Let’s just start with this: On a scale of Buddy the Elf to the Grinch, I see myself as Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from Jingle All the Way in terms of Christmas spirit. I find holiday decorations, gifts, movies, music and travel exhausting, but I endure it with a toothy smile and twitchy eye because it seems to make my family happy.

However, calculating the carbon cost of holiday decorations is pushing me further toward Grinch-hood. Just think about all the plastic ornaments, lights, non-recyclable wrapping paper, and fake holly/wreaths/trees/garland all splattered with tons and tons of horrible glitter. As sparkly and festive as it may be, it all takes a toll on the environment.

According to Standford University, my Grinchiness is not unfounded. Americans discard 25% more garbage – a million extra tons per week – between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. If you are ready to part with holiday decorations, consult this Ask Umbra article by Grist to see how to properly dispose of your purchases of Christmas’s past.

So how do we turn the yuletide of Christmas pollution? Let’s start with the big item, the tree.

What’s the greenest type of Christmas tree?

When it comes to Christmas trees, the three main options are artificial, cut and live. There are hundreds of articles comparing the eco-friendliness of artificial and real trees readily available via Google, so here’s the bottom line:

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Washington-grown Christmas trees at City People’s Garden Store in Seattle.
  • Artificial trees are environmentally costly to make and ship, and may contain lead. Depending on who you ask, it takes between five and 20 years of use to match the environmental costs of buying a cut tree every year. At best, they’ll end up in a landfill and eventually contribute to plastic rain.
  • Real trees are usually farmed and may be grown with pesticides. They are more Earth-friendly than artificial trees, especially if purchased locally and organically. They can (and should) be composted or recycled into mulch after the holidays. Here’s how to dispose of them in Washington’s major urban areas.
  • Live trees are dug up instead of cut and are transported with roots and soil intact. They require a good deal of care and should only be inside for a week at most. However, they can be planted or potted after the holidays and used for several years, making them the best option for the environment. Check your local nursery for live Christmas trees. I’ve confirmed that Swanson’s and Squak Mt. Nursery are both carrying them this year, but cannot take them back and donate them like years past.

If you’re looking to go even Earth-friendlier, check out Greenmoxie’s 35 DIY Christmas Trees made from Recycled Materials.

Which boughs of holly are jolliest?

As for garland, boughs, wreaths, mistletoe and the like, the pros and cons are pretty similar. Artificial holiday decorations are made of petroleum-based plastics, but can be reused for many years. Meanwhile, natural evergreen or holly boughs can be recycled with the tree, but only last one holiday season. I haven’t done the math – and I wouldn’t know where to begin – but I assume natural is more eco-friendly by a slim margin.

Here’s what tips the scales in favor of natural holiday decorations, and this applies to trees and other decorations as well. Where is the money going? The fact that artificial trees and garland are widely available through Amazon (who has no place in an Earth-friendly holidays) and big box stores should be a red flag. On the other hand, small shops and nurseries tend to sell locally grown trees, fresh boughs and other natural holiday decorations. Here are some of my favorite nurseries around Seattle:

What to expect while shopping for holiday decorations at a small business

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An evergreen billy goat at Wells Medina Nursery.
  • Incredible customer service. Nurseries are typically slow this time of year, giving employees more time to learn about the product and share that information with customers. Big box stores are loud, busy and staffed with seasonal employees.
  • Sticker shock. Mathematically, smaller stores can’t charge what Amazon and big box stores can. However, consider the quality and source of the products, and who you are supporting with the purchase.
  • Craftsmanship. Over time, nursery buyers get to know local growers and vendors with truly amazing products. In some cases, the nursery staff jumps in on production too, like the folks at Wells Medina Nursery did with this one-of-a-kind evergreen billy goat. Talk about locally made.

Honestly, we’re probably splitting the hairs of Earth-friendliness by comparing real and fake Christmas greens, but where you purchase these holiday decorations is a world of difference. Just like gift shopping, this is an opportunity to support your community and reduce shipping emissions by shopping locally.

DIY is the Way to Go

As for ornaments, bows and knick-knacks, the market for recyclable holiday decorations is abysmal. Instead of buying new ornaments from big box stores, look to the internet for ideas of how to make your own decorations using recycled materials. Make it a tradition with your friends and family. In my house, the crappy-looking handmade ornaments go the on tree first. From toilet paper rolls to wine corks to plastic bottles, holiday decorations can turn your trash into treasure and eliminate the need for cheap, plastic, glitter-covered junk to ship across the world.

Since I’m clearly heading for Grinch-dom, I’ll wrap this up with some DIY Christmas decoration inspiration.

And here’s one I did myself last year. One wine barrel, three LED lights, and several hours of drilling and wiring is all it took to make this upcycled beauty that will last for years and years.

Feature photo: Fresh holly and evergreen snippets and other natural decorations at Bellevue Nursery. Photo by Sam Wigness.