These DIY Holiday Decorations Are Eco-Friendly

Ditch the waste and craft your own décor this year

By Jen Rose Smith

December 11, 2022

Overhead view of an arrangement of a Christmas wreath or garland being made by a teenage girl. Various tools and decorative pieces are laid out waiting to be used.

Photo by ClarkandCompany/iStock

Holiday décor can lend welcome sparkle to winter’s opening weeks—but plastic-heavy, store-bought versions often go straight to a landfill when the season ends. In December, Americans generate 23 percent more waste than in any other month, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, a disturbing stat that includes vast piles of disposable decorations. 

Ready to step off the consumer bandwagon? You don’t have to forgo winter cheer. DIY holiday decorations can green your season, save money, and provide an all-ages craft project ideal for chilly afternoons. You might already have the materials you need.

“I always try to think twice before buying something, to just look around my house and see if there is anything I can reuse,” said British crafter Claire Armstrong, whose website Pillar Box Blue offers ideas for upcycling household items into everything from advent calendars to ornaments and Christmas tree alternatives. Armstrong said many such projects are great for kids, who can learn the ethos of reuse while getting creative with paper, cardboard, and other materials.

“If you’re crafting with kids, just don’t worry too much about what things look like,” said Armstrong, who, when her three sons were young, loved to get them involved in crafting. “The important thing is to let them play.” Grab your scissors, twine, and nontoxic glue—it’s time to get into the creative holiday spirit.

Raid the recycling 

When planning Christmas crafts, Armstrong often turns to the map drawer. “I love using old paper maps,” she said. “No one uses them to navigate anymore, but they’re perfect for making paper garlands.” Other Armstrong ideas for upcycling old maps are paper wreathsfolded ornaments, and even some oh-so-British Christmas crackers. (Coming up with jokes to go inside the crackers is half the fun.)

Colorful paper bound for the recycling bin can instead become paper garlands or classic cut-out paper snowflakes to decorate walls and windows. Cardboard boxes, meanwhile, are great for hand-painted “gingerbread” garlands and star-shaped ornaments kids can draw on with gel pens or finger paints. 

Craft with compostables

For Christmas décor with nostalgic appeal, try decorating with food. Think cranberry-and-popcorn garlands, gingerbread houses, and salt-dough ornaments strung on biodegradable twine. Traditional pomander balls, oranges studded with decorative cloves, are kid-friendly crafts that can fill your home with a sweet and spicy aroma. 

Or, if you have access to boughs of pine, cedar, or fir—really anything you can sustainably trim from your yard—use these to weave garlands and wreaths. Extra eco-points if you manage to work in some English holly, a stubborn invasive in many US locales that would look right at home on a Christmas card.

Properly disposing of (or reusing) such décor is critical. For example, if you’ve used natural twine to make evergreen garlands, these can go straight in the green bin. Your cranberry-popcorn strands, meanwhile, make a tasty snack for backyard birds; any gingerbread that survives post-holiday snacking belongs in the compost.

Rethink your tree

Both farmed Christmas trees and disposable versions have downsides. It’s complicated, but Sierra’s Ms. Green rules in favor of an organically grown evergreen sourced from near your home, as long as you dispose of it responsibly. (Some farms accept Christmas trees, which make tasty snacks for goats.)

Better still is upcycling things you already have—such as old lampshades, thick cardboard, random sticks, or even a wooden ladder—into an alternative Christmas tree. As long as it’s vaguely tree-shaped and covered with ornaments, you’re good to go, Armstrong said: “You can make a Christmas tree with nearly anything!” 

Wrap it up

The most sustainable choice is to cut back on gifting stuff this holiday, and we’ve got tips on how to do that without sacrificing your sense of joy. But if you are swapping gifts, there’s still room to green up the exchange by skipping the pricey, holiday-themed wrapping paper that’s often overflowing from roadside bins by December 26.  

Instead, DIY. “People send such beautiful holiday cards, then they just go in the bin,” said Armstrong, who repurposes them for décor and wrapping. Snipping up old holiday cards is a great way to make homemade gift tags to decorate presents wrapped in old maps, recycled brown bags, glossy calendar pages, or even images from an old Sierra magazine. 

A more durable solution is to make reusable wrappings patterned on the traditional Japanese wrapping cloth called furoshiki. All you need is a square or rectangular cloth. Colorful old scarves, worn-out shirts, and linens make great wrappers. You can tie it up as is or decorate the fabric with potato printing or fancy buttons. When the holidays have passed, simply tuck the cloths away until your next gift-giving occasion rolls around.