Friday, December 21, 2007

Sustainable Christmas?

"Once again we find ourselves enmeshed in the Holiday Season, that very special time of year when we join with our loved ones in sharing centuries-old traditions such as trying to find a parking space at the mall." - Dave Berry

I've pretty much stayed away from the whole Christmas thing because from a "stuff" point of view it seems like it's just too big. Unfortunately, a large part of the holiday has become synonymous with commerce and waste which is fairly unfortunate. Having said that, here are a few quick thoughts where we can each make a difference.

Trees - You're probably well past this point, but if not, why not go with a living tree in the ground as opposed to one that has been cut? Many folks get a potted tree, use it indoors, and then plant it afterwards, the gift that keeps giving! Fake trees are also a way to go and while they do take energy and materials to create, you can use them year after year, so you're good to go for a while. If you do use a real tree, at least get it to a compost facility when you are done. As far as decorations, try to go with natural compostable (think popcorn) rather than plastic or electric.

Wrapping - Here's a place where you can make a huge difference. Doesn't it seem sort of odd to purchase paper, wrap something in it, and have someone rip open that wrapping and toss it? Seems like a lot of energy expended for something that is headed towards the heap. If you want to wrap, why not use newspaper, or the comics, at least something that is re-purposed anyway. Gift bags are a cool way to go too because they can be re-used over and over. Or, if you want to add to the gift, why not wrap it in a gift like a scarf, shirt, or sweater? Another thought is to give people gifts in cotton bags that they can then take to the store, so you're gift keeps on working towards a better world.

Cards - Cards are really nice additions, but in all honesty, again, a fair amount of energy and materials for something which is of extremely limited use. With the internet being what it is, an e-card is simple, and a web site greeting can be more than a card could ever be. If you do want to go the card route, why not make one (or better yet have the kids do it) out of recycled paper - you won't find a Hallmark with dried macaroni, trust me, I've tried.

Gifts - Not going to dwell too much here, but suffice it to say that something old is going to be much more sustainable than something new. I like the idea of giving a book that you've already read, it shows the person that you've put thought into it, and is much more personal than buying a new one. Food is always a good idea, as are gift certificates towards services -movies, theater, massage, anything...maybe you'll walk there dog for a's only limited by your imagination. Bottom line, think about the energy and materials that went into your gift, its lifecycle, and where it will eventually end up.

Finally, if you want to go a fully new gift giving route, check out what my friend Bob and his family do. Hilarious and very sustainable version of gift giving.

So there's a few ideas for you. I'm sure you've all got many more so please feel free to share them in the comments section.

Enjoy your holidays.

Live Sustainably



Anonymous said...

Ya... we've got a few wasteful holidays...Halloween's up there... entire fields plowed and watered to grow a vegetable that most people carve up, set on fire, then throw away uneaten.

Love the idea of gifting in cotton shopping bags.

Dave said...

Set on fire? Another piece of the Duane puzzle exposed.

Anonymous said...

Last night I went to what may be one of the least sustainable events I've been to in a long time... short of the annual "Bottled Water Drinking Competition" which we use to celebrate St. Swithen's Day every year... the Los Angeles DWP "Festival of Lights"... basically they just open up the electricity faucets and let it spill on the ground while hundreds of cars line up and effectively idle for 2-3 hours each as the traffic slowly snakes past the show. There are displays of various things around LA made with lights: a plane taking off from LAX, weight lifters at Venice Beach... that kinda thing. This year they "went "green" which I think means that they used LED Christmas lights. At first it was really charming and actually the LED lights made the displays neater... traditional Christmas lights are not well suited to making specific shapes, especially involving details: they don't go in straight lines easily and the bulbs sort of point this way and that.... The LED lights are more like rope lights... they go where you want, outline everything nicely, are straight and the lights are very specifically spaced.

