At the GoodGuide office, we’re starting to think about Christmas. In between our hard work on improving our data and assembling our Holiday Guide to Safe Toys, we’re looking forward to our first annual Christmas party and spending a vacation home with our families. To prepare for all the holiday cheer, I talked with fellow environmental experts on and off campus and drew up a list of the Top Ways To Make Christmas Safe and Sustainable – while keeping it just as fun, if not more!
- Eat Local
- Eat Less Meat
- Buy Toys that are Safe, Durable, and Use Little Packaging
- Give Different Gifts
- Travel Less – or Offset it
- Send Electronic Greetings
- Buy Reusable Christmas Trees
- Cut Back on your Lighting, or Use Energy Efficient Lights
Eat Local. Cook and eat just enough food that is made locally, fresh, and with little packaging. One of the best ways to reduce your footprint on the environment is to buy foods that come from within 100 miles of where you live. This will ensure the food is fresh and healthy, and emits less carbon. Personally, I like going to my local farmer’s market on the weekends. The vendors there avoid packaging that is less healthy and use plastic, cardboard, or metal that I’d eventually just throw away.
Eat Less Meat. I enjoy eating meat as much as anyone, but recently I’ve been reading about how producing meat is a major contributor to climate change. Raising cattle, pigs, turkeys, and chicken in the US consumes a lot of corn, oil, and fertilizers that end up emitting up to 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas. You don’t need to stop eating meat –- just eat less.
Buy Toys that are Safe, Durable, and Use Little Packaging. Think about the durability of the toys that you give. Wood toys can last a lot longer than many flimsy plastic toys that break the first few times they’re used. I still have all the boxes of Lego bricks that I played with over 30 years ago, and now my young nephews can use them. The longer a toy lasts, the longer until it becomes part of a landfill. Additionally, toy safety is a major concern. Of 1,500 popular toys tested by The Ecology Center, 1 in 3 were found to contain significant levels of toxic chemicals such as lead and mercury. To help you find the safest toys, use GoodGuide’s new Toys data to choose toys that don’t have toxics and are made ethically, with respect for workers around the planet.
Give Different Gifts. Be creative! You could give gifts of donations to charities, a membership in a car share company, babysitting, housecleaning, your own baked cookies, or your own knitted clothes. Think about what your creative skills are then use them! This will also help save you valuable money in the economic crisis. My personal skill is pottery, so I’m planning to make some small clay pieces to give away to my family this year.
Travel Less –- or Offset it. Every Christmas, millions of people travel by car or air to be with their loved ones. It’s hard to cut back on this travel, but you can offset it by buying carbon credits, or travelling in less damaging ways (like taking trains instead of flying for short distances). Driving to go shopping is also a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention high gas costs. Buying locally will limit the distances that you drive to shop, as will taking buses or carpooling to the mall. Also, if you can cut back on ordering packages delivered by FedEx or UPS, that will help reduce the transportation impacts.
Send Electronic Greetings. I was stunned to hear that Americans send over 7 billion greeting cards a year, and many of these cards will be dumped. Electronic cards used to be a geeky way to share your Christmas mood with your family and friends, but they have improved greatly in their quality and expressiveness in the last few years. They can even be animated or show slide-shows of your family.
Buy Reusable Christmas Trees. When I walk down the street in my neighborhood after New Year’s, I always see piles of Christmas trees with browning leaves. It makes me sad to see these trees ending up at the dump. But, there are a few alternatives here: You either buy a live tree in a pot that you can plant outdoors afterwards, you can purchase a locally and sustainably grown tree and make sure to compost it after Christmas, or you can buy a plastic tree that you can use for decades to come. Different experts recommend each of these three options, but everyone is in agreement that throwing your tree away every year is not the greenest option.
Cut Back on your Lighting, or Use Energy Efficient Lights. In my street, I’m amazed and enthralled as my neighbors start decorating their houses with spectacular light displays. But these lights can use massive amounts of electricity, costing both energy and money. If this sounds like your normal house, try a smaller display. My energy expert tells me that I should use LED lights that can save 90% in electricity costs and last much longer. Another good tip: you don’t need to leave lights on all night – connect them to a timer that turns them off after everyone has gone to sleep.
Recycle. Opportunities for Christmas recycling are everywhere: You can wrap your gifts in recycled paper, bring your own shopping bags to avoid using plastic bags, and make your Christmas decorations from things lying around the house (this will also cut down on buying cheap decorations that are often made from very exploited workers in Asia). My mother has a big box of old wrapping papers that she carefully retrieves after each Christmas day.
While it’s important to maintain our Christmas traditions, we can update them to be more safe and sustainable. Many of these steps are small, and you don’t need to do them all at once. Find the ones that work for you and your family, and see what you can do to make your Christmas a little greener!
Merry Christmas to you! We’ll have many more exciting blogs coming up in 2009.
This post was written by Professor Alastair Iles is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Iles studies science, technology, and environment, with a focus on how technologies – ranging from chemistry, energy systems, environmental health monitoring, to information technology – affect society and the environment. He received his PhD in Environmental Law and Policy from Harvard University, and previously studied Law at the University of Melbourne, Australia.