How students can sustainably celebrate the holidays

Photo by Liz Kaye | Indiana University
Photo by Liz Kaye | Indiana University

During the holiday season, it can feel impossible to practice sustainable habits. With increases in travel emissions and the usage of non-recyclable single use products, the effects can pile up quickly. 

“The Office of Sustainability identifies and promotes sustainable solutions that reduce environmental impacts while supporting an equitable and prosperous IUPUI, now and into the future,” said Jessica Davis, the interim university director of sustainability for IUPUI and IU Bloomington. “We do this work by infusing a culture of sustainability across our main working areas of operations, engagement, and academics.”

Davis expressed that the holiday season is one of the biggest environmentally impactful times of the year and that it is important to reduce these impacts wherever possible. 

A major impact can be seen in the fact that many people, such as college students, are traveling to visit loved ones for the holidays. Davis referenced a CNBC article from November 2021, which states that 43% of adults, or roughly 53.4 million people, in the U.S. were planning to travel between Thanksgiving and New Years. These numbers have also displayed a major increase from 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, to now. 

According to TSA’s checkpoint travel numbers database, only around six million people traveled by plane in the U.S. during the week of Thanksgiving in 2020. In 2022, the numbers bounced back up to 15 million people who took flights during Thanksgiving week. 

For recommendations on how to minimize your environmental footprint while traveling, the IU Green Travel Guide contains tips on booking carbon conscious flights and smaller ways you can work towards sustainable travel. 

Along with increases in the amount of travel during the holidays, there is also a significant increase in the amount of waste created by the U.S.. Between Thanksgiving and New Years, Americans throw away around 25% more trash, resulting in around 25 million tons of garbage. 

As gift wrapping and packaging can be a major contributing factor to this increase in output, Davis recommends being intentional with your gift giving. Davis suggests choosing gifts for loved ones that are both meaningful and sustainable, such as experiences or consumable items. These unique gifts reduce wrapping waste and can be very personalized. Concert and movie tickets can be a great way to spend time with your loved one. Your time also makes for a great sustainable gift, whether that be through offering to help your loved one with their day to day, such as cooking and cleaning; or through providing a service like babysitting or yard service. Giving consumable items, such as gift cards to their favorite stores or restaurants, is another way to eliminate waste.  

Along with the ability to gift more sustainably during the holidays, you can share ways to be more sustainable with family and friends. Davis suggests opening dialogue with loved ones on alternatives to traditional gifts, such as spending time together doing something fun, rather than opting for physical presents.

“The holidays present a unique opportunity to talk about sustainability with our loved ones,” Davis said. “Among your group of friends or family, you can discuss gifts – whether they are necessary and how you can minimize your environmental footprint.” 

If you are purchasing gifts this holiday season, you can show support for businesses and companies that are making a point to practice sustainability. Examples of businesses attempting to be sustainable could include those using reusable packaging, or those showing support to environmentally friendly causes, through donations or fundraising. 

Another great opportunity to be environmentally friendly is to shop at local small businesses instead of major corporations. A resource from Michigan State University states that for every $100 you spend at a local business, $73 of that supports your local economy, versus the $43 that stays local when buying from non-local businesses. Shopping small can eliminate shipping emissions and packaging waste that may be caused from not shopping locally. Many local businesses have unique and personal items, making perfect presents for loved ones. 


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