Jane Says: Sustainability Doesn't Have to Hinder Holiday Fun

Turns out an environmentally friendly party will be a prettier, better-tasting one, too.

A sustainable party doesn't have to be a boring party. (Photo: Maren Caruso/Getty Images)

Jane Lear was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

"What are some tips for making my annual holiday party more sustainable?" —Lee Anne Blackmore

The holiday whirl of parties seems to start earlier every year, and I shudder to think of the mountains of waste generated. There are ways, however, to make your celebration more sustainable—although odds are no one will notice. They’ll just remember how beautiful everything looked, how delicious the food was, and what a wonderful time they had. Excellent.

Electronic Invitations?

Choose a template or custom-design your own electronic invitations or greeting cards using a website such as Paperless Post, Pingg, Punchbowl, or, for those of you who prefer misanthropy to mistletoe, Someecards (“when you care enough to hit send”). After all, dispatching invitations electronically not only saves paper but also the energy used to process and deliver snail mail, right?

Well, nothing is ever simple. A recent yearlong investigation by The New York Times revealed that while this strategy may be easy and quick, it is not exactly eco-friendly. “Most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner,” James Glanz wrote on September 22, 2012. “…Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid.” To prevent power outages, Glanz explains, “they further rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust. The pollution from data centers has increasingly been cited by the authorities for violating clean air regulations.”

That’s all the reason I need to cling to the old-school tradition of sending out actual, physical invitations, cards, and (ahem) thank-you notes. Well, that, plus doing my teensy bit to Save the Post Office. There are any number of available options made from recycled and recyclable paper; be aware, though, that photo paper is not recyclable.

Dinnerware

Here, too, I’m old-school pretty much all the way. Skip disposable (and often BPA-laced) plates, plastic cups, and paper napkins for the real thing. No one will care if plates, wineglasses, and flatware are mismatched—in fact, that adds to the charm. That set of your grandmother’s china would look hopelessly fussy if you used it all at the same meal, but sprinkled in among more contemporary plates and platters—or used just for the dessert course, perhaps—it will look funky and fabulous. And with sources like Etsy, eBay, Fishs Eddy, and your local charity shops or flea market at hand, it has never been easier to pick up gently used vintage wares and linens for a song.

Decking the Halls

Forlorn piles of abandoned Christmas trees max out municipal mulching centers after the holidays. So instead of picking up a Blue Spruce, think about decorating that otherwise-ignored ficus in the corner of the living room, buying a potted tree for planting afterward, or (this is so cool) renting a living tree. Companies like the Original Living Christmas Tree Company, in Portland, Oregon (which has been renting trees for 19 years), will deliver a tree to your door and collect it after the holidays for planting in a park or garden.

Investing in LED holiday lights is another bright idea (sorry). They are more expensive than the classic kind, but use far less energy and last longer too.

While you’re doing the grocery shopping (see below), keep an eye out for produce with decorative possibilities. A display of heirloom apples and pears (or lemons and tangerines, depending on where you live) on the table is always beautiful. Little bouquets of herbs in Gran’s teacups might be nice, or tie small fragrant bundles of herbs together with kitchen string and put one at each place setting. Reuse and recycle candle containers, and opt for beeswax or soy candles instead of paraffin. 

Grocery Shopping

You know the drill: Local, seasonal, and certified organic are what we all strive for.  Shop the bulk bins for nuts, dried fruit, and/or grains—and resist the temptation to overbuy, because nuts and whole grains turn rancid easily. So purchase only what you need and take along a stash of (clean) reusable bags for filling. If you’re in the mood to splurge on seafood, you’ll find sustainable choices at Seafood Watch or on the product finder page of the Marine Stewardship Council website. And when it comes to coffee, tea, or chocolate, organic and/or Fair Trade options are widely available.

Holiday food doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive to be festive and delicious. It’s hard to beat a big pot of red beans and rice, for instance. Nothing will get you in the mood faster than Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours: Satchmo at the National Press Club, a recent release of one of Louis Armstrong’s last performances.

Miscellaneous

  • If you are expecting a crowd, turn down the thermostat to compensate for the extra body heat.
  • In the kitchen, clearly mark trash, recycling, and composting bins so helping hands can truly help.
  • Tactfully suggest that if guests are thinking of bringing a host or hostess gift, then you’d love something that you can, in turn, donate to your local food bank or shelter.

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