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Hennepin County’s sustainable holiday checklist

Want to celebrate the season sustainably? Use our Holiday Checklist as inspiration to create a sustainability To-Do list of your own. It’s filled with sustainable holiday tips and suggestions for reducing waste generated by seasonal celebrations and gift giving.

Our advice on how to act on the Sustainable Holiday Checklist is to start with what you can manage. Remember, it’s not about being perfect; it’s about doing what you can to make meaningful progress. And know this: Every action you take will be a gift to the planet, your community, and to future generations.

Holiday wreath

Sustainable holiday shopping tips

  • Shop at thrift stores. Whether you’re shopping for gifts or anything else holiday-related, try first to buy secondhand. You’ll prevent usable items from going to the trash, and you’ll save money over buying new.
  • Shop local. You’ll reduce the amount of resources consumed by transporting items from faraway distances while supporting local businesses.
  • When buying online, shop in advance so that you can avoid 2-day or rush shipping. Opting for slower shipping gives the seller more time to schedule deliveries more efficiently.
  • Give gifts that promote sustainability. Consider a cookbook with recipes for leftovers, or a reusable carryout container.
  • Gift the gift of experiences. The last thing many people want is more stuff to crowd their home. So give them an experience instead – such as tickets to a sporting event, play or concert; a zoo or museum membership; a gift certificate to a favorite restaurant; or simply a homemade dinner.
  • Give the gift of a charitable donation. If you know of a charity that your gift recipient supports, they would love it if you made a donation in their name. (By the way, there are plenty of charities whose mission is to advance sustainability!)
  • Adopt the one-gift practice. To avoid over-giving, many families draw names as part of a one-gift rule, so instead of giving a gift to every member of your family (or circle of friends), you give a gift only to the person whose name you have drawn. This is a great way to prevent waste.
  • Make your own gifts. Sure, it’s more effort, but it can be so much more meaningful to give something truly personal. Consider edible gifts like breads, cakes, cookies, nut mixes, canned goods, pickles, or herbed vinegars. Or deploy your arts and crafts talents to knit a scarf, crochet a hat, make a painting, or design homemade jewelry. The options are endless!
  • Instead of buying a gift, give your time and talent to a loved one. Devoting a day to someone special can be among the most meaningful of gifts.
  • Purchase gifts that are long-lasting, reusable or recyclable.
  • Only purchase gifts that you KNOW the recipient will want. It may require a little more research and probing on our part, but you’ll end up giving a gift that’s truly appreciated.
  • Look for gifts that don’t require batteries. If you can’t resist giving a product that needs batteries, include a pack of rechargeable batteries along with the gift.
  • Bring your own reusable tote bag when shopping. Just say no to plastic!
  • Stuff stockings with delicious natural treats vs. plastic-wrapped items.
  • Give gift cards (Better yet, give electronic gift cards). Gift cards make it easy for the recipient to choose something they truly want.

Woman wrapping cactus in homemade crochet pot

Gift wrap, holiday cards & packaging tips

  • Wrap gifts in reusable bags. This is a great way to cut down on the use of wrapping paper, much of which is unrecyclable due to its shiny coatings, foils and colors. 
  • Make the wrapping part of the gift. Giving someone gardening supplies? Include a gardening pot in the gift and use that as the vessel for everything else. Or if you’re giving food items, perhaps include a mixing bowl or stockpot as part of the gift. 
  • Reuse gift bags/baskets you already have. Save clothing boxes, ribbons, bows and wrapping paper and use them the following year.
  • Buy holiday cards that are made from recycled paper. Even better, buy ones that direct a portion of the profit to a worthy organization.
  • Only use the amount of wrap that you need. Here’s a neat trick: Loop string around gift boxes, then lay it out on the wrapping paper to determine exactly how much to cut for your gift wrap.
  • Wrap unconventionally! Wrap with old maps, the comics section of a newspaper, children’s artwork, or pages from magazines you may have lying around. Or use scarves, dish towels, bandanas or some useful cloth item that’s a gift in and of itself.
  • Plan your shopping in advance to reduce the number of trips you have to make.
  • Use eco-friendly packaging when shipping gifts. sells a wide variety of environmentally friendly packaging and shipping materials. But first, look around your home and use items you may already have on hand. Whatever you do, try to avoid Styrofoam or plastic.

