’Tis the season

How to celebrate the holidays waste free

UN Development Programme
4 min readDec 12, 2022
Photo: Storyblocks

The holiday season is usually an inviting opportunity to overconsume. But it needn’t be.

We are using Earth’s resources at 1.7 times the rate than they can be replaced, with dire consequences for biodiversity and our ability to fight climate change.

In 2022 the world population reached eight billion — another important reminder that we must learn to re-think not just the way we produce and consume almost everything, from the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, but also how we can make those decisions for the benefit of every other living being and the planet.

Don’t buy anything new

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Buy thoughtful second-hand gifts such as books, art, antique clothing and furniture.

Join swap and ‘buy nothing new’ groups on social media.

Give experiences rather than stuff. A ‘gift coupon’ for babysitting or a home cooked meal can build memories and mean more than trying to second guess a person’s taste. Likewise, a monthly coffee or museum subscription or restaurant gift voucher can provide a way to extend the goodwill of the season throughout the year.

Support local businesses

Artisan Robert Campbell of Hands in Clay at his home studio in Coffals district in Clarendon, Jamaica. Photo: UNDP Multi Country Office in Jamaica

If you’re going to buy something new, pass up large chain stores for local brick and mortar businesses, where your purchases will keep wealth in your own community and support your neighbours. Support local craftspeople. Buy books from local authors. Look for local and Fairtrade labels and products that have not been tested on animals, or made with abusive labour practices.

The gift that keeps on living

Photo: Storyblocks

In the United States and Europe alone, between 83–96 million Christmas trees are grown and harvested every year. Live green trees are much more sustainable than plastic trees because they sequester carbon as they grow, and as many as three are planted for every one harvested. Live trees can either be replanted in the spring, if they have their root ball, or composted.

Live plants also make great gifts! Give living fruit or nut trees or flowering perennial plants.

Don’t waste wrapping paper

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One of the biggest sources of holiday waste is not gifts, but the wrapping paper. Studies in some countries have shown that landfills receive up to 25 percent more waste during the holiday season.

A more sustainable alternative to shiny paper, which cannot be composted or recycled, is to wrap gifts in old newspapers, maps, scarves, bandanas or bags that can be used more than once.

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For greetings cards, either use recyclable materials (and buy from a non-profit that does good work in your community) or drop cardboard altogether in favour of an e-greeting.

Don’t use glitter, tinsel or plastic decorations

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The world — and our oceans — are drowning in plastic and it is literally strangling sea life. Holiday decorations that can be used year after year, without adding to the 380 million metrics tonnes of plastics waste that’s generated every year.

If you celebrate Christmas, a natural tree is a better choice than an artificial one, particularly as they can be either composted or replanted.

Pump the brakes on fast fashion

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Fast and hyper fast fashion — clothes that are designed to be briefly worn and then tossed into the landfill are a huge waste, as well as an environmental and human rights challenge.

If you need new party clothes, consider the ‘cost per wear’ and choose durable outfits that can be cherished for years, rather than fast fashion that’s designed to be thrown away, often after a single use.

Photo: Storyblocks

Buy from local and second-hand stores. If you can sew, consider making a new outfit, or altering an existing one.

No waste entertaining

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If you’re entertaining at home, ask guests to bring their own dishes for leftovers. Don’t use plastic cutlery and plates. And if you have surplus food, consider donating to a food bank. Buy food from local suppliers and farmers markets and be careful not to overshop. Donate any extra to a food bank. If you plan to use fairy lights, LED lights require much less electricity.