Whatever your understanding of what life is all about, the holidays are a ritual practice that brings people together. There are different ways people go about this, but we all enjoy getting together with friends and family, the meals we share, and the cool stuff we get under the tree.
The question I have had for too long is what happens with all the trash we generate the day after. When a Christmas tree appears on the side of the road, and then another one, this ends up multiplying by the thousands those trees that sadly end in the trash.
It’s no question that for all the joy around the holidays, there is too much waste involved. The amount of garbage increases up to 25% during the holidays. That means an extra 5 million tons of trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. That’s why the Saturday after Christmas when many rush to buy more stuff, my wife and I made the first year-end resolution for a “Green Holiday in 2010" "” to do more with less, with the extra reward that when saving money, energy and resources we are doing good for the planet. And we’ve come up with ideas we believe can make the biggest impact on the environment.
The first is that the lighted decorations around the house are to be on a switch or timer to reliably turn off during daylight hours and bedtime to reduce energy costs. We also decided to complete the transition we started outdoors with LED lights for the tree, replacing the traditional incandescent bulbs with light-emitting diodes (LED).
These lights have many benefits over conventional lighting: from 90% energy-efficiency when compared with an incandescent mini-lights, a longer life span of up to 100,000 hours when used indoors, and no chance of combustion because the bulbs are cool regardless of how long they are on.
Despite a higher initial cost, LEDs are a clear winner over incandescent when you spread the cost over the years. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, if everyone replaces their conventional holiday light strings with LEDs, at least 2 billion-kilowatt hours of electricity could be saved.
As for the tree, even when almost all seasonal ones sold are grown on tree farms, we just don’t like to kill a tree to decorate the house. The alternatives then are to buy or rent a living tree that can be replanted come January. Living trees also contribute to positive indoor air quality, and avoid the presence of carcinogens found on the fire retardants applied to cut trees in the house.
Also, if the city can work with local suppliers by selecting local specimens that can grow in our community, the need for water, pesticides and fertilizers can be reduced, when helping the success rate for the trees’ transition into and out of the home. Because living trees produce oxygen, sucking up dioxide, this can be a yearlong contribution to the “Cycle of Life."
The city of Laguna Beach and Waste Management are sponsoring a recycling program that chip trees into mulch for use on gardens, parks, trails and landscaping. And yet in many places green waste still ends up in landfills, discarded with regular trash and incinerated, polluting the air we breathe.
As for artificial trees, while I hope to see better design options in the future, the fake trees from China with thousands of miles of embedded trip energy are not an option even when they can be reused year after year, because significant amounts of energy and petroleum-based materials are used during production.
Regarding ornaments, our concerns are the same and because there are endless creative possibilities, why not get the kids and friends to create our own, transforming discarded items into colorful ornaments for next Christmas? We have already put away greeting cards, gift bags, wrapping paper and ribbons to reuse next year. And instead of buying stuff, we promise to give gifts that can be experienced, enjoyed and shared together, like tickets to a concert or the theater.
When we decided to began this journey we surfed the web, and found some astounding data from the U.K. Department for the Environment, estimating their rubbish bins at the end of the festivities to contain as much as 1 billion Christmas cards (17 for every man, woman and child); 6 million Christmas trees; 4,200 tons of aluminum foil; and 125,000 tons of plastic packaging.
The mountains of trash will also include 32 square miles of wrapping paper. In America, the composition of holiday trash is similar, but multiply by eight. Something can begin to change with you.
GUSTAVO GRAD lives in Laguna Beach.