Close up of hands holding present wrapped in burlap and twine

Holiday decorations & Christmas tree tips

  • Use Energy Star qualified LED lights. They’re about 90% more efficient than traditional lights, and they last a lot longer.
  • Look for RoHS compliant lights. They’re certified to contain less lead than conventional lights.
  • Donate holiday lights that you no longer want. Maybe you’re moving from a house to an apartment. Don’t throw out your old lights. Try donating them first.
  • Recycle holiday lights that no longer work. Many big-box stores offer holiday light exchange programs. There are also a number of locations where you can drop off unwanted light strings for recycling. Here is a list of area recycling locations with phone numbers you can call to confirm they’re open and accepting lights.
  • If you need to dispose of holiday string lights, take them to a Hennepin County drop-off location.
  • Before throwing out non-working string lights, make sure a burnt-out bulb isn’t the problem. This will prevent you from having to toss out the whole string. The best way to do this is with a bulb tester.
  • Use timers on your lights. Setting a timer so that lights turn on at dusk and turn off at, say, midnight, is much more efficient than having lights on 24/7.
  • Go light free! Candles, a sky full of stars, and reflecting ornaments and menorahs provide electricity-free cheer.
  • Skip the tinsel for the tree and avoid buying plastic decorations. Anything you can do to reduce your use of plastic and throwaway materials is a great idea!
  • Turn to nature for holiday decorations. Gather evergreen branches, berries, flowers, fresh fruit and other natural items to use as décor, ornaments, and centerpieces, etc.
  • Make edible exterior ornaments. Hang seed bells, suet and pinecones with peanut butter around your yard to feed the local wildlife.
  • Use natural candles. Avoid ones made from petroleum-based wax and instead choose a natural wax, like beeswax. If you like scented candles, consider making a stove simmer as an alternative. The Halfbaked Harvest blog has a simple stove simmer recipe idea.

Family making homemade dried orange slice garlands

Christmas trees, real and artificial

Every year, someone asks which is better environmentally – real or artificial trees? The fact is, there’s no easy answer. It’s all about choices, availability of composting, duration of use and other factors.

If you buy a real tree: Buy ones from local growers to prevent the spread of invasive pests.  Consider buying a potted tree, which can be replanted after the holidays and reused all year long and for years to come. When the holidays are over, check with your waste hauler for disposal options.

If you buy an artificial tree: Buy used! Check out your local thrift store such as Arc’s Value Village for great options.

….or consider no tree at all. Search online and you’ll find great ideas for making Christmas trees out of books, wine bottles, and other materials.

Array of presents wrapped in twine

Holiday food & party tips

  • Plan your menu and calculate how much food you’ll need before you begin meal preparations. This food calculator is an effective way to reduce food waste.
  • Buy and serve locally grown food whenever possible (same for alcohol). Purchasing locally grown food, organic wines and local microbrews helps the environment and the local economy.
  • Cook multiple items in the same oven and run appliances on full loads.
  • Avoid buying individually packaged drinks.
  • Serve your guests with reusable cups, dishware and utensils.
  • Tell your guests to bring reusable containers for leftovers.
  • Compost your scraps.
  • Use ecofriendly food storage. Try swapping out plastic wrap for beeswax wraps, which can be hand-washed and reused. Or consider plastic-free storage like upcycled glass jars or high-quality glass containers.
  • Turn your heat down just before guests arrive. People naturally give off body heat, so reduce your temperature setting by a few degrees. Your guests will keep the temperature stable naturally.

One more suggestion for you: Don’t add to your holiday stress by feeling like you have to adopt all these practices, all at once! This is about changing your habits, so maybe make a few changes this year, and each holiday add a few more. Before long you’ll be a guiding light of sustainability!

Best wishes from all of us at Hennepin County for a joyful holiday season!

Close up of canned fruit in jar with twine wrap holding note that says, Happy Christmas