Dreaming of a Greener Holiday: How to Have a Less Wasteful Celebration

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Photo by Getty Images/Onfokus
LED lights use 90 percent less energy than incandescents and last for thousands of hours.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Winter Solstice, festivities brighten even the coldest, dreariest winter. Yet wasteful holiday consumption takes a toll on our natural resources. This year, why not give a little something back to the earth? You don’t have to sacrifice beloved traditions–small changes make a big difference. Select a living tree over an artificial one, use LED lights instead of incandescents or limit the use of paper goods. These and other eco-friendly options will keep your environmental impact low and holiday spirits high.

To get you started, we’ve come up with three simple changes that will make this holiday greener and more meaningful.

1. Choose real trees to go ever-green

Artificial evergreen decorations and Christmas trees are mostly made from plastics–nonrenewable petroleum byproducts–and they can’t be recycled. Some contain PVC, a known health hazard. Most are imported from China, adding transportation and fossil fuel consumption to the already high environmental cost. A real tree, while it’s growing, provides habitat for critters and oxygen to the air we breathe. It also can be recycled back to the earth in the form of mulch. So instead of an artificial tree, try one of these options:

? Plant a living tree. Purchase a potted tree to replant later–it doesn’t have to be an evergreen. For a fee and if you live in the area, the Original Living Christmas Tree Company in Portland, Oregon and Friends of the Urban Forest in San Francisco will deliver potted trees to your home. After the holidays, you can replant them in a park, around your neighborhood or even at a tree farm. The Original Living Christmas Tree company website includes information for franchising the business in your own city. 

? Cut your own. Some national forests or public lands sell permits that allow you to select and cut your own tree with a handsaw. The forest thinning helps prevent disease or fire. To find out if trees are available for cutting or to obtain a permit, locate the Bureau of Land Management office nearest you or check out the U.S. Forest Service’s interactive maps.

? Buy an organically grown tree. Conventional Christmas tree growers rely on synthetic pesticides and herbicides. Organically grown trees are healthier for the soil, water, tree farm workers and critters who inhabit the trees while they grow. Organic tree farms are becoming more common, but there’s no established certification process or trade organization for them yet. To find an organic tree farm, check www.EcoBusinessLinks.com, or consult a local whole foods grocer, farmer’s market or nursery.

2. Bright lights, big energy savings

When it comes to energy use, some holiday lights shine brighter than
others. You can save electricity and still enjoy the sparkle by choosing the most eco-friendly type of bulb, by limiting the time you burn your holiday lights, or by putting them on a timer.

? Choose LEDs. The same technology that lights the display on your watch or calculator, the light-emitting diode (LED), now provides twinkle for your tree. In the last few years, strings of decorative LED lights have become available in almost every color, shape and size–and at practically every retailer. LEDs are 90 percent more efficient than conventional incandescent bulbs and last for thousands of hours, according to Energy Star. Plus, they’re cool to the touch and pose less fire risk. They cost a bit more, but the change will save you a bundle in utilities.

? Go off the grid. Although they’re not yet as widely available as LED holiday light strings, solar-powered sets are gaining popularity. They require no electricity but rely on a small solar grid. Solar lights have a higher price tag upfront ($40 and up for a string of 50 bulbs) but cost nothing to run–and they come in a variety of colors.

3. More creativity, less waste

Americans generate 25 percent more waste during the holidays, and much of it is paper: wrapping paper, cards, bags, packages and bows. Although you don’t have to hoard used wrapping paper like Grandma did, she had the right idea. Reusing paper is always environmentally friendly, and there’s no shortage of creative ways to do it.

? Rewrap it. Remember when we reused the comic pages for wrapping paper? It’s not only retro, it’s earth-friendly, frugal and fun. You also could reuse old cloth scraps or rubber-stamp paper bags. Decorate with pine cones, twine or magic marker. Even purchased gift bags can be reused multiple times. The Wrapsacks company codes its reusable cloth gift bags so you can follow their journey online from recipient to recipient. You can make your own “trackable” bag by signing your name, hometown or gift on it with a glitter pen. Then pass it on!

? Do the un-wrap. Skip the wrapping paper and bows altogether and have a treasure hunt for the gifts. Hide them in closets, under beds, in the refrigerator. The kids–both young and old–will love it! (Don’t forget to make a list of locations while you’re hiding them so none are forgotten.)

? Care enough to send the very greenest. Two billion cards are sent each year during the holiday season, according to Hallmark. More and more folks are sending greetings via e-mail–and it doesn’t have to feel impersonal. Add family photos or a personalized letter, or link to your personal webpage. It saves time, postage and paper. Alternatively, choose cards made from recycled paper–or make your own from used greeting cards.

? Recycle and reuse holiday cards. Keep reusable card fronts and other supplies in a box and have the kids
create placemats, new cards, gift tags and ornaments from them. You could also donate cards to a senior center, school or recreation center that can use them as craft supplies. Or, shred the cards and add them to your compost bin.

Bloomin’ Flower Cards has taken it a shovel deeper, making biodegradable cards with embedded seeds–you plant the whole thing. The company also uses soy-based inks, renewable hemp and 100 percent post-consumer waste, and it donates proceeds to worthy causes.  

Think Outside the Tree

If you’re willing to let go of having a 7-foot-tall tree in your home, consider these alternatives that keep the holiday spirit alive:

? Decorate with wreaths, garlands or greenery boughs thinned from living trees. You might even be able to “harvest” them from your own back yard.

? Make a “tree” from driftwood or a large houseplant.

? Have a tree planted in honor of someone. Most parks, national forests, cemeteries and even nursing homes have programs for tree donation.

? Decorate a tree in a nursing home, hospital or shelter for the needy.

? Purchase a small rosemary “tree” from a local nursery. Rosemary smells terrific and is a year-round source of fresh herbs.