Even the smallest of changes - send one fewer Christmas card, for example - can make a big difference environmentally.
By Judy Stark, Times Homes and Garden editor
Published November 24, 2007
Christmas has always been a recycled holiday, and that's one of the best things about it. We retell the old stories. We sing the old carols and songs. We look forward to the foods - the cookies! - without which it just wouldn't be Christmas.
When we trim the tree, part of the fun is rediscovering the ornaments we've been using over and over: the angel, the star, the decorations the kids made in kindergarten and now they have children of their own.
Reusing and recycling? Most of us have been doing it for years. We just call it tradition.
This year, celebrating a "green Christmas" takes on new urgency as we become aware of climate change and the need to protect this fragile Earth, our island home.
A green holiday is a way "to share your beliefs and environmental consciousness with family and friends in a very celebratory way," said Jennifer Hattam, lifestyle editor at Sierra magazine, a publication of the Sierra Club. More creative gift-giving "adds to the celebration rather than taking away," she said.
It's also appealing to those who think Christmas has become too commercialized, with pressure to spend a lot of money and give lavish gifts. "People are responsive to a message where you're doing a lot of wonderful, celebratory things but not focusing so much on buying, buying, buying," Hattam said.
"We need to change the mind-set" that sustainable living means depriving ourselves, shivering in the dark, says Robyn Griggs Lawrence, editor in chief of Natural Home magazine.
"Our most precious commodity is time," Lawrence said in a phone interview from her home in Boulder, Colo. "If I give a gift of something that's my time - not bought with a credit card online - that's a more valuable gift."
One year, Lawrence recalled, her mother made scrapbooks out of "boxes of memorabilia I couldn't deal with. Mom organized it. She put that kind of time into it.
"That can mean more in a day and age when we have everything we need materially. It may be the greenest thing you can do."
It's easy being green
How can you make this a green Christmas? Some suggestions:
- Plan your shopping so you're not making endless trips back and forth to the same stores or malls - and wasting gas, not to mention your time and energy, suggests Debra Lynn Dadd of Clearwater, an author, consumer advocate and sustainability expert. (Her Web site is www.debralynndadd.com.)
- Take reusable tote bags to the store and decline their shopping bags. Every American uses 520 plastic bags a year, or 10 a week, and we throw away 14-billion of them annually. That's a lot of petroleum to waste.
- Cut back on your Christmas card list. Send recycled cards if you must go the paper card route, or make your own. E-cards are another option, but some recipients may find them too impersonal. Create a Web site with holiday wishes, news and images. Then e-mail the link to friends and relatives instead of mailing out the annual family newsletter.
- If you give a gift that requires batteries, (a) include rechargeables, and (b) give a battery charger as part of the gift.
- Entertaining? Use fabric tablecloths and your usual china, glasses and flatware rather than disposables. If you do go the paper plate route, use recycled/recyclable/reusable plates. Choose paper towels, toilet tissue and cocktail napkins made with recycled fiber. At parties, provide separate trash containers for glass, plastic and metal.
- Wrap wisely. Buy recycled gift wrap. Or use something else: color comics, maps, kids' artwork, magazine pages, recycled gift bags (you do save the gift bags you receive, right?), fabric remnants, scarves.
- Make the wrapping part of the gift. Buy a reusable bag at the supermarket and put a gift inside. The recipient can use the bag for every trip to the grocery store.
For the handyperson on your list, tuck a gift inside Home Depot's new reusable orange bag (13 by 22 by 14 inches) with a locking handle ($1.99). Or package a gift in Wal-Mart's $1 bag, made from recycled materials including plastic soda bottles. The black bag bears the message: "Paper or Plastic? Neither."
- Recycle what you replace. If you get a new cell phone or computer, pass the old one on to someone who can use it. Some retailers, like the big-box office-supply stores, participate in cell phone recycling programs to keep mercury, cadmium and lead out of landfills.
- Have a regifting party: You and friends bring the gifts you never liked (some no doubt still in the original packaging) and trade them for things you like or want to give to others.
- Choose a real tree. After the holidays, watch for announcements about where and when your county or city will pick up trees to be turned into mulch. Buy a potted tree you can reuse year after year, or, if you've got room in the yard, buy a live tree you can plant after Christmas.
- Select soy candles, which burn clean, rather than paraffin candles. Paraffin candles are made from a petroleum residue that produces soot and pollutants. Use battery-powered or LED votives, which are both cleaner and safer than an open flame.
- Give presents that require minimal packaging and wrapping: tickets to performances, sports events, movies; gift certificates, gift cards, coupons for services or activities. Take someone on a dolphin cruise or a boat ride, Dadd suggests. "Invite the recipient to spend time with you having fun, and you make all the arrangements."
- Honor gift recipients who already have everything with gifts to others. Send farm animals, seeds, clean water and health care to people in developing nations. Adopt endangered animals or a piece of the rainforest. The Heifer Project (www.heifer.org), the Rainforest Alliance (www.rainforest-alliance.org), the African Wildlife Adoption Center (www.awf.org), Oxfam (www.oxfamamericaunwrapped.org) and the Alternative Gifts Foundation (www.alternativegifts.org) and other faith-based groups are among many charities and nonprofits that offer this option. See what you can give for the price of a baseball cap or a Barbie doll. The organizations provide cards you can send to the gift recipients indicating what you've bought in their name.
- Shop from fair trade and sustainable sources where the workers are paid a decent wage and labor in decent surroundings. Check www.fairtradefederation.org for a list of merchants.
- Don't waste a lot of paper wrapping a big, bulky item like a bicycle or a sleeping bag. Put on a bow and a tag and be done.
- Recycle packaging. Drop off extra packing peanuts at private mailing centers. Call the Plastic Loosefill Council's Peanut Hotline toll-free at 1-800-828-2214 for the names of local businesses that reuse them.
- Reuse the colorful shredded paper that comes as padding in packages when you wrap your own gifts. Got a shredder? Turn used gift wrap or other colorful paper into your own shreds to use as filler in gift bags and boxes.
- If you have heirloom items, consider giving them to family members now. Pass on Granddad's fountain pen to a grandchild. Give Grandma's hand-crocheted tablecloth to a daughter.
- Do you have Christmas decorations you no longer use? Assuming they're still in good condition, pass them on to a charity, shelter, your kids' school, your son or daughter in a first apartment, a senior center. Do the same with those unused cards left over from last year that you no longer want to send, or the free cards you get from charities with their annual appeals.
- After the holidays, give your cards to groups that use them for craft projects. Watch our Reader Exchange column in January for the annual list of those who will be glad to take your old cards.
-- The 2.65-billion Christmas cards sold each year in the United States could fill a football field 10 stories high. If we each sent one card less, we'd save 50,000 cubic yards of paper.
-- Americans throw away 25 percent more trash during the Thanksgiving to New Year's holiday period than any other time of year. The extra waste amounts to 25-million tons of garbage, or about 1-million extra tons per week.
-- If every family reused just 2 feet of holiday ribbon, the 38,000 miles of ribbon saved could tie a bow around the entire planet.