you care.
Green Gifts for Adults
Consider giving friends or family “experiential” presents -- such as gift certificates for restaurants, movies, plays, concerts, yoga classes, spa services, or even weekend getaways. Or give nature lovers a national parks pass or membership to a botanical garden or aquarium. They’re great gifts, easy to buy, and don’t require shipping or wasteful packaging.
Green Gifts for Kids
Beneath the shiny packaging of new toys (and even in the packaging), who knows what toxins or safety hazards lurk? A growing number of toymakers specialize in toys made with recycled and nontoxic materials.
But what if the child on your list is focused on a toy atop this year’s hot list? The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act has established standards for lead and phthalates (chemicals added to plastic to make it softer) in toys. But watchdog groups say there still may be toxic toys on the shelves come the holidays. Try these tips for avoiding toxic toys:
- Don’t buy soft plastic toys such as bath toys and bath books.
- Check the purchasing guidelines in the annual toy safety survey, “Trouble in Toyland” published by U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
- The toy section of healthystuff.org has a database of 1,200 toys that have been tested for health and safety hazards. You can search by toy and also nominate specific toys for testing.
- Print the Healthy Child Healthy World Pocket Toy Shopping Guide so you always have the information you need on hand.
Wrapping It All Up
Most mass-produced wrapping paper is not made from recycled paper, and if it has metal fibers or foil, it can’t be recycled, either. If you do buy wrapping paper, make sure it’s recycled and recyclable. Better yet, use old maps, newspaper comics pages, children’s artwork, or pretty bits of old linens for wrap.
Finish off gift-wrapping with a sprig of berries or pretty leaves instead of ribbon. If every family in the United States wrapped just three presents this way, we’d save enough ribbon to tie a bow around the earth. What a great gift that would be.