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Have a holly, jolly (eco-friendly) Christmas

Putting the emphasis on making the holidays green can help the planet, along with your pocketbook

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / December 15, 2008
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First, drop the tinsel. Now, back away from that wrapping paper.

When decking the halls this holiday, environmentalists say, consumers might want to ask themselves: Just how "green" is that Christmas tree? Pondering the provenance of a conifer, as well as the items you put on or under it - and considering how you will eventually dispose of them - will not only help the planet, it might save some money.

"At Christmastime, it's funny, people that are green throughout the year, they get rushed, they have a lot of things to do and green goes out the window," said Peter Sander, co-author of "Green Christmas: How to Have a Joyous, Eco-Friendly Holiday Season."

Many people sprinkle hard-to-recycle tinsel on trees, plug in strands of energy-sucking holiday lights, and wrap gifts in rolls of specialty paper, all with one goal: to spread holiday cheer. As a result, according to Sander's book, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Americans produce an extra two billion pounds of trash a week. We also mail enough holiday cards to fill a football field 10 stories high.

But don't can Christmas just yet. From locally grown trees to energy-saving LEDs, Sander and other environmentalists have plenty of suggestions for greening the holiday celebrations.

If your celebration usually includes a tree, most environmentalists recommend getting a real one - they clean the air and preserve green space before being cut down, and can be turned into mulch after the holidays.

"The alternative is a manufactured tree that comes from China; they have to be trucked halfway around the world," Sander said. "The choice is obvious, unless you live in Arizona, where the tree has to be trucked 1,000 miles anyway."

Steve Long, director of government relations for the Massachusetts chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said he and his children usually go to a nearby tree farm so his two boys can put their Boy Scout know-how to use.

"I have three kids and I think that gives them a really good connection to where the tree comes from," Long said.

Rick Dungey, public relations manager for the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade group which promotes the use of real trees, said one in five real Christmas trees purchased last year - over 31 million total - were bought at a local "choose and harvest" farm. And farmers later planted at least 45 million new trees as replacements.

When it comes to decorations, consumers might want to make like the state and switch to energy-saving holiday lights. Doing so helped Massachusetts cut its holiday-related electric bill for the State House tree from about $775 to $12.85 last year, according to the state's energy and environmental affairs office.

The federal energy department estimates that light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, save about 90 percent on electricity costs. If every US household made the switch this season, it could save about $410 million in electricity costs, the department said.

The Nature Conservancy and Sander also recommend scrapping disposable decorations, such as tinsel, in favor of ornaments that have been in a family for a long time, natural ornaments made out of pine cones from the yard, or ornaments made from sustainable or organic products, or by local artists.

Scott Walker, co-owner of Greenward - an "eco-modern" housewares boutique in Cambridge - said ornaments made out of reclaimed wool and bamboo and organic cotton and hemp stockings were popular last year and remain big sellers this holiday season.

"I have a lot of people coming back saying, 'Oh, I'm coming back to get these ornaments. I saw that you had them last year,' " Walker said.

And don't forget the presents that sit beneath the ornaments.

Jack Kittredge, policy coordinator for the state chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, a group that advocates for organic food, said he and his wife like to give gifts made out of things they grow on their farm in Barre, such as garlic braids, dried peaches, and homemade wine.

Whatever the gift, the eco-conscious say, try to cut back on wrapping paper. Newspaper, reusable cloth bags, and even recycled maps from old trips make good substitutes.

"We don't have to do without, we just have to be smarter, think differently about Christmas," said Emily Bateson, deputy director of the nonprofit environmental advocacy group Environment Northeast. "And the benefit is that you don't have a mountain of trash at the end holidays."

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.

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