But many of us overlook the true cost of our gift giving traditions: Producing these goods and delivering them around the world releases a shocking amount of planet-warming emissions. And then there’s the huge volume of waste: all the things which are eventually tossed into the trash during the holidays, from unwanted gifts to the packaging they arrive in.
Shifting your gift-giving mindset can be challenging. But the holidays are an opportunity to transition to a greener way of living, while also maintaining some level of creativity.
“The climate crisis is a systemic problem, but I do really think individuals have a role to play and are part of the system,” Jamie Alexander, director of Drawdown Labs at Project Drawdown, told CNN. It’s important to think about “how can we use this season of giving to help the world move toward our climate goals and move toward our kind of shared North Star, which is a habitable life on this planet.”
Cutting waste and emissions
There’s no denying the joy of unwrapping a present — or several. But after the excitement is done, the leftover boxes, plastics and paper usually end up in greenhouse-gas-emitting landfills or waste incinerators.
According to Stanford University, Americans throw away roughly 25% more trash between Thanksgiving and the New Year than any other time of the year, generating 25 million extra tons of garbage.
And the amount of plastic usually included with holiday presents is enormous, not only in the wrapping, packaging and shipping, but the products themselves. The plastic industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of planet-warming emissions each year, according to a recent report by Beyond Plastic. Alarmingly, only around 9% of plastic in the US is actually recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency; even the stuff you specifically threw into the recycle bin.
Rebecca Benner, deputy director of global climate with The Nature Conservancy, told CNN there are several alternatives people can take these holidays to cut down on waste and emissions.
Minimize plastic and packing: Consolidate your shipments into as few orders as possible to cut down on delivery trips.
Use recycled or reusable wrapping paper: If you have old newspapers or recycled paper lying around, repurpose them for wrapping. If every family in the US wrapped just three presents with reused materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields, according to Stanford University.
Buy gifts locally: Supporting small, local businesses greatly reduces how far those products need to be shipped, which can cut down on emissions.
Make homemade gifts: Instead of buying presents, be creative and devise do-it-yourself gifts, which can make it more personal.
Consolidate trips to the mall: Plan ahead, Benner said. It’s best to go shopping once to get everything on your list. You can even carpool with a friend.
More meaningful gifts
Physical presents wrapped in brightly-colored paper are festive and cheerful, but Meg Goldthwaite, chief marketing officer with The Nature Conservancy, recommends non-tangible gifts which can be more meaningful.
Give what they really need: Goldthwaite suggests things like paying for their December car payment, or hiring a babysitter so parents can go out to dinner with a gift certificate you’ve given them. “Something they really need is better than more stuff,” she told CNN.
Donate in their name: Most nonprofit and charity organizations depend on end-of-year donations, and the holidays can be the perfect time to show generosity and make an impact on behalf of someone you love, said Goldthwaite.
Introduce them to new experiences: Experiences tend to make people happier than material things, Goldthwaite added, and learning new things can bring huge benefits either for your health or cultural knowledge. You might consider dancing lessons, cooking or knitting classes or even helping them get their scuba certification.