The Green Challenge guide to the holiday.

Help the planet.
Nov. 27 2006 10:54 AM

Fake or Fir

The Green Challenge guide to the holidays.

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Ah, the holidays—season of tinsel and trash. With all the parties and presents, Americans, on average, increase their garbage by 25 percent from Thanksgiving to New Year's, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That comes to a total of more than 25 million tons. From manufacturing, boxing, and wrapping presents, to carting them to store shelves and doors, lighting up our houses, and traveling elsewhere, this is a time of CO 2 hangovers, as well as the food and drink kind.

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So, what's a carbon-conscious consumer to do? The simplest way to stay on your carbon diet is to consume less than you have in previous years. But that doesn't mean you have to be Scrooge. (After all, you certainly don't want to end up with coal in your stocking when biofuel is the new carbon-savvy you.) Just don't binge.

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• When shopping online or by mail order, consolidate your orders into as few shipments as possible.

• Consider the benefits of buying locally made goods, which aren't transported over long distances to get to you. Or could you buy antiques as presents? They're all about recycling and reuse.

• Consider also gifts such as tickets to a play or concert, a museum membership, or art classes. They don't come with boxes and wrapping (and won't get shoved on the back of a shelf). Check out TreeHugger's roundup of holiday gift certificates.

• Could you reduce the number of holiday shopping trips you make, to save on gas? Could you bring reusable shopping bags? Most paper bags are made from virgin paper. Plastic ones are less CO2 intensive to make, but they're still made with petroleum and take hundreds of years to decompose in the landfill.

• If you're sending gifts by mail, choose small, light packages, which take up less space and fuel than big, heavy ones.

• If you're buying gifts for kids, toys made from natural materials such as wood and organic cotton are better for your CO2 count than stuff made from plastic, which is derived from fossil fuels.

• Wrapping paper—usually made from virgin materials—is a large part of the holiday-waste stream. And if it's shiny or sparkly, it can't even be recycled. If every household wrapped three gifts in recycled materials (reused maps or cloth make great trimmings), we'd save reams and reams of paper. (Here's one calculation.) Other alternatives include buying gift-wrap made from recycled paper or hemp and flax. While you're at it, try Sellotape, which is made from biodegradable plant cellulose.

• Every year, 2.65 billion holiday cards are sold in the United States. If you're buying, choose cards made from recycled paper and avoid the shiny can't-recycle kind. Even better is to send e-cards. And recycle the nonshiny cards you receive.

• A deluge of catalogs has probably already descended upon your mailbox. It takes 14 million trees to produce the mail-order books we receive annually. And along with direct mailings, catalogs account for more than 4 million tons of CO2-emitting landfill mass. Encourage the catalogs you like to use recycled paper and get off the mailing lists of those you don't want. Read this to find out how.

Christmas trees are a topic of much environmentalist debate. Fake trees are reusable but are made from petroleum-derived sources and often shipped from abroad. Real trees, for their part, are typically sprayed with lots of pesticides. And new research shows that pine-tree farms capture less CO2 than the hardwood species they're displacing in some parts of the country. Organic Christmas trees are tough to come by. Plus, of the 33 million real Christmas trees sold in North America every year, many end up in a landfill, emitting carbon dioxide as they rot. If you opt for a real tree, be sure to bring it to a local recycling center, where it can be chipped for mulch or used whole to stabilize wetlands. A better choice may be to purchase a live, potted tree, which can be planted outside after the holidays. Evergreen varieties such as pine, spruce, and fir work well in many regions.

• Replace conventional incandescent holiday string lights with their light-emitting diode counterparts. These energy-efficient strings use up to 95 percent less electricity, last up to 10 times longer, and are safer since they produce very little heat. LED lights are more expensive, but you'll shave a few dollars off your electricity bill and pounds off your carbon weight. And unlike conventional light strings, if one bulb goes bad on an LED string, the rest will still work. No matter what type of lights you use, limit yourself to keeping them on for four or five hours a day, and turn them off at night.

• Skip the tinsel and other decorations made from fossil-fuel-intensive plastics.  

• If you're decorating with candles, choose the ones made from soy wax or beeswax. Both are renewable resources, as opposed to regular paraffin candles, which are made from petroleum.

• For holiday parties, rent real plates, glasses, and silverware (or use your own) instead of using the disposable kind.

• Consider staying close to home rather than blowing your CO2 budget on high-emissions travel to faraway places.

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Meaghan O'Neill is a freelance writer and founding editor of treehugger.com, an eco-Web site and Slate's partner on the Green Challenge.

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