I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas

Categories: Conservation, Green Consumerism

Season’s Greetings!  Here’s a question I was pondering: how can you have a more environmentally friendly Christmas?*  This may be more difficult than it seems.  First, environmentalists are not generally known for their optimism, joyous spirit and good cheer – all of which are presumably necessary for holiday celebrations.  Second, Christmas represents gross consumerism and the purchase of disposable goods (particularly by the richest 20% of the world, which consumes 80% of goods and services), most of which are produced by underpaid labour across the globe – then shipped here – all of this, of course, necessitating the burning of more fossil fuels, and oh Lord, I’m doing it again.

Anyway, yes, we environmentalists aren’t always Grinches.  Here’s how we can all have a slightly greener Christmas:

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

So, which is better for the environment: cutting down a tree, or purchasing an artificial one?  The answer is slightly more nuanced than you might think.  In fact, last year, PE Americas conducted a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of the most common artificial trees and the most common types of real trees to get to the bottom of this and found that the results are mixed (PDF).

In short, artificial trees are reusable, and the vast majority of them are recyclable (which may not be widely known).  However, their manufacture requires the production and use of polyvinyl chlorides (PVCs), which can lead to the emission of persistent, bio-accumulating, and toxic compounds including dioxins and PCBs.  While the risk of absorbing dioxins from your own, personal Christmas tree is low, at the point of manufacture and disposal, the risk is much higher – particularly since, as the LCA shows, much of the artificial Christmas trees are produced in China.

At the same time, if you’re concerned about emissions of GHGs, keeping an artificial tree for longer than 4 years lowers your carbon footprint more than if you bought a real tree each year – particularly if doing so requires shipping the tree for long distances.  Moreover, as agricultural products, Christmas trees often require pesticides, including Roundup and lindane, which is a persistent organic pollutant (POP).

Personally, my preference is to go for the lindane-enhanced real tree.  They smell better than the artificial ones – all piney, and delicious – and if you manage to buy local, they tend to be better than, or even with, artificial trees in terms of GHG emissions.  In addition, by avoiding the production of PVCs, real trees are less likely to contribute to dioxin production.  While lindane is incredibly toxic, dioxins may be the most problematic of the widely-used POPs.

Eat All the Food on Your Plate (but Don’t Pile it On)

No, this isn’t about the starving children in Ethiopia (and I never understood how eating all my food helped the starving children in any way – why couldn’t I just ship my casserole to them instead, huh Grandma?).  Rather, when it comes to Christmas dinner, try to eat less, but eat all of what you take.

In a 2009 study (PDF) carried out by a National Institute of Diabetes in Bethesda, Maryland (and published by the Denmark Institute of Preventive Medicine), food waste has a deleterious impact on the environment.  Wasted food means wasted water and wasted fossil fuels, both in production and disposal.  In addition, producing food we don’t eat requires the introduction and emission of GHGs, pesticides, and herbicides – in addition to agricultural runoff and other forms of pollution.  It’s bad enough that we have to do this for subsistence – it’s downright insulting when we contribute to these processes for no productive reason.  In fact, the study indicates that 1/4 of freshwater consumed in the US goes to the production of food waste, a serious problem considering the water shortages plaguing the Southwest of the USA.

Of course, the solution is not really to eat everything that has been produced on the market – hello, rising obesity rates – but rather, to eat less (but hopefully eat better food).  And eat it all!

Get Good Gifts – or Consider Charity

Get good gifts!  Try to be thoughtful, instead than buying something likely to be disposed, just to have an item under the real/artificial tree.  I personally would like to reinstate cash as an appropriate gift, but also consider donating to a charity in the name of someone as well.  Donating to charity also brings socioeconomic benefits, as well as environmental, considering all the people who are doing without in these trying economic times.

Anyway, hopefully this hasn’t been too Grinchy.  Have a happy holidays!  I leave you with one of my favourite Christmas songs of all time:

*I realize this leaves out all those who don’t celebrate Christmas; hopefully there will not be too many posts that are this parochial.

About Kemi Fuentes-George

I am a professor in environmental studies and political science at Middlebury College.

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