Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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How to celebrate Christmas sustainably

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

By Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The holidays are not usually a time when people think about going green -- Christmas is all about conspicuous consumption, right? With growing awareness about climate change and the importance of energy conservation, this may be the year to take your first bite of the (sustainable) bullet.

We know what you're thinking: It'll take too great a commitment, cost a bundle, disappoint the kids and generally suck the fun out of things. Yet an eco-friendly holiday season is a lot easier (and less painful) than you might think.

Every action, both big and small, makes a difference, say the authors of "Green Christmas" (Adams Media, $7.95). Whether you try all of the following suggestions, or just one, the Earth will thank you.


Let's start with what for most of us is the most important holiday decoration: the tree. If you have to have one, buy an evergreen that's been grown locally instead of trucked in from out of state. Then, make sure you recycle it when Christmas is over (type in your ZIP code at www.earth911.org to find a nearby mulching operation). Fake trees might seem like a green choice, but most are made far away in China of plastic, a petroleum byproduct. Better yet, purchase a live tree that can be kept in a container until the spring thaw and replanted.

When decorating the tree, opt for energy-saving LED lights and wait a little longer to string them. They may cost a little more, but they use up to 90 percent less energy than traditional holiday bulbs and last up to 100,000 hours when used indoors. Automatic timers are another good idea (why keep the tree on when you can't see it?) along with reducing the size and length of outdoor light displays.

Indoors, decorate mantels and tabletops with natural ornaments gleaned from your yard or nearby woods (pinecones, holly branches) or bowls filled with oranges studded with cloves, nuts, cranberries and bits of greenery.

Instead of spending money on new ornaments, make paper chains for the tree from old magazines or wrapping paper, or hang painted egg shells or gingerbread angel cutouts from its branches. Trade flowers that are trucked in and then thrown out days later, such as poinsettia, for ones that bloom year-round, such as amaryllis. And consider candles for parties instead of lights. They're more romantic and use less energy. (Just make sure the wicks are lead-free and that you use them safely.)

Gifts and shopping

Splurging is a big part of the holidays (the more gifts, the better). If the poor economy doesn't prompt you to buy less, helping the environment might. Have a grab bag instead of buying gifts for each cousin, aunt or sibling and give friends and family a pretty coupon for some sort of service, say a free massage or room cleaning or an offer to baby sit. Better yet, make something from scratch, like cookies.

If you feel you have to buy presents, support local merchants -- you'll reduce your carbon footprint and pump much-needed dollars into the local economy -- and bring purchases home in reusable cloth bags. (Ecobags.com has a great selection.) Just as important, choose gifts that come from sustainable or recycled sources. For instance, The E House on the South Side (www.ehousecompany.com; 412-488-7455) sells coasters crafted from old motherboards ($24.95), while Fresh Heirlooms in Lawrenceville (www.freshheirlooms.com; 412-512-5098) has picture frames made from old bike chains ($36-$38) and clocks crafted from bike gears ($30-$60). Riverside Designs' "Plates with Purpose" series of custom glassware (www.riversidedesigns.com; 412-632-1061) marries sustainable materials with charitable giving; the company donates 15 percent of proceeds to the local nonprofit organizations whose missions are reflected on the plates. Cost: from $38 for a 9-inch square plate to $88 for a 14-inch square server. Web site lists retail locations.

It's festive, but wrapping paper -- including those made from recycled content -- also generates waste. A greener alternative is to use plain brown paper bags decorated with pretty ribbon or to wrap gifts in old newspaper or book pages. Or, swallow your pride and buy old rolls of paper at the thrift store.

Greener still is to make a donation in someone's name to a worthy cause. "Adopt" an acre of African grassland ($35) or a herd of giraffes ($75) through the African Wildlife Foundation's African Heartlands program or African Wildlife Adoption Center (shop.awf.org/store/). Heifer International (Heifer.org) allows donors to give poor families across the globe the gift of fast-growing livestock, bees and trees; through Oxfam America (oxfamamericaunwrapped.com; 800-850-7608), you can help irrigate a farmer's land for four months, buy needy children school supplies or uniforms or help start a village savings group.

Cooking and entertaining

If you're throwing a party, consider sending an e-vite (evite.com) instead of a paper invitation, or make the invitation yourself and deliver as many as you can by foot. Then, encourage friends to carpool to the event.

In planning the menu, choose foods that are in season and locally grown, if possible, and make leftovers so no food is wasted. To cut down on costs, make it a potluck event or consider organizing a "progressive" dinner with different courses at different houses.

The temptation will be there to make cleanup easier with plastic plates and cutlery. But "real" flatware and plates are a greener option, especially if you clean up in an Energy Star-certified dishwasher. (If there are too many guests, pick throwaway products made from recycled plastic.) Similarly, use cloth napkins and tablecloths instead of paper. Afterward, clean up with all-natural, earth-friendly cleaners such as vinegar and baking soda.

Above all, relax and have a good time. The holidays are about creating memories and celebrating fellowship and community.