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  • Writer's pictureGreen Iowa AmeriCorps

Have yourself a very green Christmas

It’s the most wonderful time of year, or is it the most wasteful? From the tree to the wrapping paper, waste is abundant during the holiday season. With the tips below, though, you’ll be as green as the Grinch.

The great debate: The tree

Believe it or not, there is a debate over which is more sustainable: reusable artificial trees or live trees. Everyone has a preference, whether it be cultural or social.

Reusable trees

The nice: Artificial Christmas trees, while they may immediately seem like the worst choice, do have some environmental advantages. If you are both budget and time conscious around the holidays, an artificial tree may be great as it can be used year after year. This means that if you have already purchased an artificial tree, it is waiting for you in your basement or closet, and it can go right back at the end of the season. You may save emissions, time, and money by not needing to go to a tree lot every year to pick up a new, freshly cut tree. Additionally, many of these trees are fire retardant and therefore, safer.

The naughty: The Nature Conservancy estimates that people in the U.S. purchase around 10 million artificial trees annually, 90% of which are transported from China. Artificial trees are also rarely recycled as they are a mix of metal and plastic materials, which are difficult to separate, landing them in a landfill. While artificial trees can be reused, Carbon Trust estimates that an artificial tree must be reused for between 7 and 20 years, depending on the size and material, to offset the environmental impact of manufacturing and transporting that tree.

Real trees

The nice: Real trees come in two options: cut and potted. Cut trees are found in the typical lots or are even cut fresh directly on site. Potted trees are becoming more popular, as families will decorate and water them throughout the holiday season and plant them afterward. Christmas tree farms are also beneficial in absorbing oxygen. Saplings are planted to replace any cut trees, keeping a consistent rotation of live trees in the ground. These trees also stabilize the soil and support wildlife. In addition, real trees are recyclable as mulch or fuel for factories.

The naughty: Depending on where you live and source your trees, the carbon footprint of a real tree can still be comparable to a fake tree. Some cut trees sold on lots have been transported for long distances to become more convenient for the consumer. In addition, families may have to drive far to reach local tree farms. Also, many tree farms are not organic and use pesticides that are then brought into your home.

The verdict: It depends

At the end of the day, there is no clear answer as to what tree is better for the environment. The choice completely depends upon availability, your commitment, and your location. One of the best choices is to purchase a potted tree that can be replanted, but if this is not available in your climate, this may not be a viable choice. If you do live in an area that has locally grown trees available, go for it, but be aware of recycling programs for cut trees or have a location in mind for rooted trees.

The decor

Seasonal decor seems to come out earlier and earlier each year. Instead of spending a fortune on single use decorations this year, follow these tips for sustainable holiday cheer!

  1. Invest in reusable decorations. This year, opt for decorations that you can use again and again, and invest in proper storage to keep decorations looking new. It might be a bit more money up front, but buying durable, long-term decorations will keep you from over-consuming.

  2. Get your decorations second-hand. Around the holidays, thrift stores are full of beautiful, one-of-a-kind decorations, and can be a great place to source unique ornaments for your tree, tablecloths for your dinner party, or even holiday cards! Try to find some gems at the thrift store before hitting big-box stores, and save some money in the process. Alternatively, you can start gathering your holiday decorations by ‘shopping’ your family decor! Is there a family heirloom you’ve wanted for your holiday table? Perhaps some nostalgic ornaments you made as a child? See if your family is looking to downsize their decoration stash before doing your shopping.

  3. Use natural elements on your holiday table. Gourds, twigs, pine boughs and branches are beautiful ways to celebrate the wonder of winter inside your home. The best part? All of these elements are natural and compostable, which means your decorations won’t end up in the landfill come January! Check out this post for fun ways to upcycle natural elements into holiday decorations.

  4. “Green” your light display. Did you know you can now get solar powered lights to adorn your home? These lights are great for outdoor decorating, because they don’t need a pesky extension cord, and they keep energy bills low. Look to your local solid waste agency about how to recycle old, broken lights, and stow away the strands that work for next year.

