The holiday season is a time of festivities, friends, family, food, and (hopefully), fun! Yet this time of year can also bring with it excesses that can harm the environment. For example, over 85 million tons of wrapping paper are used in the United States throughout the year, much of it at Christmas. Approximately 25 to 30 million live Christmas trees are purchased in the United States, and another 6 million are purchased in the United Kingdom. Many of these trees end up incinerated or in landfills after the holidays. Each year, Americans send over 2 billion holiday cards and use over 38,000 miles of ribbon. Tons of aluminum foil are used for cooking, and thousands of pounds of dyes, glitter, glue, and tape are used for wrapping presents. Millions of plastic toys will be broken within a few months of their purchase. Extra holiday waste contributes over 1 million extra tons of garbage a week to already overcrowded landfills.
The holiday season is a perfect time to consider ways to create sustainable, healthy holiday traditions that provide fun and festivities while supporting a healthy planet.
Our very survival depends on the health of our planet. If the earth is unhealthy, we will have trouble maintaining our health. One of the best ways to support a healthy planet is to educate ourselves about the many ways we can influence those around us by making small changes to our own lives, especially during the holidays. The ripple effect of our actions can be profound. By learning ways to vote with our wallets (purchasing products and services that are “green,” ethical, and sustainable), understanding how our life choices can impact the lives of those who are thousands of miles away, and taking the time to understand even a few key challenges facing the planet, we can make a significant difference. As noted anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
You don’t have to wait for a special day to become aware of how your health and the health of the planet are intertwined. Begin today to create a healthier environment for yourself, your family and friends, and everyone who shares our planet. Here are some ways to celebrate the season without harming the earth.
- Create environmentally friendly holiday traditions. Choose to use wrapping paper made of cloth or fabric so it can be reused, or create wrapping paper from recycled paper. According to one source, if every American family wrapped three presents using recycled materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields. If you purchase a live tree, buy one that can be planted at the end of the holidays. A fake tree is petroleum-based and is not biodegradable. Re-gift presents that you don’t need by giving them to someone who might need them. Use real glass and flatware for parties instead of paper plates and plastic utensils.
- Choose to shop differently. Buy less, look for locally made gifts, and avoid gifts with batteries. Bring your own shopping bag to the store. Think about the packaging of the products you purchase. While recycling helps, try to purchase products with less packaging, packaging made from recycled products, or products grown organically. Investigate the companies and countries where your products originate and support only those that make products that are safe for the planet.
- Choose LED (light-emitting diodes) instead of incandescent bulbs to decorate your home and your tree. They are more expensive initially but they last longer and use 80-90% less power than conventional mini bulbs.
- Choose nonviolence. Avoid television, the Internet, games, toys, and products that show violence, death, or other negative images. Consider instituting a “news fast” by avoiding news on the television, Internet, or in the newspaper at least one day a week. It can renew your spirit, reduce your stress, and help you focus on what is positive and healthy in your life. Learn effective ways to communicate that support healthy, nonviolent interactions.
- Be conscious. Instead of buying everyone on your list more “stuff,” consider donating to a charity in that person’s name or offering to provide a service (such as babysitting) instead.
Each day, you have the choice to make simple, conscious decisions about your everyday life. These choices influence your mental and physical health and greatly impact the health of all who inhabit this planet. Take the time and you will reap the rewards!
If you are interested in living a healthier life and supporting a healthy planet all year long, consider these additional steps:
- Begin at home. Lower your thermostat, landscape with native plants to save water and support local wildlife, use low-flow toilets and faucets, limit the length of your shower, turn off the water while brushing your teeth, and consider solar heating.
- Go zero. Reduce your carbon footprint by purchasing food locally, carpooling, combining errands, turning off your car engine instead of idling, choosing renewable energy sources for your home, choosing organic meats and produce, practicing reduce/reuse/recycle, and purchasing higher mileage, electric, or hybrid cars.
- Join a community garden or “pocket park,” or create your own backyard garden. Get to know your neighbors and grow fresh, organic vegetables and herbs at the same time. Create a green space that provides shade, clean air, and a place to gather or relax.
- Plant a tree. If properly placed, a tree can reduce cooling costs, improve your health, increase the value of your home, and absorb excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
- Choose organic, local, seasonal food. This reduces fossil fuel processing costs, supports community farmers, and is healthier for the planet.
- Get outside. Exercise outdoors, sit in a hammock, get together with family and friends, enjoy the fresh air, or have a picnic. It doesn’t matter what you do—just do it outside.
- Get involved. Earth Day grew out of a time in history when rivers were literally burning, you couldn’t see across the street because of smog, and birth defects were on the rise. Whatever your passion, get involved. One voice can—and does—make a difference. Write your Congressional representative, bike to work, volunteer, or recycle.
- Think before you toss. Consider where your discarded item will end up and how it will get there. Will a diesel garbage truck haul it miles away, into a poor neighborhood, next to a power plant? Consider ways to divert your trash from the waste stream altogether. Use something more than once, repair and maintain it, compost it if possible, or only buy it if you really need it. Avoid impulse buying and donate what you no longer need. Don’t litter and consider picking up after a stranger.
- Support clean water initiatives. Use safe, nontoxic cleaning products. Consider how your waste impacts oceans and sea life. Support organizations that harvest seafood sustainably and don’t take part in whaling, overfishing, or factory fishing. Know what’s in your local water and use a filter if necessary. Pick up after pets. Recycle. Avoid using plastic products. Plastic debris kills over 1 million seabirds and hundreds of thousands of marine mammals each year. Chemicals in plastic have been linked to cancer and other diseases. Use glass, metal, or paper instead and dispose of all items responsibly.