With winter break looming and December in full swing, the purple and orange ribbons of Halloween have come down to be replaced by wreaths and mistletoe. It would seem that Halloween decorations are only the prelude to what lies ahead: every year, millions of lights, trees, and gifts are put up in preparation for the holiday season. But buried in the heaps of Christmas joy and cheer is a question that is seldom asked: what do all these decorations mean for the environment?
Throughout the holiday season from Thanksgiving to Christmas, Americans produce around twenty-five percent more waste than normal. The majority of this increase comes from gift giving, a tradition that has come to generate an obscene amount of trash. Wrapping paper and packaging are the primary culprits: about 2.3 million pounds of wrapping paper are thrown away each year, and packaging material, primarily cardboard, makes up thirty percent of all waste in the United States. Around thirty million trees are cut down annually to make these two goods alone. Retailers also collectively sell 1.6 billion cards each year, creating even more material destined for the landfill.
The worst part of gift giving, however, is that many recipients return what they receive instead of keeping it. In January 2021, around 8.75 million packages were returned within just a few weeks of Christmas, nullifying the point of purchasing and wrapping things in the first place.
Another negative enviromental impact of the holiday season is that of Christmas lights. With their decorative appeal and versatility, lighting up one’s home has become the premier way of showcasing Christmas spirit. In fact, so many households put up lights that their combined electricity usage could power four hundred thousand homes for a year. Moreover, the increased spending on electricity clearly does not stop at just the holidays. Some houses keep their Christmas lights up long past wintertime, in some cases well into June.
A less intuitive cost of Christmas lights is their light pollution. Almost all houses prefer to keep their lights on during the night, which blots out the stars. When enough artificial lights gather in one spot, a phenomenon called sky glow occurs, where light reflects off the atmosphere and colors the natural night sky with shades of yellow and white. This confuses nocturnal wildlife, which have used the patterns in the sky for millions of years to navigate their habitats and migration routes. Light pollution even affects humans: in the presence of light, we produce less melatonin, a hormone that is essential to the sleep cycle. Melatonin deficiency can cause headaches and insomnia, symptoms that are intensified by the constant partying, traveling, and eating that takes place during this festive period.
In the end, Christmas is a time for celebration and coming together. We should not let its wasteful side dilute its magic and charm, but nor do we have to resign to its obvious harm to the environment. Decorations can be reused, lights can be turned off, and wrapping paper can be substituted for more eco-friendly alternatives. So, this Christmas, keep these tips in mind. Sustainability can make festivity better for everyone.