Green Christmas: How to make your holiday more environmentally friendly

Peter Reuell

It may have been white Christmases Bing Crosby dreamed of, but for a growing number of people, the holiday comes in a different color - green.

In an age with record-high gas prices, hybrid cars and concerns about climate change, many people are looking for a way to make their holidays more environmentally friendly.

Going green this time of year is actually easier than most people think, experts said this week, and it doesn't even mean re-gifting that fruitcake you got last year.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

One of the easiest ways to save on waste during the holidays, said Robert Lilienfeld, is recycling.

The co-author of the book "Use Less Stuff," Lilienfeld estimates as much as a million tons of extra garbage, or about 25 pounds per family, per week, is thrown out each week between Thanksgiving and New Year's day.

"That was 10 years ago, so now it's probably closer to 1.2 or 1.3 million tons," Lilienfeld said this week. "Does it make a difference? Yeah, it does. The issue isn't what each of us does, the issue is what all of us do."

Recycling simple items, like gift wrap, boxes and gift packaging, can save thousands of tons of garbage from winding up in landfills.

If every family reused just two feet of holiday ribbon, he said, the savings would be enough to wrap the entire planet in a giant bow.

"Everybody thinks, I don't need to be a tree-hugger, the guy next door is," Lilienfeld said. "The problem is the guy next door can't overcome, by himself, what the rest of us do.

"From that perspective, before you go out and buy some wrapping paper, the odds are really good you still have some left from last year, so go ahead and use what you already have."

Or better yet, he said, don't use wrapping paper at all.

"There are plenty of things you have around the house that serve as pretty good wrapping paper and are pretty easy to recycle," he said, like newspaper, magazines or old maps.

Best of all, Lilienfeld said, consider wrapping gifts in reusable bags or boxes, or in fabrics which can be reused year after year.

"To a kid, wrapping paper is an impediment, they don't really care how pretty it is," he said. "The reason to wrap is to create a surprise. If that's the case, a piece of notebook paper works just fine, thank you!"

The other major source of recyclable material during the holidays doesn't come under the tree, but shows up in mailboxes weeks or months earlier.

While catalogs may be more convenient than trips to the mall, the millions sent to homes during the holiday shopping season add up to tons of potentially recyclable paper.

Rather than simply urging catalog recycling, some experts are asking whether people should be getting them in the first place.

"We offer something we call a junk mail reduction kit," said Greg Cooper, deputy director of consumer programs at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Web sites like CatalogChoice.org, meanwhile, offer services similar to telemarketing "do not call" lists, but with one important difference. Consumers who visit the site can choose which catalogs they want to get, while blocking those they don't.

"What's interesting about that is it's not a consumer saying don't send anything to me," Cooper said. "You can go through and say, 'I really don't want the health and safety equipment catalog.'

It starts with a tree

What would the holidays be without a tree?

The question of exactly what type of tree is best, though, is a tougher one to answer.

While artificial trees can be re-used year after year, most are made from PVC and other plastics, said Ron Wik, nursery business director at the New England Wildflower Society.

"There are some concerns about having that synthetic, chemical-ridden thing sitting in a confined room that's fairly warm with warm lights on it," he said.

But if the question is one of cut tree versus live, potted tree, the answer is easy, right?

Not so fast, Wik said.

The temperature shock of taking the tree from a cool, outdoor environment, warming it up to temperatures inside most homes, then planting it in frigid weather often does more harm than good.

"With potted trees, it's very weird," he said. "It seems like the right way to go, but typically, taking a tree from November, when it's 30 degrees outside, and taking it into a warm home, it puts huge stress on the tree. The likelihood a tree will be successful when planted outside is very low.

"They never really fill out that nicely," he added. "The ones I've seen, they always have this stunted appearance. They look bad."

That leaves as the best option - paradoxically - a tree that's been cut down.

Most such trees, Wik said, are raised on tree farms, so cutting the trees don't damage forests, and can even be recycled into mulch once the holidays are over.

"They do draw materials out of the Earth...but it does keep land that could be developed into a subdivision as a green space," he said.

Even cut trees, however, aren't without their concerns.

In years past, Wik said, he's heard stories about unscrupulous tree sellers using spray paint, which can be toxic, to keep their trees looking green.

To avoid such problems, he suggested, make sure to buy locally, or buy from one of many organic tree farms.

"It's a great way to contribute to the local economy," he said. "Practically every community has local tree growers."

And after the last candy cane is long gone, the tree can be recycled into garden mulch.

"Most communities do have tree recycling programs," he said. "Once mulched, they decompose pretty quickly. A lot of times they'll be used in landscaping projects, or can become a soil additive later. The cons are far outweighed by the pros."

Get the LED on

A tree without lights, though, hardly conjures up the holiday spirit.

Stringing up lights, and keeping them lit, can be a pricey proposition, especially as the cost of energy continues to rise.

Those interested in saving money, experts say, should make the switch from traditional incandescent lights to LED lights.

"They're 90 percent more efficient," said Lisa Capone, a spokeswoman for the state's Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

For an average home, it costs about $120 to keep incandescent lights on during the holidays. To do the same with LEDs, the cost is just $25.

"The past couple years, it's getting more and more popular," said David Veron, president of the Veron Company.

The Marlborough company specializes in putting up holiday light displays for homeowners and commercial clients, and Veron said he always tries to steer clients toward LEDs.

"I think people think the green thing is about fuel-efficient cars and trash and recycling," Veron said. "We always suggest it. I think the go green thing is something that's starting to come about more and more."

While the up-front costs can be higher for the large displays Veron handles, smaller sets of LED lights are typically priced the same as traditional lights.

Besides cost, though, the modern lights are often safer than traditional lights.

"I don't want to leave the lights on, because it gets so hot," Veron said, of traditional lights. "Especially inside, you're talking about a fire hazard. The LED (lights) do not get hot, even if you leave them on all night."

Green gifts

With some shopping around, even gift-giving can go green.

Dozens of retailers can be found online, offering a wide array of green or environmentally friendly items, from solar-powered chargers for plug-in devices to monitors which track how much electricity you use in your home.

With an estimated one in five shoppers planning to buy at least some "green" gifts, even larger retailers are hoping to enter the market.

WalMart stores are carrying several items, including baby clothes and pajamas, made from organic cotton, as well as clothing made from bamboo, which can be used to make rayon.

Among the most popular green gifts are light bulbs.

Many retailers now carry energy-sipping, long-lasting compact fluorescent bulbs, making them a popular gift among those interested in making the holiday more environmentally-friendly.

While many retailers may carry special green products, the truth is going green doesn't have to be a chore, Cooper said.

"What we try to stress is being green doesn't have to ruin your holidays," he said. "(There are) lots of things you can do that don't interrupt or change what happens to your holiday time.

"Not only can you feel good about the holidays...but you can feel good you're taking the measures as best you can to help the environment."

MetroWest Daily News staff writer Peter Reuell can be reached at 508-626-4428, or at preuell@cnc.com.