BUYING GREEN FOR THE HOLIDAYS
1. Get a potted, replantable tree.
A potted, replantable tree can grace your yard or a nearby park for years into the future, perhaps even outliving its planter. It provides an ongoing remembrance of the holidays, as well as a gift to the environment. Trees help clean our air, protect the planet from global warming, and beautify our local living space.
The Christmas tree industry estimates that there are 34.8 million real trees sold annually in the U.S. For 25 of the largest cities in the country, 3,955,000 were sold last year, and 2,079,400 (53%) recycled -- i.e., composted into mulch, according to the industry. This is a two-fold increase since 1989. Yet, even if the same percentage were recycled nationally, then 16.4 million trees would still have to be disposed of this holiday season. Artificial trees, even if they last several years, usually involve the production and use of toxics during their manufacture, and must eventually be disposed of.
2. Give unpackaged toys and gifts.
Consumers can reduce solid waste by buying unpackaged and minimally-packaged gifts and toys. The point of a gift is the item itself, usually a durable good intended to provide lasting benefit to the recipient. Buy a pair of gloves and scarf or a bottle of perfume alone, without a "decorative" box or other excess packaging. Avoid overpackaged "gift sets" with large boxes, plastic covers, shrink wrap, etc. This sends a marketplace message to manufacturers to avoid unnecessary excess packaging that quickly becomes part of the waste stream.
One-third of municipal solid waste (MSW) by weight is packaging, and this is the fastest growing segment of the waste stream. Disposables are the fastest growing segment of the solid waste stream. One dollar out of every eleven spent on groceries, for example, is spent for packaging. Consumers pay twice for overpackaging -- once at the checkout counter, and again on their garbage or tax bill. Use holiday purchases to promote reduction of solid waste from packaging.
3. Wrap presents in the Sunday comics or recycled wrapping paper, and send holiday cards with post-consumer recycled content.
Using the Sunday comics to wrap your presents accomplishes all three ‘R’s’ -- you reduce by not buying wrapping paper, you reuse, and its easy to recycle the paper after the presents are opened. Alternatively, buy recycled wrapping paper and holiday cards. This helps create a market for collected recyclables, and "closes the loop," but only if the paper and cards have "post-consumer" content. This means they contain recycled material from old newspapers, etc. that have already served their end use and would otherwise be going to a landfill or incinerator. Cards and wrapping paper with post-consumer content divert waste from these environmentally damaging disposal routes.
PIRGs and other environmental groups have worked to promote government procurement of recycled paper and other goods with post-consumer content. Consumer demand plays a major role as well in creating the markets that make recycling programs sucessful.
Recycled paper requires 64% less energy and 58% less water to produce than non-recycled paper. Several companies (Earth Care, for example, at 1-800-347-0070) sell recycled wrapping paper with post-consumer content. Every ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees, and 700O gallons of water during production. Holiday cards with post-consumer recycled content are widely available in card stores from major manufacturers; look for 10% or greater post-consumer content. Recycled Paper Greetings, for example, the fourth largest greeting card company in the U.S., uses 2,500 tons of recycled paper each year, saving 7500 cubic yards of landfill space.
4. Decorate with natural decorations, like strings of popcorn & cranberries.
Natural, compostable decorations create no garbage after the holidays. If not composted for the yard, they can be fed to birds and other wildlife. Unlike tinsel and plastic or other artificial decorations, few if any toxics are used to produce them in the first place. Finally, kids can participate in making these decorations.
PREVENT TOXIC POLLUTION
Consumers can use holiday purchases as an opportunity to reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals from consumer products, and to help prevent toxic pollution of the environment. Chemicals that are not released into the environment or disposed of as waste typically end up in consumer products. Toxic consumer products also present risks of explosion or toxic fumes in the event of a house fire, and can contaminate drinking water supplies if improperly disposed of. Many toxic consumer products are unnecessary, and can be avoided. There are safer alternatives for other toxic products.
5. Use homemade paper snow-flake cutouts; avoid "spray snow"
Besides reducing solid waste, homemade decorations provide consumers with an opportunity to prevent toxic exposure to themselves and their family, and to reduce toxic pollution. Homemade snow-flake paper cutouts, for example, create a festive winter motif, and making them can be a participatory event for children.
Many families use cans of spray snow to give their holiday decorations an extra "wintry" look. Spray snow is often used on trees, wreaths, and windowpanes. Unfortunately, spray snow contains toxic chemicals that are dangerous when inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Two examples are described below.
Santa Snow Machine Chase Products Company, Maywood, IL
contains Perchloroethylene ("perc")
"Perc", also called tetrachloroethylene (TCE), may pose a risk of carcinogenicity, teratogenicity (cause birth defects) and reproductive toxicity. Esposure to perc may damage the kidneys or liver. It also may affect the central nervous system, similarly to the way alcohol affects the brain. Exposure to perc can occur through the skin or from breathing. The Santa Snow label does not disclose the contents of the product. Consumers are warned to keep out of reach of children and "do not allow pets to eat Snow."
