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8 clever ways to make your holiday celebration more sustainable

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Channel your inner Santa without hurting Mother Nature.

The holidays are a time of gifting thoughtful presents and adding festive decor inside and out. However, all the cheer often means a lot of “stuff.” And a lot of waste. Americans toss 1 million extra pounds of garbage each week between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, according to the National Environmental Education Foundation. Wondering how to channel your inner Santa without hurting Mother Nature? Use these tips and tricks to celebrate more sustainably this holiday season.

1. Deck the halls with LED lights.

American cities shine 20 to 50% brighter from space between Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to NASA research. “While that can bring a lot of cheer during this dark time of the year, it also takes a lot of energy. LED bulbs use at least 75% less energy, so that’s a much smaller climate footprint and much lower bills,” says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Admittedly, the initial investment for strands of LED lights is higher (generally about $5 to $15 more for a strand of LED lights compared to conventional), but Hoover says the lower energy bill quickly makes up for the difference in upfront costs. “They also last a lot longer — up to 40 seasons—so you are saving money and sending fewer strands into the trash year after year,” she says.

2. Opt for a real tree.

“Real trees are almost always a better choice for the environment than artificial trees,” Hoover says, since they’re grown locally and are made from biodegradable materials. “You can also decorate a tree that exists on your property already, or even decorate a houseplant,” she says. Just be sure to dispose of it properly after you pack up the decor.

Skip the landfill, if possible, and opt to recycle trees into mulch or compost, which helps return nutrients and organic matter back to soils and nutrient cycles. Check your local municipality’s website to find out if—and how—they might be able to help recycle your Christmas tree, Hoover says.

3. When gifting, think quality over quantity.

Presents don’t need to be new to be noteworthy. “The main misconception most of us have when purchasing gifts is that in order for it to be nice, it has to be new. The best way to reduce environmental impacts associated with gifts is to reduce and reuse — and then recycle, in that order,” Hoover says. Yes, that means you have full permission to regift, or to shop for interesting finds at thrift stores or antique shops.

When you do purchase new items, prioritize those that are durable, made from recycled content and can be repurposed or recycled at their end of life, suggests Hoover.

4. Splurge on experiences rather than things.

If possible, gift activities or services rather than items. Bonus points if it’s something you and the recipient can enjoy together, such as two tickets to a cooking class or a couple of memberships at your local museum.

5. Donate to a charity in the recipient’s name.

For a gift that will give back for years to come, consider a charitable donation in someone’s name. “The holidays are the perfect time to make donations to charities that are working on causes near and dear to your loved one’s heart,” Hoover says. Plus, donations to nonprofit organizations are tax-deductible.

6. Wrap in an eco-friendly way.

Even if you share experiences and charitable donations, you’ll likely have at least a few items to wrap. In that case, seek out recycled options such as newspaper comics, old wall calendars, fabric or paper maps, Hoover suggests. You can even reuse wrapping paper.

Since Americans discard thousands of miles of ribbon each year, try twine or raffia instead (or just skip the bow altogether).

7. Send recycled or plant-able cards.

More than 2.6 billion holiday cards are sent each year, which can really add up in terms of paper use and environmental impact for transport. The best option is to call with a holiday greeting or send an e-card.

But if you’re set on sending a handwritten note, invest in cards printed on 100% post-industrial recycled paper. For a go-green bonus that will offset the shipping carbon footprint, send plant-able cards that are studded with seeds. After opening the card and enjoying the sentiment, your loved one can soak the card overnight, tear it into tiny pieces, plant it under a layer of soil and water it until emerging seedlings deliver another gift.

8. Right-size your menu.

“One of the best things you can do to host a more sustainable meal is to eat what you make. In our quest to show people how much we care via their stomachs, however, a lot of uneaten food ends up in the trash. When good food goes to waste, so does all of the water, energy, land and money it took to get it to our plate,” Hoover says.

(Better Homes and Gardens is a magazine and website devoted to ideas and improvement projects for your home and garden, plus recipes and entertaining ideas. Online at www.bhg.com.)

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