Eco-friendly gifts, recyclable decorations, sustainable lighting: How to have a green Christmas

  • Popcorn tree garlands are one of the more environmentally-friendly ways to decorate -- as is having a natural Christmas tree.

    Popcorn tree garlands are one of the more environmentally-friendly ways to decorate -- as is having a natural Christmas tree. iStockphoto

Updated 12/9/2022 1:28 PM

Americans create 25% more waste between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day than at any other time of the year, according to Stanford University.

Between decorations, gifts and cards, sustainability experts like Merleanne Rampale in Lake County are sharing tips on how to reduce and reuse this season to make your Christmas a bit greener.


Rampale, the education director at the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County, gives presentations to community and municipal organizations across the county about how to be more environmentally conscious for the holidays -- sharing tips on how to reduce waste, recycle different materials and give more eco-friendly gifts.

She starts every one of her presentations with a quote from her hero, Jane Goodall: "You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make."

Wrapping paper

Rampale likes to challenge people to make their holidays as plastic-free as possible, starting with wrapping paper.

According to DuPage County-based environmental education nonprofit SCARCE, traditional wrapping paper typically is not recyclable. That's because it has a plastic laminate or non-paper additive that can't be separated from the paper at recycling facilities.

For recyclable alternatives, you can buy paper wrapping or use material that you already have around the house: craft paper, maps, calendars, newspapers, paper bags and crossword puzzles.

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Another option is reusable bags that can be regifted, or even a reusable tote bag that can be part of the gift.

Environmental advocates shared similar tips about holiday cards. Cards are recyclable only if they consist of just paper -- glitter, electronics or ribbons will get your cards sent to the landfill.


Rather than buying new decorations, you can also take the DIY route when sprucing up your home with eco- and family-friendly holiday crafts, such as popcorn tree garlands, dried citrus garlands, origami stars and paper snowflakes.

Christmas lights used for decoration involve massive amounts of electricity consumption each holiday season. By switching to LED lighting, you can use up to 80-90% less energy. Other helpful habits include reducing the size of your light display, and making sure your tree and outdoor lights are off after bedtime.

As for that one string of lights that always comes up broken each year, rather than tossing it in the garbage, you can drop it off at a local recycling center. SCARCE, in Addison, accepts working and nonworking holiday lights year-round.


When choosing your Christmas tree, environmentalists say locally sourced, real trees are the greenest choice. For those who prefer fake trees, experts encourage keeping them for as long as possible to help offset their emissions.

Greener gifts

Kay McKeen, SCARCE founder and executive director, said families should think about gifts that also can help the environment, such as rain barrels, compost bins, battery-powered yard equipment, lead-free garden hoses and supplies such as raised garden planters.

McKeen added, gifts of experience are great options that also cut down on material waste: You can send your friends and family to restaurants, museums, concerts, sporting events, activities or even classes to develop a new skill or hobby, such as a cooking or pottery class.

When shopping for children's toys, Rampale said people can consider toys without batteries or without plastic, such as quality wooden toys that will last a long time.

Other eco-friendly presents are clothes, bags, notebooks and other gifts made from recycled materials. Locally sourced gifts such as wine from nearby wineries cut down on transportation while supporting community businesses.

Green resolutions

As we near New Year's Day, Rampale encouraged people to start thinking about green resolutions, such as using reusable bags at the grocery store, going meatless for one day a week and starting composting.

"Even with just a tiny little bit of thought, I think we can greatly reduce the amount of waste and the toxins and the impact on the planet. More and more people are becoming aware of the different effects that we have and how really this planet is fairly small," Rampale said. "It's all connected. You can impact something that's going on in another part of the world by a small decision you make here."

• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work, click here to make a tax-deductible donation.

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