How to make your holidays a little greener

The "Southwestern-style" holiday tree is a favorite with the writer's family, offering a sustainable alternative to live conifers.

The "Southwestern-style" holiday tree is a favorite with the writer's family, offering a sustainable alternative to live conifers.

A dried flower stalk from a century plant can be an alternative to a fake or live Christmas tree.

A dried flower stalk from a century plant can be an alternative to a fake or live Christmas tree.

Trevor Ledbetter, director of the Office of Sustainability

Trevor Ledbetter, director of the Office of Sustainability

Lauren White, sustainability program manager in the Office of Sustainability

Lauren White, sustainability program manager in the Office of Sustainability

Kendall Sternberg, communications coordinator in the Office of Sustainability

Kendall Sternberg, communications coordinator in the Office of Sustainability

Did you know that between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve, Americans produce 25% more waste than any other time of the year? Or that it takes an area almost as big as Manhattan to grow the 15 million Christmas trees that get tossed out each year after their brief stints in living rooms across the nation?

If you're looking to make your holiday season just a little greener – and therefore kinder to the Earth – read on for tips from experts at the Office of Sustainability.

Lighter holiday meals

Up to 40% of the food produced in the U.S. ends up in the landfill, costing each household $1,866 each year, according to the Department of Agriculture.

"A lot of food waste happens this time of year, and we're all guilty of it," says Trevor Ledbetter, director of the Office of Sustainability.

Rather than having food end up in a landfill, where it produces methane, a greenhouse gas much stronger than carbon dioxide, consumers can give it a second life by diverting it to composting, Ledbetter says.

Ledbetter's team oversees Compost Cats, which offers two scrap collection and composting programs in Tucson: the Bucket Program for households and the FoodCycle Program for small businesses.

In fiscal year 2022, the FoodCycle initiative diverted nearly 1 million pounds of food waste from local businesses, including the Arizona Student Unions.

"Not only do we reduce the carbon impact of that food waste by keeping it out of the landfill, but we also are creating a nutrient-rich soil amendment that can then be incorporated in people's gardens and into the parks around the city," he explains. "The Compost Cats program is a great resource for home composting your everyday kitchen scraps."

Households can participate by signing up for the Bucket Program.

"We can't take your leftover turkey carcass or a whole chunk of ham, but we can accept small amounts of leftover meat and dairy, and we have no problem with citrus and banana peels," Ledbetter says. "Basically, anything that you could – in theory – eat."

Find more holiday composting tips on the @uarizona_compostcats Instagram account.

How to recycle non-recyclable packaging

Saving, recycling and reusing plastic and glass food containers helps cut down on waste, too.

Ledbetter's tip: When in doubt, throw it out! If you're not sure whether something can be recycled, avoid "wish-cycling" it, or recycling items because you hope they can be recycled.

Metallic or glitter-embellished wrapping paper is not recyclable, for example, and should be thrown away, not placed in your recycling bin.

Better yet: Don't buy those types of wrapping paper.    

Be festive without wasting energy

If you celebrate Christmas, consider an alternative to the traditional tree. This writer's personal favorite is the "Southwest-style" Christmas tree: a dry flower stalk from a century plant after it has dispersed its seeds. If you have the room to store it, you can reuse it year after year.

"In our office, we keep a little live tree that serves as our nondenominational, 'universal' holiday tree," says Lauren White, the office's sustainability program manager. "We just put ornaments or any kind of decor on it any time of year. You can do the same with a fiddle leaf fig tree, a succulent or any houseplant. It's fun to make new traditions with what you already have."   

If you decide to have a traditional tree, you might be faced with choosing between a real or fake Christmas tree, which is not an easy decision, according to Ledbetter.

"There are quite a few statistics out there about how many times you would have to use an artificial tree in order to equal the environmental impact of its production, or to counter that of a real tree," he says. "As with a lot of sustainability issues, you're sort of trading off one environmental impact for another."

His recommendation: Find an artificial tree at a thrift store at a bargain price, which provides the added bonus of knowing you've given something a second life. And if you do decide to get a natural tree, be sure to dispose of it properly by participating in the city of Tucson's annual TreeCycle program.

For decoration, LED holiday lights consume less energy than traditional bulbs, White says. She also looks for sustainably sourced candles, such as ethical beeswax or soy candles rather than petroleum-based ones, which are fossil fuel intensive.

"Clean-burning candles are much better for your indoor air quality and respiratory health, too," she says, adding that nontoxic candles can be a bit pricier.

White also suggests moving away from disposable plastic decorations and vinyl tablecloths and instead opting for reusable, natural alternatives when possible.

"Found objects like pine cones, holiday card 'garlands' and living plants like poinsettias make for great decorations," she says. "You can even use things like dried bitter orange slices from your neighborhood tree for ornaments, instead of chintzy baubles – although we all have chintzy baubles that we love dearly and use year after year. And that's really the main thing – shifting from this model of using things once and throwing them out."

When your holiday plans include travel, she suggests carpooling with friends or loved ones, or purchasing carbon offsets if your budget allows.

"Offsets for an average domestic flight – 2,000 miles and three hours of travel time – run about $20 or so," she says. "It's one way to make your holiday travel a little bit lighter on the planet."

Guilt-free gifting

This is where you can get really creative, White says. If you have the storage space, hold onto the gift wrap, tissue paper and cardboard boxes you receive over the course of the year,  as well as decorative bags, ribbons, bows and other materials. Reusing them will help you reduce the amount you spend on wrapping gifts over the holidays.

"Cloth napkins, scarves or tea towels, newspapers, ads, paper grocery bags, glass jars, reusable totes and clean shoeboxes all make for great wrapping options," White says. "Just using utility twine, yarn or some kind of a natural material instead of a plastic bow is a good place to start."

When buying gifts, White says, shop locally for secondhand or upcycled goods and consider making handmade gifts to reduce shipping and packaging waste.

Here's another tip from the writer: Rather than giving material goods, choose meaningful, memorable experiences for family and friends. Quality time spent together is a treasure in itself, we well as inflation-proof.

Cheers to a cleaner 2023

The team at the Office of Sustainability invites the campus community to get involved with the University's first-ever Sustainability and Climate Action Plan, which will be launched in 2023. The plan aligns with the University strategic plan's goal for main campus to reach carbon neutrality by 2040 or sooner (Institutional Excellence initiative 5.4A1).

"We will be looking at a wide range of sustainability topics like water, waste, teaching and learning outcomes and transportation, and setting up goals that we can start working toward as an institution. And then doing very much the same on the climate side and really looking at what needs to be done," Ledbetter says. "We would love for the campus community to stay tuned and participate by coming to our town halls, filling out our surveys and letting us know what your priorities are for campus sustainability."

Kendall Sternberg, communications coordinator in the Office of Sustainability, points out that a core mission of the office is to empower students.

"Many of the ideas that that we're putting out there, as well as a lot of the designs we use in our social media campaigns, come from students," he says. "Oftentimes when people are wondering how to get involved with sustainability on campus, we find that you can just ask a student, because so many of them here are pretty involved in that area. It's definitely something that they're pretty passionate about."

To learn more about the Sustainability and Climate Action Plan, send an email to

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