The holiday season has garnered a reputation as the most wonderful time of the year — and the most wasteful.
Families cook excess food, buy boxes of gifts in plastic packaging to be ripped apart and thrown away, ship goods across the country and load up on single-use wrapping papers and ribbons, all of which contribute to our carbon footprint and the mounting piles of waste in our landfills.
This year, as people social distance to protect themselves from the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic, much of that waste may come from online shopping.
Amazon saw its business surge this year as people staying home bought goods online instead of in person. By the end of June, the company saw a 40% increase in profits compared to the same time last year.
Experts say transporting gifts from online retailers may produce as many or fewer carbon emissions as driving to local stores for individual shopping, but the packaging required for shipping these gifts is immense.
Online shopping accounts for billions of individual packages each year. Each of these packages come in cardboard boxes, many with padded plastic inserts to protect items during shipping. The cardboard alone used to deliver packages each year requires the use of more than one billion trees.
Giving gifts sustainably means considering a myriad of factors, experts say, including where you buy them, what you buy and how you wrap them.
Here’s what you need to know, if you want to minimize the environmental impact of your gift-giving this year.
‘This is tricky this year’
When it comes to the environmental impacts of buying from a local store versus buying online, there’s no simple answer, said Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
It’s a long-standing myth that the energy required to deliver Amazon boxes is much larger than if you were to buy from a local store. But that’s not always the case, Hoover said. In some situations, it would more efficient to have a box delivered from a truck that’s driving many packages at once than it would be to drive out and buy each item on your own.
“There’s not an easy calculus that says it’s always better for the environment to shop online, or it’s always better for the environment to shop at a physical store,” Hoover said. “But there are ways that you can minimize the impact of shopping, no matter where you’re going.”
Americans produce 25% more trash during the holidays. These tips might help.
If you’re shopping online, look for options that will make your delivery more efficient, Hoover said. This could include requesting that all items be packaged in the same box, if you’re buying multiple items, or checking the option for no-rush delivery, if the order isn’t urgent.
Of course, not every online retailer will have these options. In that case, it may make more sense to take one big trip to buy many items in person, Hoover said. If possible, bring your own reusable bag to cut back on plastic and paper use.
An added bonus of shopping locally is that your dollars are being put back into the local economy. This contributes to another kind of sustainability: economic sustainability.
Shellye Suttles, an assistant researcher with Indiana University’s Ostrom Workshop, said economic sustainability is becoming more recognized as a necessary pillar to overall sustainability, alongside environmental, cultural and social sustainability.
“It’s about… making sure that you’re improving local livelihoods, creating opportunities for equity and for women’s entrepreneurship, minority entrepreneurship,” Suttles said. “This economic pillar is also important.”
The impact of shopping locally may be even more important this year. Local businesses have been hit hard by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, and more than 100,000 across the country have shuttered their doors permanently. Many continue to avoid in-person shopping as a way to limit their exposure to the virus.
“This is tricky this year, right, because we all kind of need to do online shopping and avoid in-person contact thanks to COVID,” said Allyson Mitchell, executive director of the Indiana Recycling Coalition. “So if you want to be COVID safe, but also avoid packaging, you might find yourself perplexed or at least challenged in some way.”
But it shouldn’t stop you from buying local, if that’s what you choose, Mitchell said. A lot of local stores offer curbside pickup options, shopping appointments or limited-capacity shopping hours.
This year may also be the year to consider a virtual gift, Hoover said. Experiences, especially virtual ones such as online cooking classes, performances or subscriptions, may mean even more this year as people look for ways to keep busy from home, she said.
“In that case, you’ve got a lot of gifts that maybe don’t even need wrapping, they may just be completely virtual,” Hoover said. “And so you don’t have to go and buy them and have any transport energy, whether it’s your own vehicle or a delivery vehicle, and you don’t have to have the packaging.”
Researching the companies you’re purchasing from can also help you buy gifts from brands committed to lowering their environmental footprint, said Jiyun Kang, associate professor of consumer science at Purdue University.
A large portion of holiday waste comes from elaborate gift wrapping and household decorations — millions of pounds of it each year, in fact.
At the Indiana Recycling Coalition, Mitchell said, they especiallyfocus this time of year on educating people how they can wrap gifts and be festive without the waste.
First, Mitchell said to avoid anything that can’t be recycled, which includes any gift box, bag or wrapping paper with glitter or foil, as well as disposable plastic ribbons. Then, she suggests reusing any wrapping paper or gift bags that are still in good shape.
If you’re short on wrapping paper, Hoover suggests taking a look around the house: spare sheets of newspaper (we recommend the Indianapolis Star), leftover wall calendars, maps and catalogs can be used to wrap a gift just as well.
Cloth gift bags that can be reused each year are also a great option, Mitchell said, especially if you have extra fabric from all of that face mask-making this year.
“For the people who gained a new skill set, learning how to sew thanks to COVID masks, they could keep that sewing machine going strong by making very simple fabric bags,” Mitchell said.
It’s important to note that just because something is recyclable doesn’t mean it’s environmentally friendly to buy it and then use it only once, Hoover said.
“It is better for the environment to reuse something before you recycle it,” Hoover said. “Recycling is, of course, way better than putting something in the landfill, but recycling still takes some energy to transport and process the materials… If you can avoid that resource use by reusing something, that’s preferable.”
If it seems like there’s a lot of factors to keep in mind if you want to shop sustainably, it’s because there are. This year more than any other year, Mitchell said, it might be just as important to cut yourself a break.
“We’ve got layers upon layers of challenges,” Mitchell said. “And so it’s difficult to try to get all those done all the time, so do your best… Your creativity and your willingness to do something personal will will mean even more in 2020.”
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IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.