The holidays bring along with them a whole host of customs that help to make the season bright. We gather together to spend time with the people in our lives who mean the most to us, sharing meals and exchanging gifts as a way to honor our families or express various beliefs. It’s truly a magical time of the year.
It’s also a time of year that brings about a host of environmental questions when it comes to engaging in so many of our time honored traditions. Is it ecologically responsible to chop down a tree just to hang stuff all over it? Is a big plastic one any better? How about fires, should we or shouldn’t we? These are great questions, the answers to which are varied and complex. The fact is, very few people want to skip out on these traditions all together, which makes answering the questions less about what is best for the environment and more about what is better for it.
Obviously, choosing not to build a fire when you don’t need one to heat your home is going to be the best choice. But, people are likely going to build one on Christmas eve in an effort to create a cozy ambiance and maybe even roast a marshmallow or two anyway. That’s why we’ve compiled a holiday guide for the best ways to observe your favorite seasonal activities with the least impact on the environment. From gift wrap to glittery lights, we’ve got you covered.
Real vs. Fake: The Great Tree Debate
Most artificial trees are made of chemical laden PVC, which pumps carcinogens and green house gases into the atmosphere during production as well as pollutes water. Once made, the tree would need to be kept for no less than 10 years to make it a less environmentally damaging purchase considering that every artificial tree created will eventually end up in the landfill.
Real trees are typically grown in tree farms which produce oxygen and, studies show, actually contribute a measurable amount of carbon sequestration. They’re also recyclable, which means they won’t take up space in a landfill and their needles aren’t comprised of chemicals. If you’re not driving miles and miles to chop your own tree down, however, only to toss it into the landfill where it will release CO2 as it decays, you’re not doing a good thing for the environment either.
Other alternatives include purchasing a living tree that comes potted with the intention of replanting it in your yard. There are also tree rental options available that allow you to rent a real tree, care for it during the holiday season and then return it. Once it’s gotten too large for rental, it’s planted in the ground to become a beautiful, mature tree. You could also go completely outside the box and select a tree made of sustainable birch or highly recyclable cardboard, though these won’t look traditional. But hey, maybe that’s the vibe you’re going for this year!
If real or fake are the only options for you though, supporting the tree lot down the street and recycling your tree after the holidays is the gentler choice.
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Traditional lights vs. LED lights
LED stands for light emitting diode but it may as well stand for “less environmentally disastrous.” These babies are the clear choice when it comes to decking your halls as their superior energy efficiency over traditional bulbs cause them to use 80 percent less energy. A 100 light string of traditional incandescent lights will use about 40 watts of electricity.
That might not seem like much, but when you consider that the typical home uses about 10 strings just for the outside dazzle, you’re looking at 408 watts of electricity. The same amount of LEDs will use only 48 watts. Just one watt of electricity can produce 11 pounds of CO2, so LEDs are the clear victor here.
You may be thinking, “But, it’s paper and paper is recyclable!” You may have even purchased a roll that was produced using post consumer paper. But, come Christmas morning, far more people scoop the wreckage of those hours you spent painstakingly concealing gifts beneath shiny paper with Rudolph on it into a big ole garbage bag where it goes directly into the trash. According to Stanford University, if every family reused just two feet of holiday ribbon, it would be enough to wrap around the entire earth!
Using post consumer paper and remembering to recycle it is a great option, as is using things like paper grocery bags or even old subway maps. They lend a little character, are ultimately recyclable and didn’t require the purchase of a brand new roll of paper. An even better choice is using non-traditional options that can be reused or repurposed. Options like terra cotta pots or scarves can act like an additional gift while eliminating waste entirely!
Along the same lines as wrapping paper, the amount of holiday cards sent each year contribute to paper waste and end up in landfills once the holiday decorations come down more often than the recycling bin. An average 2.65 million holiday cards are sold every year in the U.S. That’s a whole lot of paper!
Fortunately, we live in an era of technology, which means we can send well wishes electronically. A few clicks and your customized card filled with dancing elves brandishing your image can delight your family members and save a tree in the process.
Lessening our consumption at any time of year is always the best bet when it comes to protecting the environment, and the holidays are no exception. The items we buy needed to be produced and shipped to stores where we then drive to buy them. They’ll outlive their usefulness and eventually end up in a landfill. Buying items we need is one thing, but the holidays are notorious for producing tchotchkes, trinkets and doo dads that are destined to be a holiday novelty only.
If the environment is on your mind when selecting gifts this year, why not give and experience, promise of a favor or even something yummy and plant-based to eat? Tickets to that concert or a night out to dinner, a coupon book for house chores, back rubs or homemade meals can be both incredibly thoughtful and impossible to throw away. Memories don’t end up in the landfill! Unless of course your Uncle Sal’s dream excursion is to the landfill. Hey, no judgement. To each their own.
Wood Burning Fire vs. Gas
Wood burning fires cause pollutants that are both detrimental to the environment and health, so much so that many municipalities have begun outlawing their use on certain high pollution days. What’s more, many people don’t just burn wood when preparing to make s’mores. They throw newspaper, magazine paper and other starters in to get things crackling, which contributes to the toxic particulate count. That’s not to say that gas fires are ideal either as they require the use of fossil fuels.
If the purpose of building a fire is to heat your home, selecting an EPA certified pellet, oil or gas stove is best for the environment. The stoves with this certification are cleaner burning and produce fewer emissions than traditional wood burning stoves. If it’s just for getting into the holiday spirit? We hate to say it, but the neither option is overly eco-concious. Your best bet would be to check your local listing for the annual christmas eve fire broadcast and tune in for a little splash of ambience (this is actually a thing.) If you must feel the warmth of a roaring fire, gas logs produce fewer emissions. If wood is your only option, be sure to select well seasoned firewood only, keeping away from treated logs, particle board or any other type of wood that won’t burn hot and clean.