By Swapna Nelaballi, Ecology Center Guest Writer
Frenzied buying beckons the arrival of the holiday season, fueled by attractive deals and discounts readily available with a tap of our finger. But, with every tap we move further away from the true spirit of the holiday season. Impulsive shopping sprees replace simpler, more meaningful gestures of love and gratitude that celebrate the non-materialistic values symbolic of our holidays. Beyond diluting the essence of the season and breaking the bank, there is a larger and often ignored cost to our festivities, the environmental cost of stuff.
The holidays mark a period of extravagance when moderation goes MIA. From dining, decorating, to gifting and receiving, everything is done in excess. And the environmental costs of this excessiveness are staggeringly high. A study that estimated the carbon cost of Christmas noted that overall consumption including food, travel, lighting, and gifts over three days of Christmas festivities results in over 1400 pounds of carbon emissions per person, or the weight of ‘1000 Christmas puddings!’
The cost of being jolly
When ‘tis the season to be jolly came to mean ‘tis the season for gifting is unclear. But come November we dutifully transition into skillful hunters, tracking and catching perfect deals that promise us our yearly quota of holiday cheer. The National Retail Federation forecasts holiday sales between November and December to increase by 6-8% compared to 2021, and Americans will likely spend nearly a trillion dollars on holiday shopping in 2022.
But every item we purchase comes at a great cost to our planet. Manufacturing and transporting gifts and other goods use large amounts of energy and non-renewable natural resources while flooding our environment with toxic by-products and planet-warming emissions.
And then there is the waste that follows. The average American produces 25% more waste during the holiday season or one million tons of extra waste each week! Only a tiny fraction of this waste is recycled. The rest, around five million metric tons of holiday waste including packing material, unwanted gifts, and other items, journey on to their forever homes: landfills. There, they lie rotting, emitting greenhouse gasses, and leaching toxic chemicals into our air, water, and soil.
‘Unwrapping the impacts’ of wrapping
Even the seemingly innocuous wrapping paper, an omnipresent element of the gifting and receiving ritual, finds a place on the ‘naughty’ list. The production of one pound of wrapping paper generates 3.5 pounds of carbon emissions while using up 1.3 pounds of fossil fuel. This is a gross underestimation of the environmental impact as it does not include emissions from packing and transportation from foreign countries, or other toxic emissions in producing colorful, glossy, and/or glittery wrapping paper.
Americans use 4.6 million pounds of wrapping paper annually, mostly during the holiday season. To produce this quantity, approximately 17,000 barrels of oil are burned, and ~16 million pounds of CO2 is released into our atmosphere. Sadly, many kinds of wrapping paper are not 100% paper and hence cannot be recycled. Shiny, colorful, metallic, and glittery wrapping papers are lined or manufactured with plastic. It is next to impossible for recycling units to separate fibers from this paper-plastic combination. Thus, such wrapping paper is used once before ending up in landfills. Approximately 2.3 million pounds of wrapping paper or half the amount used winds up in landfills.
According to a study by Stanford University, if every American family wrapped just three gifts in used paper instead, we can save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields!
Wrapping paper is one single component.
Now add boxes, plastics, ribbons, packing paper, insulating material, foils, labels, thermocol, styrofoam, and more to the mix. The exponential increase in cost and the magnitude of impact become hard to comprehend.
And we are yet to consider the gift itself!
Returns are not free
In the days that follow the holiday festivities, 55% of American consumers are likely to return unwanted gifts thanks to generous return policies especially on e-commerce websites. In 2020, a single carrier (UPS) handled close to 2 million return packages on January 2nd alone!
While on the surface returning unwanted gifts seems like a better alternative to throwing them in the trash, it isn’t. Returning comes with a hefty carbon footprint. According to an impact report, in 2020, shipping returns alone resulted in 16 million metric tons of carbon emissions. A major proportion of these emissions are from returning holiday gifts.
Every returned package leaves a trail of emissions. Once returns are transported back to warehouses and reprocessed, less than half of them are repackaged and resold at full price. A chunk ends up in thrift and discount stores. The rest are offloaded at landfills.
Close to five billion pounds of returned, unused gifts end up in US landfills, and thus the energy and precious non-renewable natural resources utilized in the initial production and transportation of these goods are recklessly squandered.
Breaking the gift-giving ritual is up to us
Is our fleeting holiday cheer worth these huge, and indubitably permanent environmental costs? Must our celebrations be rooted in materialism? Are we truly honoring the spirit of our holidays by equating gifting with giving?
In answering these questions for ourselves, we will likely arrive at the conclusion that things must change, especially if we want to leave our children with more than just an unhealthy planet.
This change must come from within each one of us.
Ours is a culture of waste, rife with messaging that encourages us to use more than is necessary, and one that stigmatizes the ‘less is more’ way of life. To turn the tide, the ‘make-take-waste’ cultural messaging must be replaced by an emphasis on factors truly tied to our happiness and wellbeing, such as interpersonal connections or connections with nature, among others. We need better policies that make it easier for consumers to reduce, reuse, and recycle. And, we need to support the work of organizations that promote systemic solutions to the problems of overconsumption and material waste.
Such systemic change will take time but is possible with sustained effort.
In the meantime, the retail industry will continue to entice us to buy more. That is their job and priority.
But as consumers we (always) have a choice. We can surrender to smart marketing tactics, or we can reclaim our agency.
We can reclaim our agency and exercise our power to alter the course of our seasonal celebrations. We can exercise our power to switch the focus from the materialistic aspects back to the non-materialistic spirit of holiday merriment. In doing so, we can experience the joy of giving up materialism to leave a greener legacy for our children.
As consumers, we have enormous power to instigate change. We must not forget it. And we must use it.
A great place to start would be to reduce, reuse, and repurpose stuff. It's a wonderful opportunity to get creative.
Here are some examples of greener gifting ideas.
About the Author: Swapna Nelaballi
In July 2022, Swapna Nelaballi joined the Ecology Center through our Communications Fellowship program with the University of Michigan.
"I am broadly interested in tropical-forest ecology, plant-animal interactions, conservation biology, and science storytelling. I hold a masters’ degree in Wildlife Biology and Conservation. Currently, I am a PhD student at the University of Michigan. As part of my PhD research, I am trying to unravel the complex interactions that characterize plant-frugivore networks within tropical forests. My research particularly focuses on characterizing plant-frugivore networks for large-seeded plants and deciphering the relative importance of large-bodied mutualists in the dispersal of these large-seeded plant taxa." - Swapna Nelaballi