The gifts

One of the largest sources of waste and environmental damage of the holiday season comes from gift-giving. Many gifts come in plastic packaging that cannot be recycled, and an estimated 61% of Americans receive unwanted gifts. Many of those gifts end up in the back of a closet or thrown away in landfills. To avoid giving an unwanted, unsustainable gift, try exchanging one of the more eco-friendly gifts below.

1. Thrift it. Secondhand stores are full of great glassware, vintage clothes, books, home decor, and more! Make it a scavenger hunt; create a list and search your local thrift stores for the perfect gifts. These gifts also come in at a much lower price, so you can help save the planet while saving money.

2. Shop local. Support your community by purchasing gifts near you. Handmade soaps, art, candles, and even jewelry can be sourced locally. These gifts have a unique touch and often cannot be found anywhere else!

3. Shop sustainable. You can choose to shop brands that are specifically sustainable and promote the receivers’ sustainability. There are countless gifts that can easily replace day-to-day sources of waste; try giving some of the following items this year.

  • Bamboo Straws - Not only are these straws lightweight and reusable, but they are also compostable! This set even comes with a plant-based cleaning brush.

  • Beeswax Food Wraps - Reusable beeswax food wraps are pieces of cloth that are coated in melted beeswax. They are flexible and stick to the tops of containers, similarly to plastic wrap and aluminum foil. They are also washable, compostable, and come in a variety of patterns! This could be a great alternative wrapping paper that doubles as an additional gift.

  • Zero Waste Shave Kit - This kit comes with a reusable metal razor with replacement blades. It also comes with an amber ale shave bar to replace shaving cream that often comes in a metal can with a plastic lid. At the end of their life cycle the blades can be recycled (check local solid waste agency) and the brush and soap can be composted!

  • Recycled Fiber Clothing - For that fashion-forward family member, try gifting clothes made from recycled fibers. Toad and Co. managed to keep 25 tons of reusable materials from entering the landfill in 2019 by using recycled fibers. They have a wide range of clothes that would make a lasting and unique gift compared to fast fashion brands.

It doesn’t stop here! Check out these other low and zero waste gift ideas.

4. Give an experience. Instead of purchasing expensive gifts that are likely to end up in the trash, try giving an experience! One year I bought my extended family a pass to our local zoo. I was able to purchase it online and give it as a combined gift and they were able to visit the zoo as many times as they wanted. Certificates to local restaurants, tickets to concerts, or movie tickets can all make great experiential gifts.

5. Give only what they need. Ask your family or friends what items they have really been needing. This will ensure that the gift they receive will not go untouched throughout the year.

6. Do a gift exchange. Rather than purchasing a gift for each family member, resulting in piles of small, cheap gifts for everyone, try doing a gift exchange. This will reduce the number of unwanted gifts, but will also allow everyone to receive one gift of higher value and quality.

7. Toy swap. Shopping for kids is especially difficult; the season’s hottest toys complicate families' abilities to shop for used or sustainable toys. Children also often drop these expensive toys after only a short period of time. Look online for an existing toy swap group, or start your own!

8. Go edible. Try gifting goodies this holiday season. This is a great gift for those that seem to have everything and will lessen the strain on your wallet as well. Baking cookies or pies also adds a personal touch to the gift as you give time and effort to the gift. If baking isn’t your thing, try giving cookie or brownie mix in a jar. This is a recipe for a brownie mix that you could layer in a thrifted mason jar!

Gift wrapping

According to Use Less Stuff, Americans toss an extra 25 million tons of garbage during the holiday season. A lot of this garbage is non-recyclable wrapping paper that accompanies holiday gifts. Give the gift of less waste by opting for sustainable wrapping options! There are many creative ways to still wrap an eye-catching gift this year; here are a few options:

  1. Try wrapping gifts in fabric. Wrapping gifts in fabric (also known as furoshiki) is a sustainable way to wrap a present and gift a useful item at the same time! The fabric can be a tea towel for someone’s kitchen, or you can wrap a set of gifts in reusable cloth napkins to gift two things at once!

