Say the words “ecofriendly holiday,” and many Americans picture sitting down to a Tofurky dinner and exchanging homemade presents wrapped in the pages of a Greenpeace calendar. Oh, and as for the tree? Forget it – maybe you can have a centerpiece made from a pine cone and a fallen branch.
But a more environmentally friendly holiday doesn’t have to feel as if the Grinch already stole Christmas, say environmental experts – although wrapping your gifts in pages from a calendar really isn’t a bad idea. Making a few adjustments can have a big impact on the amount of energy your family uses, they say, and help shrink those mountains of garbage that hit the curb every Dec. 26.
“I think it can look and feel and smell and sound just like every other Christmas, but in a way that has much less of an impact on the environment,” says Jodi Helmer, author of “The Green Year: 365 Small Things You Can Do to Make a Big Difference,” which is being published this month. “And it doesn’t have to be expensive.”
First off, say Ms. Helmer and others, you don’t have to get rid of the tree. But Charlie Brown was right: Natural is better than artificial. “Almost all are grown on tree farms – the stock is replenished every year,” says Ms. Helmer. “And they can be recycled after the holidays and ground into mulch. It’s actually a very natural choice.” If you already have an artificial tree, she hastens to add, it’s much greener to keep using it rather than throwing it out and buying new.
Doug Barlow, an artist in Asheville, N.C., has an artificial tree – but his wasn’t made in China. About 30 years ago, he and his wife made their own and donated the money they would have spent to The Empty Stocking Fund. “Only, how do you make a Christmas tree?” They ended up hanging long muslin strips from the ceiling and making a pyramid by attaching them to sandbags. The lights ran up the middle of each strip and homemade ornaments were hung on a long, crocheted piece that wound around the outside. The tree became a family tradition. As for what goes under it, the Barlows only get gifts for the children. (Mr. Barlow says his extended family viewed the change with “relief,” when he proposed it a decade or so ago.)
Wrapping paper is one area where Americans can really reduce waste. Helen Coronato, author of “Eco-Friendly Families,” calls the traditional wrapped package with bows “disastrous.” (Many types of paper can’t be recycled, and, in the heat of Christmas morning, most of it ends up in a garbage bag anyway, she says.)
Better alternatives include gift bags, which usually are saved and reused, tissue paper, newspaper, colorful pieces of fabric, or reusable canvas bags.
Barlow buys his holiday turkey from a local farmer. “We’ve gotten to be pretty hard core ‘locavores’ here in Asheville,” says Barlow, an avid gardener. The rest of the feast will probably feature “a lot of squash, sweet potatoes, beans, and greens.”
The food is one place people can make a lot of changes without any complaints from the family. “Going organic and local with your food – the kids don’t notice the difference,” says Rachel Sarnoff, founder of EcoStiletto, an online environmental magazine. “It’s mashed potatoes and turkey. They don’t know that it’s organic potatoes and free-range/organic turkey.”
You can also choose seasonal produce: A pumpkin pie is a better choice than, say, imported strawberries, says Ms. Coronato.
And what you serve your feast on also can have an impact, she says. “The American family generates on average, according to the EPA, 4-1/2 pounds of garbage every day. It’s even worse at the holidays,” says Coronato. In other words, load up the dishwasher and skip the paper plates. If you’re having a large party, she suggests borrowing an extra set or two of dishes from friends. (Helmer says if you really can’t face all those dishes, look for disposable plates made from sugarcane or corn that can be composted.)
When decking the halls, LED Christmas lights use 90 percent less energy than conventional lights. But if you’re all stocked up with conventional already, just put them on a timer. You’ll use up to four times less energy, says Helmer.
Ms. Sarnoff and her family cut their tree from a sustainable farm every year, but she has altered her decorating in one respect: “We don’t put lights on the outside of the house anymore,” says the Los Angeles mother of three. “I put out luminarias.... It’s so much more special than just flipping a switch. The kids love them.”
Coronato says that hostess gifts are another area that could use a little greening. “We spend a lot of frivolous money on those last-minutes gifts. We feel like it has to be a bouquet of flowers. At this time of year, they’re the most highly treated things in the supermarket,” she says. “It’s like saying ‘Hi, thanks for inviting me over. Here are some toxins.’ ” Instead, she says, “keep some small potted plants in the windowsill at home” and grab one of those before heading out to a party. If you’re so inclined, she adds, you can “have the children decorate the terracotta pots.”
A windowsill herb garden is another green gift for people who love to cook, says Urvashi Rangan, director of GreenerChoices, an environmental website run by Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y. “It hasn’t been sprayed with anything, or shipped anywhere.” Or, if it’s in your budget, consider giving a share to a cooperative farm. Your recipient will get fresh local produce all year long.
As for the presents, Coronato and her husband “committed to getting all the presents at garage sales” for their preschooler and toddler. “We bought them this fall when they had all the great garage sales. It breaks my heart that there’s so much plastic at the holiday season.” She fully acknowledges that this is much easier with younger children. (And you want to be careful that the toys meet current safety standards.) Forty percent of all batteries (which can leach toxic metals into the ground if they end up in landfills) are bought at the holidays, so Helmer suggests including a pack or two of recyclable batteries in your holiday budget. You’ll get the money back in the long run.
For older children, Coronato suggests reducing consumption by thinking about a family gift – such as a Nintendo Wii – that everyone can enjoy together. Or, if the family’s up for it, try a homemade Christmas. (For parents who aren’t crafty, she says gift certificates for a “yes” day or a special date with one child can be very memorable). Helmer recommends experiential gifts, such as “a zoo membership or tickets to the theater” – or gift cards, which are unlikely to end up in the trash. (This year, you might want to consider the health of the retailer before buying, though – bankrupt companies don’t have to honor gift cards.)
“Conservation is the simplest way to be green – whether that’s using less wrapping paper, or putting the lights on the tree on a timer,” says Ms. Rangan. “Saving energy, saving money is being green.