‘I’m dreaming of a green Christmas’: Here’s how to reduce plastic consumption over the holidays

Christmas tree and decorations
Baubles and lights hanging from the branches of a real Christmas tree. (Karen Springen/Medill)

By Fiona Skeggs
Medill Reports

Christmas is a time for family. For gifts. For sweet treats. For plastic waste? People who celebrate a winter holiday generate about 43% more waste, primarily from wrapping paper, gift bags, tissue paper, food waste and packaging, according to a November survey of 2,000 Americans by OnePoll. Hallmark estimates Americans send 1.3 billion cards over the winter holidays, and the National Christmas Tree Association says it buys 25 million to 30 million trees. To make your festive celebrations more eco-friendly, try a few simple switches.

Buy handmade paper cards

Sending cards over the holiday season dates back more than a century to Victorian England. String your collection above the fireplace during the build-up to the big day, and when it’s all over, you can repurpose your cards into gift tags for the following year.

In an age of social media and e-cards, send a handwritten note with a little extra love. “Everything’s digital, and everything kind of goes away,” said Heidi Lombardo, owner of Hei Lo Cards in Edgebrook, Illinois. “It’s nice to have something that you can leave behind.”

Lombardo said she sources all her materials from eco-friendly suppliers, and while she uses plastic sleeves to protect the cards, she recently switched to ones made from recycled, biodegradable cellophane.

Look for loose cards in stores and consider buying from sustainable brands. Many artists sell their products on Etsy. For example, you can purchase handmade greetings cards and gifts from Chicago-based NerdPress.

Switch to biodegradable cleaning products

For the post-Christmas cleanup, turn to reusable dish cloths, natural loofah sponges and solid bar soaps.

“If you’re having a lot of guests over, you’re probably going to do a really deep clean of your house,” said Bethany Barbouti, founder of Eco & the Flamingo in Chicago. The eco-store, which is set to open its second location in Evanston this month, stocks dry-good pantry items, oils and vinegars, bath and body products and household cleaning items. Soap and solid shampoo bars make a plastic-free alternative, and many products can be refilled at the store.

Get a real tree

Has your artificial tree seen better days? Instead of upgrading to a newer fake one, switch to the real deal.

“There’s more character in a real tree,” said Chris Hohenstein, owner of City Tree Delivery in Chicago. “They smell better; they’re fresh.”

Artificial trees are usually made from polyvinyl chloride plastics. Andy Finton, landscape conservation director at The Nature Conservancy, says the petroleum-based PVC materials are often produced from coal-fired plants in China before being shipped worldwide. The manufacturing process, transportation and raw materials all have “a pretty significant climate footprint,” he said.

Synthetic trees often end up in landfill. “They’re cheap, they fall apart,” says Doug Hundley, a spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents over 700 farms that grow firs, pines and spruces for the season. “That’s what makes them such a negative environmental feature. We’re importing heavy metals and plastic, and burying it in our ground.”

Buying a real tree and supporting a local, family-run farm will help ensure the land remains green space. The National Christmas Tree Association estimates 350,000 acres of land in the U.S. support Christmas tree growth. In addition, farmers plant two to three seedlings for every grown tree chopped down, Finton said.

“It provides an income to a landowner who otherwise might need to sell it for development, housing or commercial development,” Finton said. “A well-managed Christmas tree farm is often part of a much larger, forested landscape.” Natural forestry and parks provide benefits like outdoor recreation areas and wildlife refuges, he said.

In Chicago, Hohenstein sources all his trees from farms in the Midwest, typically Wisconsin and Michigan. Toward mid-December he donates any leftover ones to a church on Chicago’s West Side that distributes them to low-income families.

But remember, if your tree in the attic still looks as though it could make it through a few more Christmases, don’t ask Santa for a new one just yet.

Fiona Skeggs is a health, science and environment reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @fiona_skeggs.