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Tips for celebrating the holidays sustainably

Christmas tree with red and blue and gold ornaments. Small red lights also can be seen inside the tree.
David Seidel
Radio IQ

There are many ways we celebrate during the holidays, and shopping for gifts and food is on most people’s to-do lists. A lot of the things we buy travel long distances to get to our doors, and a sustainability expert says it’s worth considering what all this abundance of buying does to our air and water.

“A very significant portion of harmful environmental impacts happen before products ever get to us as consumers,” said Jennifer Russell, an assistant professor of sustainability at Virginia Tech.

“Anytime that you can give a gift that did not have to be manufactured somewhere else, that’s always going to create an environmental benefit,” Russell said.

She said it can feel overwhelming to think about all the impacts we’re having, simply by enjoying some holiday cheer, but there are easy ways we can cut back.

Like buying gifts from a local store, or craft fair, in place of ordering all your gifts online or at box stores.

Russell notes shopping locally also has an added benefit of keeping money in your community. “It also means that we’re investing in our communities in our local businesses, and that leads to better outcomes for societies and the economics of those communities,” Russell said.

You can also give someone an experience, like spending an afternoon eating cookies, or taking them to a museum or park.

“And so an experience, like doing something fun with a family member, or a homemade gift, those will also have impacts,” Russell said. “But because they typically do not come with a massive global supply chain, they will most likely have a lower environmental footprint.”

Donating gently loved items to organizations like YMCA or Goodwill also cuts down on waste. There are also programs, including Terracycle, that recycle of pre-loved toys, at no cost.

Russell also said there are alternatives to store-bought wrapping paper, like using cloth or newspaper to wrap gifts, to reduce the amount of trash we send to landfills during the holidays.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Updated: December 15, 2023 at 12:27 PM EST
Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.