A growing number of Americans dream of a green Christmas. From gargantuan gifts to toss-away trees, environmental groups are encouraging people to reuse, renew, or recycle the food and gifts they traditionally waste at Christmastime.
Copious consumption is out; renewable resources are in.
"A lot of people have gone toward making gifts," says Holly Minch, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club in San Francisco. "Or giving gifts of service - 'I'll watch the kids while you go out' kind of thing.... I think that's more in the spirit of the holidays."
Metro, the government agency that manages waste in the Portland area, encourages Oregonians to give eco-friendly presents such as gift certificates, special meals, a spring planting, or tickets to concerts, plays, and dances.
The agency points out that some children's gifts are naturally durable and can be reused for generations - toys such as Legos, Tinker Toys, Classic Books, and sturdy bicycles.
Metro also suggests buying presents that benefit the environment, such as recycled stationery, compost bins, bird feeders, books on ecology, and reusable grocery bags.
A company in the nearby suburb of Wilsonville, Ore., Deja Shoe, manufactures recycled-content casual shoes. The firm sells six styles, all of which use 50 percent recycled materials. One is the Natura Birch, a hemp oxford. It has an outsole of recycled tires and virgin rubber, a lining made of plastic soft drink bottles, and a mid-sole cushioned by magazines and cardboard.
The Sierra Club encourages its members to give gifts such as charitable donations in recipients' names. But for those who insist on sending traditional gifts, the organization encourages the reuse of old boxes and tins.
Environmentalists suggest gifts with minimum packaging. No need, they say, for rolls of expensive and ecologically insensitive gift wrap.
"At my house, we wrap with the funny papers - the comics or something - instead of buying all that dyed stuff," says Pamela Franz, office manager for the Oakland, Calif., office of the Environmental Defense Fund.
If you have to pack gifts for shipping, Ms. Franz's group encourages using wadded-up newsprint or popcorn, rather than plastic foam peanuts.
Many environmental groups recommend cutting down on food waste at meal times. Between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, Americans generate an extra 1 million tons of trash per week, according to a report by Partners for Environmental Progress. The Ann Arbor, Mich., organization points out that much of the 28 billion pounds of food Americans waste each year is thrown out around Christmas.
The waste generated by a typical turkey dinner is staggering. For instance, if every United States citizen threw away one bite of turkey with gravy, one tablespoon of mashed potatoes, and one spoonful of cranberry sauce, the total waste would come to 38 million pounds. It would take 17,431 average-sized pickup trucks to carry that much spoiled food, a bumper-to-bumper caravan that would stretch more than 54 miles.
Americans buy about 50 million Christmas trees each year, the majority of which are grown on farms much like any other agricultural product. But some tree farms in the Northwest have sprouted in barren clear-cuts left by the felling of ancient trees. Environmentalists say pesticides that protect the conifers' beauty can run off into watersheds and damage habitat for salmon and other threatened fish.
"We would encourage people to buy a tree that could be replanted," says Jessica Hamilton, who heads the West Coast office of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign. Her group is working to preserve old-growth forests.
Hamilton is encouraging her parents back in North Carolina to decorate a tree in their yard, rather than cut one.
While some environmentalists encourage people to buy artificial trees, others turn their noses up at the thought of buying anything made of plastic, a nonrenewable resource.
For Americans who insist on cutting down their own trees, the Sierra Club's Ms. Minch suggests buying from tree farms, which cut about 34 million trees for sale each year at Christmas.
Tree farms - especially those that don't use pesticides - can help the environment by reducing carbon monoxide and absorbing road noise, Minch says. Each tree cut on those farms is replaced by about six new trees, she adds.
Even cut trees have their redeeming qualities, for they can be recycled. In the Pacific Northwest, Boy Scouts turn the discarded trees into mulch. Along the Gulf Coast beaches of Texas, conservation groups use them to anchor eroded sand dunes. And in Westport, Conn., home-keeping maven Martha Stewart trims off the branches and layers them in beds of perennials to protect them in winter.
The magazine Martha Stewart Living has devoted part of its December-January issue to tips on recycling trees.
Environmentalists encourage people to string their Christmas trees with garland made of popcorn and cranberries, rather than plastic tinsel. The strands can be set out for birds after the holidays.
Also, they say, go easy on the electric lights. Put up smaller bulbs, which require less wattage, and buy strands that are wired in parallel. With some, if one bulb goes out, they all go out, forcing you to trash the bunch. The brightest Christmas might be one that considers the source of gifts, says Alison Field of the Global Exchange, a human rights group based in northern California.
Global Exchange sells food products, clothing, jewelry, toys, and other items made free of unfair labor practices by workers in 44 countries. The nonprofit group has three stores in the Bay Area and operates a mail-order catalog. One of Ms. Field's favorite items comes from inner-city Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles that makes a salad dressing called, "Food From the Hood." Proceeds go toward college scholarships.