Mind & Body

Have Yourself a Merry—and Sustainable—Holiday

Think of environmental consciousness as taking a step back and focusing on the season.
Have Yourself a Merry—and Sustainable—Holiday
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IT'S THE ULTIMATE HOLIDAY hangover: waking up on January 1 amid piles of crumpled wrapping paper, heaps of presents that may never be used, and mounds of quickly spoiling leftovers. The mistletoe's gone brown, the gay apparel is stained with eggnog, and all that's left is exhaustion and a wellspring of guilt—not to mention a mindboggling amount of waste.

Americans toss away an extra 2 billion pounds of garbage weekly between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, says Robert Lilienfeld, co-author of Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are. "From an environmental perspective, consumption—whether of material goods or energy—poses the greatest threat of anything we do," he declares. "So making more with less during the holidays has enormous impact."

Being environmentally conscious also reduces your holiday stress. Cutting back on the overdoing and overspending helps keep your immune system strong and winter-cold-resistant. It also brings more personal value to a celebration that can feel generic and hollow.

Think of environmental consciousness as taking a step back and focusing on the season. You have your friends and family around, so take advantage of that and spend time with people rather than focusing on gift giving.

Do yourself and the earth a favor: Before you decorate your home, wrap your gifts, and set out your buffet, consider these paths to a happier holiday:

O Tannenbaum
EVERY YEAR, roughly 35 million Christmas trees are cut down and sold, serving as a major source of holiday waste. Does that mean you should hang your ornaments on the coat rack? Don't feel guilty about buying a tree—holiday trees are grown as a sustainable crop; in fact, 1 acre of Christmas trees produces enough oxygen to support 18 people, and provides habitats for birds and wildlife. Buying an artificial tree isn't a better choice, since most faux foliage is made from earth-toxic PVC.

The very best thing you can do is buy a live tree—not a cut tree, but a live tree, with a root ball. Live trees can be found at most nurseries and some tree lots. When you're done with it, plant the tree in your garden. This requires some forethought, particularly in colder climates where you'll need to break up the ground for planting before it freezes; you'll also need to keep a live tree moist, and indoors for no longer than a week. If that's not possible, purchase your cut tree from a tree farm that shuns pesticides and chemicals.

Unhappily, the vast majority of holiday trees end up in landfills, wrapped in plastic and trailing tinsel. Never dump your tree at the curb for the garbage collectors. Instead, take your de-decorated tree to a collection center, where it will be recycled—for example, ground up as mulch for use in city parks. To find one of the more than 3,800 centers that accept old trees (some curbside pickup), visit earth911.org or call your city's public works department.

Deck the Halls
DECORATING FOR the holidays is a great opportunity for personal expression, yet many people fall back on petroleum-based strands of tinsel, a plastic Santa Claus on the lawn, and old-fashioned lights that blaze from November until Groundhog Day. We waste as much as 40 percent more energy during Christmas than during the rest of the year by burning lights and doing extra driving. Look for energy-efficient LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs, which burn just as brightly as regular tree lights but use 5 percent of the energy and last up to 100 times longer; they're available at greenhome.com.

Rather than filling the house with store-purchased trinkets—which typically are mass-produced, easily broken, and destined for landfills—make your decorations personal and/or biodegradable. Fashion winter squash and pomegranates accented with fragrant cinnamon sticks and nutmeg into wreaths and centerpieces. No time? Buy a biodegradable wreath made from birdseed for your front door; browse for one at gardeners.com. Let meaningful souvenirs and photographs take the place of glass and aluminum ornaments.