7 Sustainable Decor Ideas for the Winter Holidays

The holiday season is a time for festivities and cheer, but it’s also a time for waste. A 2021 study found that 60% of Americans waste more during the holiday season than any other time of year; 43% more, in fact, among those who celebrate a winter holiday. Before heading out for a new batch of decorations this year, consider what you already have, what you can make, and what alternatives to traditional plastic- and resource-heavy decor you can use instead. 

1. Consider the Christmas Tree

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For those who celebrate Christmas, it’s hard to imagine the holiday without a tree. But which tree is the greenest?

The great Real vs Artificial tree debate is multi-layered and complicated, but, generally, real trees bought locally and recycled are considered the most sustainable option. Plastic trees had to be produced, packaged, and shipped to reach your festive living room, and they’re usually hard or impossible to recycle at the end of their life. An artificial tree would need to be used for 10-12 years to match the carbon footprint of a real tree (one that is composted instead of sent to a landfill, that is). Real trees, on the other hand, provide habitats, benefit watersheds, and clean the air as they grow, and are usually replaced when they’re cut down. Moreover, they’re often grown on farms – not chopped down from wild stands – that are unsuitable for other crops. 

Even more sustainable than the cut tree is the potted tree. Why buy a new tree every year when you can buy one and keep it for a decade? Small potted trees are available at many grocery stores, and larger ones can be found at garden centers. Before purchasing, consider how much available space you have outdoors when you bring it back outside after the holiday season, as well as your Hardiness Zone and what species of tree can survive there. Remember too that the tree will get shocked if you move it directly from your warm, cozy living room to the frigid outdoors, so transition it slowly by exposing it to the cold for a few hours a day, gradually increasing the time. If you don’t want to care for a potted tree all year, you can rent one instead. Businesses like Rent a Living Christmas Tree in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California rent potted Christmas trees for 30-day periods, then take care of them in the off-season. 

Or, maybe you don’t need a tree at all. Have an exceptionally large Dracaena or another hardy house plant? Break out the bulbs and decorate the plants already in your home!

2. Make Your Own Holiday Wreath 

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Wreaths are a cheerful decoration for all seasons and holidays, but they can be quite wasteful (and expensive). To make your own, start with a metal base – available at most garden centers – or make your own using an old wire coat hanger or two. Ask for scrap pine boughs or tree cuttings at a Christmas tree shop, and wrap them carefully around the wire. If you’re especially crafty, make it out of paper, pinecones, sticks, or even scrap fabric instead, and the wreath can be used year after year. 

3. Set the Mood With Candles

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Candles are a great decoration for all winter holidays; they add ambiance and are also a functional decoration that can be enjoyed after the holidays too. 

For a menorah, choose sustainable tapers (tall candles) made from plant waxes like soy or beeswax, or buy from local businesses that make them. Some stores and vendors also have refill options for candles that come in containers. 

Better yet, make your own! You’ll need to buy wax and wicks, but you can use whatever contains you have on hand, like empty mason jars or old mugs. Simply anchor the wick in the center of the container with skewers or chopsticks, then pour the wax around it, using a few drops of essential oils for holiday fragrance if you wish. 

4. Try Natural Decor 

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Along with tree-scrap pine boughs, bring the holiday spirit inside with pinecones, berries from holly trees, and other natural items. Drape pinecone garlands around the living room, or use twigs to fashion stars or other festive shapes and hang them around the house. However, refrain from collecting natural decor from local parks or other public places, including along trails; removing these items can be destructive to the native environment (and goes against Leave No Trace principles). Use whatever you can find in your own yard, or ask friends and neighbors if you can scour theirs.

Grocery and garden stores are also full of natural decorations. Potted plants like poinsettias and Christmas cactuses can be enjoyed all year long and brought out to the main room for the holiday. Try edible decor too, scattering nuts, cinnamon sticks, and dried rosemary on tables and mantles. The classic cranberry strings brighten up a room, and dried citrus rounds – like oranges or grapefruits – strung on a piece of twine or ribbon make for a beautiful and well-scented garland to wrap around the Christmas tree or staircase banister. 

5. Go Homemade

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Look at things you already have and consider how they could become festive decorations. Upcycled jars are a great place to start: paint the outside with glitter or a holiday scene and put a tealight inside, or fill with some solar-powered string lights. Place new or leftover taper candles into the mouth of upcycled wine bottles for a waste-free candlestick; fill the bottle with ribbon or some wrapping paper to add extra flair. Instead of buying new sets of ornaments, try your hand at some crochet stars, or origami holiday figures made with old wrapping paper ends. If those crafty skills are out of your reach, try making salt dough ornaments instead. Add two parts white flour to 1 part table salt (a great use for extra or expiring ingredients), and mix with 1 part water. Knead the dough for a few minutes before rolling it out and cutting shapes, and cut a small hole in the top for the string. Press other natural decorations into them if you wish, like evergreen leaves, dried herbs or more flour to look like snow. Dry them out in a dehydrator, oven, or leave out for several days before running twine or ribbon through the hole and hanging them up.

6. Green Gift Wrapping

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The classic pile of matching wrapped gifts is a decoration in itself, but upcycled paper can still look uniform! Use dismantled brown paper bags from shopping trips, or the tissue paper and packing materials (including cardboard boxes) that come in mailed packages. If the matching look isn’t a big deal for you, hold on to magazines and newspapers, or scour the house for other paper items you don’t need, like maps or scrap paper. Some festive touches – like ribbon, twine, or pine boughs – will add extra flair.

If you’re willing to make a small investment, reusable wrapping paper is the way to go. Furoshiki – traditional Japanese wrapping cloth – can be used over and over again, and there are different techniques for wrapping gifts of all sizes with one sheet of fabric. Buy a set of matching pieces to use year after year, rather than buying disposable paper. 

7. Thrift or Swap Decorations 

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The home goods section of a thrift store is a treasure trove for holiday decorations. Thrifting is great if you’re looking for specific holiday items, like a doormat or dishware. Or, bring out the decorations you don’t need and swap with friends. Roll it into another fun holiday activity, like a cookie-decorating party, or even Thanksgiving.