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International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

Fossil Fuels and Festivities: The Environmental Impact of Winter Holidays

Winter holiday activities increase global carbon footprint drastically
Bryn Soven/International Dateline

Everyone loves the winter holidays. It’s the ideal break from school, a chance to catch up with family and travel away from D.C.’s freezing winter. Yet many travelers often ignore winter travel’s drastic impact on the environment.

Around 1,400 extra pounds of carbon dioxide is emitted per person during the holiday season, on top of an already significant individual carbon footprint. This is equivalent to three weeks of continuous driving by car and 3.8% of any individual’s average annual footprint. The extra emissions are due to holiday activities such as travel, shopping, food production and chopping down Christmas trees.

Planet Home reports that during the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, over one million extra tons of waste are generated every week.

The most obvious reason for such a drastic jump during the holidays is gift waste. Around 93%of people in the U.S. celebrate Christmas and one of the biggest elements of Christmas is gift-giving. Yet, around $16 billion worth of holiday gifts are thrown away, along with all unsold seasonal decorations, gifts, food and more from stores.

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Similarly, the food purchased during the holiday season is also highly prone to being wasted.

“In many cultures, eating together is an indispensably important social ritual, signifying the intentional laboring, care, and coming-together of people,” according to Population Education.  “Unfortunately, however, it often results in uneaten food, and food waste during the holidays is a big problem.”

In addition to Christmas, in the span of a single Thanksgiving, the U.S. generated carbon emissions equal to driving 1.1 billion miles by car. Thanksgiving celebrations also produce significant food waste. 172 million pounds of turkey and 40 million pounds of mashed potatoes are wasted annually during Thanksgiving. The environmental impact of Thanksgiving celebrations is a stark reminder of the need for more sustainable practices during the holidays.

Another major producer of holiday waste comes from packaging. Shopping bags, receipts and shipping boxes often end up in landfills. There is also the growing problem of the difficulty of recycling wrapping paper as it is usually thin and full of ink, so additional chemicals are needed to extract fibers for recycling.Trendy wrapping paper that contains glitter or tape is a bigger challenge, as it is not recyclable at all. Additionally, the movement of gifts across the world also have environmental impacts. 

During the holidays, gifts travel quite the distance to be produced and distributed, often crossing oceans before ending up in the recipient’s hands. So do humans,” according to Population Education.

Travel is a major contributor to carbon emissions in general, and it only increases with the vacation season. While on land, choosing to drive over flying when possible is a step towards reducing carbon footprint. Trains or long-distance buses are even more eco-friendly alternatives.

A single person can’t be held responsible for environmental damage done by humans as a whole, but each individual can help reduce it. It’s as simple as changing your gifts to something thrifted or secondhand, an online gift card or an in-person experience. Get creative by repurposing leftover food, shipping boxes and gift bags. Be mindful when decorating and don’t buy something you’re only going to use once. 

“Once we start to act, hope is everywhere,” Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunburg, said. “So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.” 

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