Yes, the holidays draw out the best in most of us each year. But they also bring what seems like an environmentalist's worst nightmare: tons of extra garbage, millions of chopped-down trees, and megawatts of flashing lights. With a little tweaking, however, everything from holiday gift-giving to light-stringing can celebrate the environment, too. Here's how:
Between Thanksgiving and New Year's day, Americans throw away a million extra tons [900,000 metric tons] of garbage each week, including holiday wrapping and packaging, according to Robert Lilienfeld. Lilienfield is co-author of the book Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are.
So why not recycle holiday gift wrap? Lilienfield, who has published a newsletter on reducing waste since 1996, notes that if every family reused just 2 feet [0.6 meter] of holiday ribbon, the 38,000 miles [61,000 kilometers] of ribbon saved could tie a bow around the entire planet.
And not all gifts need wrapping. "Think back to your three favorite holiday memories," Lilienfeld said. "I'm willing to bet that they all involve time you spent with your family and friends."
By giving gifts that can be experienced, like tickets to a baseball game or a homemade dinner, you can minimize wrapping and still win points with the receiver. "People like these gifts just as much," he said.
For many, Christmas wouldn't be the same without a live, fragrant Christmas tree in their home. Today nearly all of the trees sold at seasonal Christmas-tree lots are grown on tree farms. So forests aren't hurt by choosing a cut tree, said Jeff Olson, the vice-president of marketing and development for American Forests, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation nonprofit.
While potted trees might seem like a green option, they often don't fare well in unseasonably warm homes. "The last thing you want to do is bring it into the house," Olson said. He plans to get a potted tree this year and keep it outside for the holidays.
Artificial trees, he noted, consume significant energy and petroleum-based materials during their manufacture.
But Lilienfeld, the Use Less Stuff co-author, noted that a one-time purchase of an artificial tree can save gas otherwise used for annual trips to the local tree farm.
Recycling fresh trees after Christmas can make a huge difference in reducing holiday waste. Instead of taking up space in the landfill, trees can be ground into wood chips, which can be used to mulch gardens or parks or to prevent erosion at a local watershed.
The National Christmas Tree Association, an organization which represents Christmas tree growers, has teamed up with Scottsdale, Arizona-based conservation group Earth 911 to point consumers in the right direction with their trees. On their Web site, you can enter your zip code to find the nearest of 3,800-plus spots nationwide that accept old trees.
The newest energy-saving stars on the holiday scene are Christmas lights made with light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. First introduced in 2001, LEDs incorporate the same computer-chip technology used to light calculators and watches. The lights, which use semiconducting material rather than incandescent filaments, are 90 percent more efficient than traditional Christmas lights.
According to one U.S. Department of Energy study, if everyone replaced their conventional holiday light strings with LEDs, at least two billion kilowatt-hours of electricity could be saved in a month.
The savings would be enough to power 200,000 homes for a year, according to Littleton, Colorado-based Holiday Creations, which makes and distributes a popular line of LED light strings.
Karyn Atwood, Holiday Creations' director of domestic and commercial sales, notes other added bonuses: The LEDs release little heat, and they last about 200,000 hours. In the unlikely event that one does burn out, she said, the rest of the lights keep on glowing.