You've probably seen the shocking statistics: Between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, Americans throw away a million extra tons of garbage each week. The 2.65 billion Christmas cards sold each year in the U.S. could fill a football field 10 stories high. And more than 33 million Christmas trees are cut down, sold, and discarded each year. What's an eco-minded person to do? Read on.
Be a smarter shopper this year and "let your fingers do the walking." Shop online -- you'll avoid the crowds and save time and gasoline. Just make sure that you purchase items that won't require a lot of packing material for shipping. Likewise, when shopping for gifts that you must ship to the recipient, pick things that are small and/or lightweight, and easy to ship.
If you prefer to go to your favorite mall, plan out your shopping list in advance to consolidate trips, and take along your own shopping bags. Think about buying eco-friendly gifts, such as low-flow shower heads, fluorescent lightbulbs, and other energy-saving items. Look for gifts that encourage others to save resources -- e.g., reusable tote bags, a vegetarian cookbook, or a book on things you can make from recycled materials.
You could also try shopping for unusual items at antique stores, flea markets, and consignment shops -- where everything is recycled. When you buy battery-operated toys and electronics, be sure to add rechargeable batteries to the gift box.
Consider Alternative Gifts
Give serious consideration to alternative gifts this year -- things that minimize the use of resources, including gift wrapping and shipping. Think gift certificates, a donation to the recipient's favorite charity, or promise notes that can be redeemed for such things as making dinner, helping with chores, taking the kids to a museum, etc. You could also give tickets to a concert, the theater, or a sports event.
If you're not sure what to buy nieces and nephews, you might open a savings account in their name, or give them stocks or bonds. Gifts of this sort can be the beginning of their financial education, and will avoid putting unwanted stuff under their Christmas tree. Of course, homemade gifts are the original alternative gift.
They're frugal, easier on the environment, and more personal, since they represent an investment of your time and skills. And you can make them more meaningful, since they can be tailormade to the recipient.
Minimize Holiday Cards and Gift Wrapping
If each of us sent one less card this holiday season, we'd save 50,000 cubic yards of paper. Update and pare down your holiday mailing list, and you'll save time and money. Consider making your own cards, with help from the kids, and send them just to special friends and relatives. Better yet, send e-cards whenever possible. When January arrives, donate the cards you have received to a preschool, where kids can use them for fun craft projects.
Gift wrapping generates a colossal amount of waste each year. A radical approach to this problem is to turn the gift giving into a treasure hunt: Instead of wrapping the kids' gifts, hide them, and then plant clues as to where they're hidden. A more traditional approach would be to make your own wrapping paper from newspapers, paper bags, old maps, or the kids' art work. Set the kids up with a potato stamp or paints and brushes, and let them be creative. If you insist on buying wrapping paper, look for gift wrap that is made from recycled paper.
Don't bother to wrap oversized gifts at all -- a big bow will do just fine. And for all other gifts, consider dispensing with ribbon altogether. Once all the gifts are unwrapped, save as much of the wrapping and ribbon as possible and use it again. If every family reused just two feet of holiday ribbon, the 38,000 miles of ribbon saved could tie a bow around the entire planet!
Rethink Lights and Decorations
Christmas lights -- both indoors and out -- are an obvious and huge drain on energy resources. If it just isn't the holiday for you without lights on the house, in the yard, and on the tree, at least use bulbs with low wattage. The rule of thumb is this: the smaller the bulb, the lower the wattage. Not only do low-watt bulbs consume less energy; they also give off less heat, making them safer. Look for outdoor light strands that are wired in parallel; their separate circuitry means that if that if one bulb burns out, the rest will keep shining, and you only have to replace one bulb. Strands with series wiring go entirely dark if one bulb fails, making it almost impossible to find which bulb is bad.
New in the holiday lighting department this year are LEDs, or light-emitting diodes. LEDs incorporate the same computer-chip technology used to light calculators and watches, and they are 90 percent more efficient than traditional Christmas lights. They also release very little heat, and they last about 200,000 hours. One U.S. Department of Energy study showed that two billion kilowatt-hours of electricity could be saved in a month, if everyone replaced their conventional holiday light strings -- enough energy to power 200,000 homes for a year!
You and the kids can make your own Christmas tree ornaments out of things you already have around the house, or from materials found in nature -- such as pinecones, twigs, stones, etc. You can have fun making ornaments from macaroni, flour and salt clay, and no-bake dough. Don't forget the traditional popcorn and cranberry garland. Those holiday cards can also be put to use as decoration.
Keep Your Christmas Tree Green
Many of us wonder whether we're being wasteful, buying a cut Christmas tree every year. It may seem to be more "green" to buy a live, potted tree, but the reality is that potted evergreens generally don't do well indoors in a heated home, and it's not easy to plant a live tree outdoors in late December or early January if the ground is frozen. In short, the chances of a potted tree surviving more than a few months are slim.
Nearly all Christmas trees sold in seasonal tree lots are grown on tree farms, so forests aren't hurt if you purchase a cut tree. Artificial trees consume significant energy and petroleum-based materials in their manufacture, but with care they can last many years. So feel free to choose your preference -- cut or artificial. Just be sure to make that artificial tree last through many Christmases, or to recycle that cut tree.
Many communities now offer recycling; you leave your tree curbside, and your DPW or a recycling company picks it up free of charge. Usually the trees are chipped into mulch for use in city parks, on hiking trails, in playground areas, and in public gardens. Whole trees are sometimes used in stabilization projects for river shorelines, for beach erosion prevention, marshland sedimentation, and even hazardous chemical clean-ups. If there is no recycling program in your area, prop your tree up in your backyard or in the woods, where it can serve as shelter for wildlife and can break down naturally, giving its nutrients back to the soil.