But here's the thing... they have no life. They are boring to look at. They don't twinkle. They're missing something. I noticed it at first and mentioned it to my wife. She sort of agreed with me, but I don't think she saw it as vividly as I did... until we came upon one display they hadn't changed... a field of deer made of the old-fashioned lights. The differences were obvious: they twinkled and jumped and danced... in short they were pretty. They had a crispness, a "life" that the LED lamps did not have... and seeing them side by side made this very obvious (nerdy lighting aside: basically the old lights are a very small point source which when blocked by branches or fencing "sparkles". The LED lights seem to be less point sourcey- more like mini fluorescents... hence the lack of sparkle and life).

Here's the point of this post: I know we need to do what we can to save energy, the atmosphere, the planet... For many of the things that we do, the substitutes for our energy-wasting ways are often better: using cloth bags instead of plastic makes sense and may actually be a better solution to a bag which breaks halfway through the parking lot. Carpooling or biking instead of driving everywhere or eating locally fresh food instead of poor hybrids substitutes of fresh-looking food makes sense. But I am not convinced that LED lights are a good equivalent for incandescent light strings. They are kinda lame. They do not replace with a similar, better technology. They make a change for the worse, visually. And since the point of Christmas lights are purely visual, I don't think we should settle for 2nd best. I think when we assess and critique that we end up with a better product in the end. But I know we have to make sacrifices for the planet. If we fight every change, then nothing will change. But there is this sliding scale. It starts at "abolish all industrial technology and start over" and goes all the way to "bury head in the sand and do nothing". In the stampede to do something, I'm afraid that we'll all lose some of the things that give us joy. Is that sacrifice necessary? Is this what we have to do? Do we really need to sacrifice our celebrations? This is about more than Christmas lights... This is about all of the choices we're gonna be making in the near future. Is any substitute better as long as it saves energy? I'm asking. I'm looking for guidance from this community. I know these lights might sweep the nation, but I think it'll be to our collective loss.

Dave said...

Ok Duane, let's put this in perspective shall we, they're Christams lights! We're not talking menorahs or dreidels here....hah...I kid because i love.

I must admit your comment had me a bit confused but I did enjoy the fact that sitting in an idling car for hours watching electric lights was not lost on you. That said, I'm not sure what you mean by twinkling. If you mean blinking, it seems to me that some sort of controller would do that nicely. If you mean some sort of oscillation, ironically enough, L.E.D.s work on a different cycle (50 vs 60) or something like that and some people have actually complained that they "flicker" too much (of course they have been removed and we shan't hear from them again). Interesting that you found the opposite to be true.
As to do we really need L.E.D. christmas lights, well, I don't know, that's your call I guess. For the record, I think they're are a lot of things everyone can do long before changing out Christmas lights that would do a fair amount more for the environment. So i guess the short answer is, no, as long as you feel ok with DWP wasting all that energy by doing so (don't shoot the messenger).
There was actually a thing that went around the net about how much CO2 was put out by each candle on each night of Channukah and they were trying to get everyone to just celebrate 7 nights instead of 8. Not so much as far as I saw, but an interesting idea.

Dave said...

Oh also, please call me for the next St Swithens Day event. Sounds like a hootenanny.


Anonymous said...

Sure, this post was about Christmas lights (which twinkle, by the way, because they are a very small point source that gets interrupted (by things like branches, fences, other light strings) as you move past them, making them seem prettier-unlike LED lights, which seem to have a larger light source), but it was really about the bigger picture... Because we're looking around for stuff to change, there are those out there who will try to change the things that are most dear (holidays, family rituals, whatever) in order to: make a point, attract attention, stir the pot, whatever. If it's just done to get people thinking, great (like think of all the ink we'd save if we stopped spelling Channukah without that pesky "C"). But I'm saying let's take care of the big picture first and hold onto our little joys the longest.

It is only Christmas lights....

Dave said...

Agreed. There are bigger fish to fry. I'll give up the Channukah C when we get to it if you'll go LED, but let's work on getting rid of our cars first.