Pandemic notwithstanding, most of us will engage in some amount of festive cooking, home decorating, gift giving, and celebration in the next two months. We all have an opportunity to make some consumer choices to lighten the impact of our merrymaking on the environment. Here are some ideas!
Not all candles are created equal
Let’s start with the humble candle. Until I did the research for this installment of the Notebook, I had never realized that inexpensive candles are made from paraffin wax, a petroleum by-product. They are chockful of carcinogenic chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde that are released into the air along with smoke and carbon dioxide as the candle burns.
Beeswax candles are a far better choice than those made from paraffin. They don’t emit any smoke or toxins and they are made from a renewable resource. They are easy to find in stores and online, but if you are feeling crafty you can also make your own. Beeswax is hard to infuse with scent but you can always stick cloves in an orange if you want your home to smell nice!
You have another option that is a bit more complicated: candles made from soybeans or palm oil. Soy and palm oil plantations, while providing employment for many, have caused the deforestation of millions of acres in Indonesia and other countries. However, candles made from them can be eco-friendly if sourced from sustainable, traceable crops. You’d need to do some research to verify the origins of the product.
The Lowdown on Gift Wrap
Americans spend a lot of money on gift wrap, which accounts for roughly 10% of the US paper market revenue. And half of the 4.6 million pounds of gift wrap produced each year ends up in landfills. Not to mention that approximately 38,000 miles worth of ribbon is also purchased during the holiday season.
Some types of wrapping paper may be considered recyclable by some hauling services, but Marin Sanitary Service is not one of them. They advise customers to put all wrapping paper in the landfill cart. Other haulers may accept unlaminated wrapping paper for recycling; however, paper that is metallic, has glitter on it, or has a texture is rarely if ever considered recyclable.
Also, resist the temptation to burn your wrapping paper in the fireplace. Many of us did this in the olden days. But we now know that wrapping paper releases noxious smoke containing dioxins and heavy metals when it is burned.
Alternatives to Traditional Gift Wrapping
Gift-givers may want to consider alternatives to wrapping paper. Here are a few unusual ways to wrap a gift:
- Use a dishcloth, produce bag, or other reusable fabric item
- Swath the gifts in used maps, newspaper, or brown paper bags
- Offer the items in mason jars or vintage boxes and tins
- Make your own wrapping paper, maybe by printing it with carved pieces of apple or raw potato
The Christmas Tree Conundrum
|Eco-friendly option or environmentalist nightmare?
Some argue that artificial trees are better for the environment than natural ones because the consumer can reuse them every year. However, artificial trees are made of non-renewable plastics and petroleum-based products. They take five times more energy to produce than natural ones. Eventually they are thrown into landfills. And the analyses I’ve seen indicate that you’d have to reuse your artificial tree for about 20 years before it is more sustainable than a real one.
In contrast, natural trees are a renewable resource. It takes about seven years to grow a six-foot Christmas tree, and during that time it is acting as a carbon sink, trapping carbon dioxide.
Perhaps the most sustainable solution is to buy a live tree and plant it in a pot, thereby allowing you to reuse it in subsequent years. However, most people buy cut trees from lots. One heartening point is that trees harvested on Christmas tree farms are not cut to the ground. The technique is more akin heavy pruning. The farmer lops off the top for sale but allows the rest of the tree to continue growing for another year.
Your tree can also be put to good use after its holiday service is over. Most communities have curbside collection services for Christmas trees, or you can drop your tree off at a collection site. According to the Marin Sanitary Service, “Some of the holiday trees are ground up and used as mulch or further composted to create soil amendment. Other trees are chipped and used as a biomass fuel source at a Co-Generation power plant. These trees replace traditional fossil fuel sources like coal and are considered a carbon neutral fuel source.”
Carbon Offsets: A Gift to the Planet
One other thing to bear in mind is the emissions caused by frequent flying during the holidays (at least, pre-pandemic). Overall, flights were responsible for 2.4 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2018 — a figure expected to grow more than threefold by 2050.
Carbon offsets offer a way for consumers to balance out their pollution by investing in projects that reduce emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If you’re taking a flight from San Francisco to Chicago, for example, you can purchase a carbon offset to account for the specific environmental impact of your voyage. The projects you will be investing in range from planting trees to improved forest management to working with farmers and ranchers to avoid practices that generate methane gas.
Purchasing a carbon offset is not expensive — likely less than $10 for an SF to Chicago flight. Click here to find out more about how to buy them.
Getting Down to the Essentials…
The seven principles
Eschewing elaborate gifts and fancy holiday decorations is not just about environmental sustainability but also presents an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of human connection and commitment to higher ideals during this important time of the year.
In 1965, many children watched A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time. As Charlie bumbles his way to the truth about the holiday, he inspires his friends to abandon gaudy (dog)house decorations (Snoopy), long lists of desired gifts (Sally), and self-aggrandizing entertainment plans (Lucy). When Lucy sends Charlie and Linus to get a "great big, shiny aluminum tree…maybe painted pink," Charlie picks the only natural tree, a sorry-looking twig too weak to hold up a single ornament. But as Charlie’s friends gather to nurture the twig it transforms into a brilliant, beautiful tree. Fifty-five years later, this simple show and its message of unity, purpose, and faith continue to inspire us.
This year has been deeply unsettling for numerous reasons, and many of us may be feeling off-kilter, anxious, bereft, and even traumatized. But the symbols of the upcoming holidays can help us remember the pleasure, meaning, and fulfillment to be found in acknowledging and celebrating our deep connection to each other and to our planet.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. I wish you happiness and good health as we sort through the remaining political and medical challenges coming our way! As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, comments and suggestions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book at www.wildflowerbook.com. Visit www.winterbadger.com to see more birds and other images.