Notes about your surroundings.

With this weekend signaling the official start of the holiday season, there are several ways a person can shop and decorate with an eye toward the environment. For example, some local stores have switched to or are continuing to use recycled paper for packing items to give as gifts. These include the Nature Company, J. Crew and Crate & Barrel. Following are ideas for decorating, wrapping gifts, disposing of your tree and other ways to make your holiday an environmentally aware one.

WRAPPING AND PACKING

While most of the local department stores still use high-grade paper for shopping bags, boxes and gift wrap, smaller stores have switched to recycled paper.

Brett Bell, manager of the Nature Co. in South Coast Plaza, said the gift boxes they use are made of recycled materials, and the packing material is recycled newspaper. "Last year it was tissue, but this is much better," Bell said.

Many mail delivery services, such as Mail Boxes Etc., use a mixture of recyclable paper and less ecologically minded materials for packing.

Lois Tarquin, owner of Mail Boxes Etc. in Irvine, said they use a packing product called WondraWrap that is labeled biodegradable, although plastic bubble wrap is used on fragile items. "A few customers have asked if the stuff breaks down," Tarquin said.

Other wrapping and packing hints include:

* Use cards and gift wrap made from recycled paper (available at some stationery stores and the Nature Co). How to tell if an item is made of recycled material? Look for the recycling symbol of triangular arrows, a statement saying the product is made with recycled materials or boxes with a gray interior.

* Pack fragile items in rolled newspapers or crumpled low-grade paper instead of colorful high-grade paper.

* For hand-delivered gifts, real popcorn is as good a cushion as any for packing purposes. Don't use popcorn for gifts sent through the mail, however--it attracts moisture and rodents. The worst packing materials? Those polystyrene "peanuts" and plastic bubble wrap.

* Good wrapping choices include newspapers and cellulose bags. The Sunday comics make a perfect wrap for children's gifts.

* If something can be wrapped without putting it in a box, do so. Don't put boxes inside boxes to wrap; just wrap the original box the gift came in. When you do need to use boxes, use those made of recycled materials.

THE TREE

* Many local nurseries will take your tree and turn it into mulch or wood chips; ask when you buy your tree where you can take it to be recycled. Although evergreens take somewhat longer than other foliage to decompose, they will eventually become a great mixture of mulch.

* Decorate the tree with dried flowers, which can be recycled later into potpourri or mulch.

PARTIES

* Serve appetizers and desserts that don't require paper plates.

* Don't use polystyrene foam cups for beverages; use those made out of recycled materials.

* Have at least two trash bins available for guests--one for glass and aluminum and one for the regular trash.

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