From electricity usage to piles of presents and an overload of food, this time of year can take a toll on the environment. Virginia Tech sustainability expert  Jennifer Russell says even though it isn’t always what we want to hear during the holidays, it is really the “abundance” that is a challenge for sustainability.

“Cutting back on the abundance is one of the most critical things we can do to make the holiday season more sustainable,” says Russell, who shared these five tips.

1. Cut back on single-use and disposable items. Avoid using excessive wrapping, packaging, plates, cups,  cutlery, and other trinkets that we know will go into a garbage can the day after the celebration. Many wrapping papers now indicate if they are “recyclable” on the package – try to buy these products and then make sure they go  into the recycling bin.

2. Reduce the distance your food has to travel. As much as possible, try to buy your holiday food items from local producers and retailers. This goes a long way to supporting people in your community and to cutting back on hundreds of miles of truck transport and distribution center hauling.

3. Reduce the distance your gifts have to travel. Similar to food decisions, many of the gifts we find in common retail stores or online are manufactured thousands of miles away and have to be transported by ship, rail, and truck to reach us. Check out the gift options available from companies and small businesses located in your community, state, and region. This extra effort also helps small business owners and communities to grow stronger – and sustainability includes social and economic considerations.

4. Aim for Net-Zero food waste. Whether you aim to have “zero” food waste by buying less, preparing less, encouraging healthy serving sizes, planning for leftovers, or by engaging local community members (check out to find a composting neighbor near you), try to cut back on the food that is going into your garbage can. 

5. Aim for quality, not quantity. A low price doesn’t always lead to a good experience, especially if it means that a gift may break sooner than expected. Quality doesn’t have to be expensive – there are hundreds of consignment and resale markets online and in your community that have high-quality, unique, and more affordable options.

Christmas trees: real or fake?

When it comes to purchasing a real or fake Christmas tree for your home, Russell says it’s really about understanding the trade offs because both have environmental impacts. “Natural trees require land, fertilizer, heavy equipment, time, and lots of water during their life cycles before they become the trees we place in our homes,” she explains. “Manufactured trees are made from mined and synthetic (e.g., plastic) materials and require factories, large equipment, and global supply chains during their life cycles.”

To help you make that decision, Russell points to a 2018 Life Cycle Analysis conducted for the American Christmas Tree Association. “It indicated that, in general, the environmental impacts of an artificial tree would only be preferable to a natural tree if it is used for a period of at least five years, ideally longer.” In other words, if you’re only going to use the fake tree for three years, it’s better to get three natural trees.

Eco-friendly gifts

If you want to do your part by purchasing an eco-friendly gift, Russell says to check out the websites of companies you are thinking about buying from to see what they are doing (or not doing), and make this part of your gift giving process. “Gift-giving should be about more than just what the receiver may like – it can include thoughtful consideration about where that product comes from, how it was made, and how the company plans to use its revenue and influence to keep the sustainability transition moving forward.”

Donate to others

It’s important to remember that many people in our communities have to go without during the holidays. “Think about some of the stuff you already have that is no longer needed. Could it be donated to a shelter or community resource center?” says Russell. Toys are one thing that often fit into this category. “There are organizations like Second Chance Toys that collect, clean, and redistribute gently used toys. TerraCycle is another that partners with toy manufacturers to offer nationwide toy recycling programs, and Mattel has launched a similar internal toy recycling program too.” These are in addition to more common donation options including YMCA Thrift and Goodwill Industries.

About Russell

 Jennifer Russell is an assistant professor in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials with the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech. Russell’s research focuses on the integration of, and opportunities for, circular systems and practice for sustainable biomaterials. This work spans sustainable materials, applications in packaging and the built-environment, and circular practice, including remanufacturing, refurbishment, repair, reuse, and recycling. 


To schedule a live or recorded interview with Jennifer Russell, contact Margaret Ashburn in the media relations office at or by phone at 540-529-0814.


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