Whether you are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa or just planning to enjoy your week away from campus, there are many ways to make the winter holidays more sustainable.
Choose a natural tree instead of artificial
The evergreen tree decorated with lights, apples, delicate ornaments, sparkly garlands, strings of beads sits at the heart of many families’ homes during the holiday season.
If you’re concerned about the environment, it might not be obvious whether a natural or artificial tree is preferable. But according to locally-produced podcast Terra Informa, a natural tree has less environmental impact than a synthetic tree. Keeping a synthetic tree for two decades or more can turn the tide, but that may increase your risk of accidental lead poisoning.
The best option, of course, is to decorate a living tree that can thrive outdoors for decades to come.
String up some colourful LED lights
LEDs are the most efficient type of electric light available today. An ordinary incandescent lightbulb works by heating up a metal filament, which means most of that energy is wasted as heat instead of generating light. LEDs are electronic which makes them much more efficient and cooler to the touch. This also makes LEDs better on Christmas trees since they are less likely to spark an accidental fire.
Light the menora with beeswax candles or LED lights
Due to the risk of fire, many who celebrate Hanukkah prefer to use electric menorot. As with any sort of light, LEDs will provide the most light for the least energy consumption. But if you prefer candles, consider avoiding common paraffin wax, which is a petroleum by-product, a non-renewable resource. Beeswax is more sustainable, available from local manufacturers and has a naturally lovely scent.
Give gifts that make a difference
Your true love set the bar a bit too high with their golden rings, leaping aristocrats and partridges in pear trees. Give fewer, simpler gifts this year and be conscientious of the social and environmental impact of their production. Look for fairly-traded gifts from a store like Ten Thousand Villages. Or make your own practical gifts from scratch—things like brownies in a jar, freezer jams, photo albums, houseplants from cuttings and more. You could also change a life through giving gift certificates to social enterprises like Kiva.
Minimize waste when wrapping gifts
Holiday gifts traditionally entail a huge waste of wrapping paper and other packaging. Instead of gift-wrapping at the mall or home, consider some easy, fun alternatives. Paper or cloth gift bags can be reused over and over. If you prefer wrapping, use sheets from the weekend newspaper, especially the colourful funny pages. For finishing touches, you can use twine with pine cones and cedar sprigs to spruce up the package.
Eat seasonal, organic and Fairtrade goodies
Many of the classic holiday snacks are already easier on the environment. In wintertime, nuts and dried fruit have a lower impact compared to fresh, tropical fruits flown-in on refrigerated cargo planes. For those exotic ingredients you can’t pass up (cocoa, for instance) be sure to choose Fairtrade and organic to ensure the fairest price and working conditions for farmers.
Eggnog is a once-a-year treat, so you should absolutely get the best—both in terms of taste and environmental impact. You can make your own at home using organic cream and eggs, and fairly-traded organic sweetener and spices. Alternatively, purchase it pre-made from a local, organic dairy like the Canadian co-operative Organic Meadow.
Go meat-free for the big meal
Growing animals for meat is one of the hardest practices on our planet. The United Nations estimates that all livestock production accounts for 15 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Land needed for livestock also comes at a heavy cost in the Amazon basin (and even here in Alberta, where less than half of native grasslands remain intact).
Christmas dinner can be meat-free and still be a festive occasion for all. Choose a vegetarian main course that will be rich and substantial: a creamy vegetable pot pie; wild mushroom and nut roast; a spicy lentil loaf. Most traditional sides and desserts are already vegetarian—things like butternut squash, roasted root vegetables, field salad, apple pie and mulled wine.
Written by Trevor Chow-Fraser
Trevor is a communications coordinator for the Office of Sustainability. From time to time, Trevor can be found volunteering with campus community radio program, Terra Informa.
The winter holidays are all about tradition. This year, start some new traditions that will make the holidays a little more sustainable. Find your own way to make this special time of year a little brighter for the planet.