  2. Reduce, reuse, recycle your wrapping paper! Opt for recyclable paper or reuse old gift wrap and gift bags when wrapping this year’s gifts. Try to use all-natural string to tie packages together; 100% cotton string is compostable.

  3. Add a touch of nature. Take a trip outside to see what natural items you can collect to adorn your packages! The great outdoors offers us beautiful fallen leaves, pinecones, and dried flowers that make great natural decoration. Take a walk and see what you can find! If you do choose to forage for natural elements, be sure to forage responsibly. Here is a list of guidelines to follow when foraging so that you remain safe and avoid breaking any local laws.

  4. Make your own gift wrap! Have the whole family join in the fun by decorating recyclable kraft paper together. Use stamps, markers and stencils to make one-of-a-kind gift wrap that can be recycled.

The food

A more sustainable holiday meal doesn’t have to be without tradition and flavor! Try out these simple tips to make your holiday table a bit more ‘green’.

  1. Buy local produce, meat, and bread for your meal. You can find local growers in your area with pumpkins, squash, onions, and more to add flavor to your holiday meals! The best part — money spent with local farmers goes back into your economy, and you can cut back on emissions from transport!

  2. When possible, buy in bulk. Buying grains, flour, coffee and tea in bulk saves on excessive plastic packaging, allows you to control how much you buy, and can save you money! Check out this guide to find bulk stores near you!

  3. Try out a plant-based meal. During the holidays, we eat a lot of meat, which can be very water-intensive. Did you know it takes hundreds of gallons of water to produce one Christmas ham? This holiday season, see if you and your family can cut down on their meat consumption by opting for a meatless meal. If this seems like too much, even trying out one new plant-based recipe during the holidays could spur a new favorite food tradition.

Climate change is a scary topic and facing our own overconsumption is difficult. The holidays are an especially difficult time to recognize our environmental shortcomings as it is the social norm to purchase expensive and often damaging gifts. Even swapping out one of your traditions with an above option can help make a great impact. Now, go forth and have yourself a very green Christmas!



The Carbon Trust’s tips for a more sustainable Christmas. (2021, November 11). Carbon Trust.

Doran, G. and Kidwell, J. (2016, December 21). Creative Ways to Cut Your Holiday Waste. Environmental Protection Agency.

Gardner, J. (n.d.). The 7 Rules of Responsible Foraging for Floral Design. Team Flower Education.

Nature Inspired Natural Christmas Decorations for Your Home. (n.d.). The Well Company.

Pros and Cons of Buying a Real Christmas Tree. (n.d.). Tree Towne Christmas Trees.

Real vs. Fake -- Which Christmas tree is better for the environment? (2019, December 2). The Nature Conservancy.

Reduce Waste Generated During the Holidays. (n.d.). Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Seaver, M. (2020, December 1). Should you get a real or artificial Christmas tree? Here’s how to decide. Real Simple.

What is your Water Footprint? (2019, December 20). Grace Communications Foundation.

Wells-Barrett, C. (2021, August 11). Christmas gift confessions 2019; Americans expected to drop almost $15.2 billion in unwanted presents.

Zero Waste Grocery Guide: Iowa, Where to Grocery Shop. (n.d.). Litterless.

25 Low and Zero Waste Gifts for Greener Giving. (n.d.). Sustainable Jungle.


About the Author

Bri Hull is the Communications Associate at the Tallgrass Prairie Center. Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, Bri came to Iowa to attend Wartburg College. In her time in Iowa she developed an interest in environmental science and stayed to learn more about ways she can help her community. In her time with Green Iowa AmeriCorps, Bri hopes to learn how to become more green and how to reach out to her community to do the same.

Piper Wood, sustainability operations coordinator serving at Northeast Iowa Community College, contributed to this piece.



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