Experts Share Tips for Going Green this Season

Sustainable wrapping Image by Getty Images
Reusing items such as paper shopping bags and leftover fabric for gift wrapping is just one sustainable option this holiday season.

By Brooke Coupal

The holiday season is often regarded as the most wonderful time of the year, but did you know that it’s also the most wasteful? It’s estimated that household waste increases by more than 25% between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Fortunately, there are steps people can take to celebrate the holidays in more sustainable ways.

“With UMass Lowell being the top-ranked campus in Massachusetts for sustainability (according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education), our experts are well-versed in sustainable practices that are easy for anyone to follow,” says Ruairi O’Mahony, executive director of the Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy.

We spoke with those experts and got their tips for celebrating the holidays with sustainability in mind.

1. Shop Locally

Whether buying food for a holiday feast or looking for a gift for a loved one, experts encourage people to shop at local stores.

Sustainable shopping Image by Brooke Coupal
Academic Advisor Dana Anstey shops for local produce during an Indoor Farmer's Market at University Crossing.

“This helps support the community that we’re a part of,” O’Mahony says. 

Many Lowell-based businesses, such as Craic Sauce, which recently released a hot sauce made from peppers grown on UMass Lowell’s campus, make their products locally, reducing their carbon footprint. The Rist Institute is making it easy for people on and near campus to shop locally by hosting Indoor Farmer’s Markets at University Crossing in partnership with the urban food justice organization Mill City Grows. The next market is scheduled for Dec. 13 from 1 to 4 p.m.

Another place to shop for sustainable gifts is at local thrift stores.

“Shopping at local thrift stores drives at all the positives of gift-giving during the holidays, while reducing the negatives (such as carbon emissions and waste),” says Spencer Ross, a marketing, entrepreneurship and innovation associate professor.

2. Craft Decorations

Handcrafted ornaments make for great decorations. A how-to video created by the Rist Institute shows how a person can transform a pine cone into an ornament using just ribbon and string. Other ideas for crafted holiday decorations include wreaths made out of foraged materials like sticks and leaves and festive pillows upcycled from old flannel shirts. 

When it comes to purchasing decorations, Sustainability Coordinator Nicole Kelly says, “Try to find pieces that you can feature in your home year-round, as the seasonal decor will phase out.”

Sustainable ornaments Image by Brooke Coupal
Students craft ornaments and other holiday decorations.

3. Find Alternatives to Gift Wrapping

While the shiny gift wrap found in stores may look pretty, it will most likely be used once before being thrown away. Instead of single-use gift wrap, consider reusing something that is already in your home.

The Rist Institute created a how-to video showing ways to reuse items to wrap gifts. Some of the easiest reusable items include paper shopping bags, old packaging, newspapers, baskets and leftover fabric, like that from an old scarf. You can jazz up the gift by adorning it with a handcrafted ornament.

4. Opt for a Potted Tree

Those who celebrate the holidays by decorating a tree may be debating whether to buy a fake one or chop down a real one. Joy Winbourne, an assistant professor for the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, recommends a third option – get a small potted conifer.

“I would argue that’s the most sustainable option,” she says. “There are lots of conifer species that are short-statured that do well as house plants.”

Sustainable trees Image by Pixabay
A potted tree is a great sustainable option.

For those who want a larger tree and have property available to them, Winbourne says growing your own tree is the next most sustainable option.

“As a kid, we had a forest in our backyard where white pine was native,” she recalls. “My older sister confirmed my fond memory of going out each winter with our dad to cut our Charlie Brown tree down.”

Understanding that this is not a possibility for everyone, Winbourne says those still wanting a large tree should consider purchasing an artificial tree. A study by the nonprofit American Christmas Tree Association shows that an artificial tree is more sustainable if you use it for more than five years. The next best option is to get a real tree from a local grower instead of buying a pre-cut tree that has likely been shipped from across the country, which contributes to carbon emissions. People can find locations for Massachusetts-grown trees on the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources’ website. After the holiday season, you can dispose of the tree sustainably: Many local farms will take them to feed to their goats.

5. Gift an Experience

Sustainable hockey Image by Tory Wesnofske
Tickets for River Hawks hockey games make for fun and sustainable gifts.
When contemplating what to give a loved one, think beyond material objects.

“There are other ways to make the holidays meaningful,” Sustainability Director Craig Thomas says. “It doesn’t have to involve gifting physical presents.”

Experiences that people can enjoy over the holidays include visiting a local state park, such as the Lowell Heritage State Park, or a certified arboretum, like UMass Lowell’s. Other options include going to a local sporting event or ice skating at a local rink.

“There are so many sustainable options out there,” Thomas says. “You don’t have to look far.”