Pollution Prevention for the Holidays

December. The hallmark of the holiday season is upon us once again as we have completed yet another cycle around the sun. Many of you are likely going home for the holidays, visiting your loved ones, and exchanging gifts with one another. This month is often busy all around as you are finishing up the semester, trying to buy last minute gifts, and racing home for the holidays, however far you all may live. December can be a hectic month, making it  difficult to remain sustainable and reduce pollution when you are so busy worrying about other things. Yet, this does not mean that it is impossible to remain sustainable throughout the holiday season. 

How is December a huge contributor to national pollution rates? On the East Coast, the temperatures begin to drop in December. As temperatures cool, people are more likely to use their electric or wood burning fireplaces (BiofriendlyPlanet). This causes an increase in energy consumption as well as greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide that transfer into the atmosphere. More people also travel during the holidays to go on vacation, meet up with their friends, or see their family. In doing so, this often increases the amount of cars on the road which induces pollution rates because more fossil fuels and greenhouse gasses are being emitted into the atmosphere and surrounding environment. A very simple solution to this problem could be carpooling or even taking public transportation. If your friends or coworkers are going home for the holidays and live nearby, see if you can drive with them. It can be fun to have another person in the car, especially when you have a long drive ahead of you. You can even offer your friends a ride home or to the bus or train station. Public transportation is a great way to relieve the stress of pollution on the environment because it reduces the amount of cars that are on the road and often allows people who do not own a vehicle a way to get to where they need to be. There are many ways to reduce our pollution caused by vehicles, most of them can be fun and easy because they allow us to hang out with our friends for longer and make us feel good about reducing our carbon footprint on the planet.

Holiday meals are one of the top contributors to holiday pollution. According to Sustainable America, “household waste increases by more than 25% from Thanksgiving to New Years”.  This means that over the holiday season there is an increase in food that gets discarded. The food gets thrown into the trash because it goes bad or people have too many leftovers that they can not finish. How can we mitigate this? Making shopping lists, freezing leftovers, only cooking the amount of food you will eat, and taking inventory of what you have in your home are all great ways to reduce your food waste, especially during this season (MedicalNewsToday). If you do have food leftover after holiday meals you can also make compost! Composting is great for gardening purposes. When the spring rolls around you can use it to start your garden for the new year! 

The University of Maine has programs that work with reducing food waste on campus. One such  program is Food Recovery which is a collaboration with UMaine Dining, Green Campus Initiative and the Black Bear Exchange. The Black Bear Exchange is a food pantry and clothing swap that works to help the community combat food insecurity. GCI, Green Team, S.E.A.D, and a few other sustainable groups on campus work with the Food Recovery program by collecting leftover food from the dining halls on campus every Friday. They bring the trays to the Black Bear Exchange where the food is packaged and available to students and staff with a valid Maine Card. This program helps reduce food waste by taking leftovers and extra food from the dining halls around the University and saving it for those who need it. Food insecurity is a real challenge that many may face within the community. Food Recovery and the Black Bear Exchange help to support the community as much as they can. 

The holiday season is of course about being able to see our loved ones, whether that is family, friends, or any other people we have close relations with, but let’s be honest, it can also be about the gifts. We give gifts and receive gifts, but let’s think about the materials in which we use to enclose them. Wrapping paper is a common material used to wrap gifts not only for the holidays, but for birthdays, and other gift giving events as well. According to Nicole Rogers from Sustainable America, “8,000 tons of wrapping paper are used at Christmas each year, equating to roughly 50,000 trees”. This does not take into account the amount of wrapping paper that is used during the other holidays of this season or for other celebratory events that may take place over this season and even throughout the year.

Along with this, only certain types of wrapping paper are recyclable as they are not all made of the same material. In particular, “If the wrapping paper has any non-paper adornments, such as glitter, a layer of foil, or other metallic decorations, then it cannot be recycled” says Sophie Hirsh in her article for Green Matters. Many of us might not realize that not all wrapping paper is recyclable, but it is important to distinguish between what is and isn’t recyclable so that we can reduce the amount of pollution during the holidays and just year round in general. Luckily, wrapping paper is not the only material to wrap gifts. You actually don’t need wrapping paper, glue, or tape to wrap gifts and can use materials you may just have lying around your house. 

There are ways that we can make gift boxes that are extremely easy and require minimal resources. Newspaper, cardstock, and printer paper are excellent materials for wrapping gifts. Not only are they often readily available, but they are also all typically recyclable. The site, How Stuff Works, gives an excellent explanation of how to make boxes from pieces of paper. The simple idea is basically using origami to fold two pieces of paper into two respective boxes. These boxes will fit into each other to create one big box with a lid. You can be creative with this too! Add designs and color to the paper, add a ribbon or a bow, sparkles, anything you want to make this gift box your own or for someone else. It is also possible to use paper and wrap a gift without tape or glue at all by wrapping the gift in a way that the paper will fold in like an envelope. A perfect example of this is shown on Martha Stewart’s website in the article, “How to Wrap a Gift Without Tape”. There are a multitude of ways to wrap a gift without using wrapping paper or tape that are both fun, sustainable, and reduce holiday pollution. These are also all ways that utilize resources that we often have at hand in our own homes or dorms!

As we watch our impact on the environment during the holiday season, it is also important to take note that December 2nd is World Pollution Prevention Day! This is a day in December in which people are to take time and be cognizant about the pollution that is occurring on the planet world wide. Pollution can take place in many forms from chemical runoff into bodies of water, plastic in the oceans, fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere, littering, and much more. There are ways in which we can work to prevent an increase in pollution which is what this day focuses on. On campus we can clean up any trash, recycle regularly, participate in sustainable and green programs or clubs. We can also work on carpooling, taking public transportation, and being mindful of our food waste. Remember to be mindful of pollution during this holiday season, but most of all have fun! For more updates from GCI check out our Instagram and Facebook pages!