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Saturday, January 22, 2022

UC Davis community shares tips for more sustainable holiday season

To navigate holiday consumerism, here’s a guide to reducing its environmental consequences

By MAYA SHYDLOWSKI — features@theaggie.org

From potluck dinners to gift-giving traditions, navigating the holidays sustainably can be challenging, but these tips and tricks can help you minimize waste, reduce your carbon footprint and have a more eco-friendly holiday season.

A telltale sign that the holidays are coming is when Trader Joe’s trades their pumpkin spice cookies for peppermint candy cane, which means making lists, checking them twice — and finding out if your budget has been naughty or nice. In addition to considering budget when making those lists, it is important to also take note of the environmental impact of gift purchasing and receiving. 

Alana Webre, a fourth-year environmental policy and planning major, is the Student Sustainability Career Fair (SSCF) committee chair and the Green Workplace coordinator for UC Davis’ Office of Sustainability. Webre suggested that to reduce food waste at holiday parties, guests can coordinate and plan their potluck contributions, so they do not end up with five plates of gingersnaps or peppermint bark. She also suggested making food from scratch, which helps avoid the plastic waste that many prepackaged foods are wrapped in. 

Webre said that she knows that getting the whole family to prioritize eco-friendly celebrations is not always possible, but that she, and other college students, can take small actions themselves. This year, Webre’s contribution to a more sustainable Thanksgiving feast was a homemade pie.

“I know one of the main issues with trying to reduce food waste during the holidays is that there are a lot of members of the family who may not be as environmentally conscious as college students,” Webre said. “And there’s also a lot of traditions surrounding the holidays, as we all know, so many people may not want to change their ways.” 

As Webre mentioned, multiple family members might really want to prepare their “famous green bean casserole,” but when possible, coordinating who’s bringing what to a meal is helpful to minimize food spoilage and surplus.

Ned Spang, an associate professor of food science and technology, researches food waste and how to minimize it.

“There’s lots of reasons for food loss and waste across the supply chain, whether it’s at distributors or restaurants or retail, and even in our own homes,” Spang said. “And part of that is, you know, we have a very robust food system; we have lots of food available to us. It’s relatively cheap to us in the United States.” 

He said that timing is key to minimizing food loss. The food has to be the correct amount of ripeness or otherwise unspoiled. The amount of food also has to match the market demand in order to minimize losses. If these factors don’t add up, then food gets thrown out. This is just the food wasted in the middle of the supply chain, but similar reasons can lead to waste on the consumer side of the food chain as well. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, between 30 to 40% of food is wasted in the U.S. Consumer waste can come from food rotting or expiring before use or from being thrown away. Spang said that one way to reduce the waste that comes from leftovers is to preplan a use for them, like in a soup or stir-fry, so that they don’t inevitably get thrown out after the holiday meal. Especially before holiday parties and events, people tend to buy and prepare food in excess because a host doesn’t want to run out of food when they have guests over, so Spang suggests buying in smaller quantities and meal planning before grocery shopping.

There are also ways to talk to family members about switching to more sustainable holiday practices, even though it can be difficult. Kelli O’Day, the assessment program manager for the UC Davis Office of Sustainability, said that there are many online resources with suggestions for how to have a more environmentally conscious holiday and reduce waste in general. She suggested that students pick and choose how to introduce new sustainable practices to their holiday celebrations and that it can be an incremental process.

“​​There is a lot of information to consider when trying to be more sustainable during the holidays, which can be overwhelming,” O’Day said. “Try to pick one or two actions to adopt at first, so you can take time to research accordingly and hopefully adopt practices that you can stick with year after year.”

For hosting events, the Office of Sustainability suggests decorating with reusable decorations, putting up clear signage for recycling and compost bins, serving food and drinks in bulk rather than individually packaged meals and encouraging guests to bring their own tupperware for leftovers. To reduce the carbon footprint of a meal, they suggest buying locally grown or produced food, as well as buying meats from sustainable and ethical farms — and even incorporating some plant-based options. 

O’Day also gave some tips for more sustainable gift giving and other holiday traditions. Instead of gifting a physical present, she suggests giving experiences, like tickets to a concert or a planned day trip. If — and when — people do opt for physical gifts, O’Day said that buying from local and minority-owned businesses and finding products that are sustainable or fair trade certified is best.  And because people have shifted toward shopping online, she suggests ordering ahead of time to avoid overnight or rushed shipping, which has a larger carbon footprint than standard shipping. 

Some other practices she suggests help save money too. Setting up a Secret Santa gift exchange means buying one gift rather than a gift for everyone in the group. Wrapping presents in recycled grocery bags or newspapers, or not wrapping at all, reduces waste while also saving a couple extra dollars. Although there are pros and cons to either option, buying a fake tree over a freshly cut tree can reduce expenses in the long run since it can be reused every year. O’Day also suggests using LED lights, which reduce energy consumption — and your energy bill. 

When it comes to holiday shopping, it is important to keep longevity in mind. The cheapest option at the moment may be the more expensive option in the long run. Cheaper clothes, especially from online sites, are usually lower quality and wear down or break more quickly than high-quality clothes. Try to give gifts that will last longer and include a gift receipt to ensure the clothes — or other gifts — will actually be used.

Of course, like all other times of the year, having a completely sustainable holiday season is not easy — or feasible for many. Frankie Veverka, a fourth-year human development major with a minor in sustainability in the built environment, suggested that this year, making small changes to holiday traditions that lessen their environmental impact can help.

“Little lifestyle changes help,” Veverka said. “You don’t need to go completely zero-waste to make a difference. You just have to add some little changes in your everyday routine like using a reusable water bottle, eating locally sourced food and shopping small and local.”

Written by: Maya Shydlowski-Besmer — features@theaggie.org

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