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The Hidden Life of the holidays

By Dashka Slater

As the holidays approach, environmentalists often feel pangs of guilt. The freshly chopped tree in the living room, the heaps of landfill-bound wrapping paper and packaging, the wattage-wasting lights twinkling in the windows—nearly every aspect of the celebratory season seems fraught with ecological misdeeds. And the statistics aren’t pretty: Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Americans throw away 25 percent more trash, producing an additional 5 million tons of garbage. They also boost their electricity consumption 27 percent and harvest 32 million trees. But you don’t have to be a Grinch to be green. Here’s how to deck the halls without wrecking the earth.

GIVING GREEN: Wrap presents in recycled paper, old calendars, outdated maps, the Sunday funnies, or children’s artwork. Decorate with raffia bows, evergreen snippets, or labels made from old holiday cards. If every family wrapped just three gifts this way, it would save enough ribbon to tie a bow around the earth, and enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields. (Check out for more green-gifting advice.)

BRIGHT IDEAS: Adding light to the dark season is part of every religious tradition, but there’s no need to squander power to celebrate right. Use energy-efficient lights and put them on a timer. Look for fewer bulbs on longer lengths, or try LED lights, which use up to 90 percent less energy than traditional seven-watters.

TREE-FARM FACTS: The Christmas-tree question isn’t as clear-cut (if you’ll pardon the expression) as it appears. Ninety-eight percent of tannenbaums were grown on farms, not in forests, so it’s not as if you’re stringing lights on Luna. And the million acres devoted to tree plantations in the United States do offer some breeding and foraging habitat for birds and other animals. The big downside is the more than 40 different pesticides used in tree farming, including nasty ones like the herbicide atrazine, a hormone disrupter linked to prostate cancer, and the fumigant methyl bromide. The quest for a flawless fir or perfect pine has also led some growers to spray trees with chemical colorants, or even experiment with cloning. If you do choose a cut tree, don’t let it become one of the 10 million that get unceremoniously landfilled at the end of the year. If not covered with flocking, tinsel, or fire retardant, trees can be chipped for mulch or used whole to stabilize wetlands. Call (800) CLEANUP or visit to find the tree-recycling program near you.

A TREE FOR ALL SEASONS: Live trees may seem like the ultimate eco-option, but in some climates even a tree that's kept free of hot lights may have trouble surviving outdoors after more than a week inside (more care tips here). And life as a potted plant won’t make most trees happy either, so you need a post-holiday plan: If you can’t plant it in your own backyard, ask your state forester, cooperative extension, or local tree-planting group where to donate a live tree. Find out what kind to choose, too, as planting non-native species in parks and wildlands may spread disease to native populations.

TREE-FREE: Plastic trees don’t have that piney-fresh smell, but if you use the same one each year, you’re only tapping our petroleum supply once, not burning up gas on every trip to the tree lot. (They’re pesticide-free, too.) For a natural look, try making your own tree of trimmed evergreen boughs, a storm-felled branch, or a piece of driftwood. You could even hang ornaments on a potted plant.

Dashka Slater is a regular contributor to Sierra.

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