Dear EarthTalk: How can I minimize energy and packaging waste this holiday season?
-- Marianne, via e-mail
If you’re dreaming of a green holiday season this year, you’ll have to take care to shop and decorate with the planet in mind. Celebrating the holidays plays a substantial role in the creation of waste during this period as a result of packaging from gifts and surplus food being thrown away and making its way to the landfill. But whether you’re looking forward to a lavish holiday with your friends and family this year or a more minimalist celebration, you can still be green and enjoy the festivities.
One way to reduce your environmental footprint is to shop locally. While online shopping may seem greener, it involves excess packaging (think shipping boxes and padding) and pollution (from miles flown/driven by UPS and FedEX to get purchases to your door). By patronizing nearby businesses instead, you'll be supporting the local economy and reducing pollution. If you do shop online, try to consolidate your purchases into one big order to minimize the number of special trips shippers must make to your house.
Another way to green your holiday celebrations is to switch over from those flashing lights and inflatable snowmen to more subtle displays of holiday spirit. The Center for Global Development reports that Americans consume 6.63 billion kilowatts of electricity annually on holiday lighting and decorations. Instead of being part of the problem, unplug and light some candles. All-natural soy varieties — Real Soy’s ginger or cinnamon-scented candles are popular around the holidays — are friendlier to the environment than traditional petroleum-based paraffin candles.
Holiday cards are another clog on the waste stream during the holiday season, with Americans sending out some 2.65 billion of them each year. Ultimately many end up in landfills — especially if they're covered in glitter or foil — and as such can’t be recycled. E-cards are a great alternative as they express the same sentiment without any waste.
Single-use wrapping paper is yet another environmental scourge of the holidays. An estimated 30 million trees are sacrificed each year to support Americans’ disposable wrapping paper habit, much of which ends up in landfills. An incremental improvement would be to only buy and use wrapping paper that doesn’t contain glitter — or even better just use brown paper — for ease of recycling or composting. Alternatively, shop for fabric gift wrap which can be used over and over again.
Last but not least, is it better for the planet to get a real or fake Christmas tree? A fake tree may save you money in the long run as you can buy it once and use it for many years instead of throwing away $50 a year on a real tree. But most of the fakes come from China (which involves lots of carbon emissions in transit) and contain PVC and other chemicals that make them impossible to recycle.
Meanwhile, a real tree can be chipped and returned to the earth as mulch (either by you or your municipality) once January rolls around. Or even better, buy a live tree and plant it in your yard. That way you can feel the spirit of the holidays year-round and feel good about your commitment to protecting the planet.