BLIZ Snow, Rauch Industries, Gastonia, NCM
Acetone is commonly used as a solvent to dissolve other materials in a product. It is one of the top chemicals produced in the United States. It can be absorbed through the skin or from breathing. Acetone may be a reproductive toxic and may affect the central nervous system.
6. Buy organic holiday food
For many people, a highlight of the holiday season is enjoying a delicious meal. Traditional components of a holiday meal often include turkey or chicken, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and apple pie for desert. Buying organic produce and organically-fed poultry reduces your exposure to toxic pesticides, and supports sustainable non-polluting agriculture.
Non-organic versions of the four foods mentioned above may contain at least thirty-one different pesticides that are classified as probable or possible human carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For these four foods, the number of pesticides allowed on each are:
- Apples: 16 pesticides allowed.
- Cranberries: 12 " "
- Potatoes: 15 " "
- Poultry: 15 " "
Disclaimer: It is very unlikely that all of these pesticides would be used or found on all of these foods. The point is that if it did occur, it would be perfectly legal.
It is likely that several pesticides (e.g. insecticides, herbicides and fungicides) will be used and could be present on any single food. Although the residue levels of pesticides have usually been found to be within legal safety limits (tolerances), the residue level of several different pesticides will more easily exceed the safety limit of a single pesticide. EPA does not assess the cumulative risk posed by multiple pesticide residues.
7. Give a calendar made from paper produced without dioxin-producing chlorine.
Many people give or buy for themselves calendars for the coming year around the holidays. One of the most important things that can be done to reduce toxic pollution is to reduce the use of chlorine, which is widely used in the paper industry for bleaching. Several environmentally oriented calendars and other paper products are now available on paper that is manufactured without dioxin-producing chlorine. Chlorine-free calendars and desk diaries, for example, are available from Greenpeace in bookstores and via mail order at 1-800-916-1616. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups also market calendars and other paper products manufactured without chlorine. Buying these products creates consumer demand that helps shift the paper industry away from chlorine-bleaching.
Paper mills that use various trim of chlorine bleaching are the major source of dioxin contamination in our waterways. Dioxin is the contaminant in Agent Orange linked to high rates of cancer, birth defects and other serious health effects in Vietnam veterans, and is one of the most toxic substances known to humans. PIRGs and other environmental groups are campaigning to ban dioxin.
Consumers can help create demand that will change our current energy priorities, by using energy more efficiently and harnessing non-polluting energy from the sun.
Energy use and production is the largest source of pollution in the nation. From global warming to oil spills, acid rain and urban smog, the pollution caused by our wasteful energy habits and reliance on nuclear power and fossil fuels is staggering.
8. If buying a computer as a gift, buy one with the Energy Star designation.
Computers are becoming an increasingly popular gift for the holidays. The federal government has implemented a program that makes it easier for consumers to identiy energy efficient computers. Computers that carry the 'Energy Star' designation use up to 60-80% less energy than a regular computer. These computers and monitors shift to a low-power state when they are left on but are not actually being used. Energy savings will vary depending on how efficient the computer is to begin with, but will be significant when compared with comparable standard computers. Consumers can both save energy directly, and send a message to manufacturers to focus on producing energy efficient models.
9. Give a solar-powered toy.
Solar energy is virtually inexhaustible and pollution-free. One of the most promising solar energy technologies is photovoltaic materials, which convert energy from the sun directly into electricity. The costs of producing these materials has dropped so that photovoltaics are now being used to power calculators, and provide electricity in remote locations. Buying your child a solar-powered toy is an excellent way to demonstrate the potential of clean energy from the sun.
SUPPORT ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCACY
The U.S., with about 5% of the world’s population, uses about 40% of the world’s resources. Use your holiday gifts to promote protection of endangered species and threatened ecosystems, recycling, toxic waste cleanup, energy efficiency, and corporate responsibility. To the extent possible, avoid promoting consumption, which can lead to solid waste, toxic pollution, and wasted energy.
10. Give a gift membership in an environmental advocacy group.
Give a gift membership to a local or national environmental advocacy organization. Give memberships to groups that focus on advocacy and fighting corporate polluters, so that your gift is leveraged into long-term change to help your community and the planet. This provides a green holiday alternative to gift certificates for stores and services.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS:
Consumers can use the holiday shopping season as an opportunity to buy green, and help protect the earth. Market pressure from consumers works to help push polluting industries to change their practices. While this is not a substitute for necessary government regulation, it serves to reinforce efforts to promote sustainable, environmentally friendly manufacturing. The PIRGs do not believe, for example, that government regulation is not necessary to address the danger of carcinogenic pesticides in our food supply. Increasing consumer demand for organically grown foods, though, works both to protect more consumers from dangerous pesticides, and to help shift agriculture away from practices that threaten the public health and environment. Buying green this season provides a clear opportunity for consumers to both enjoy the holidays in the near term, and protect the planet for the long run.
Beyond consumer market pressure, regulatory measures are also necessary. Examples of steps that government needs to take for effective protection of the environment include "buy recycled" standards for government procurement of goods with post-consumer recycled content; requiring industry to adopt toxic use reduction strategies and banning the most hazardous chemicais like dioxin; banning pesticides that cause cancer; and promoting energy conservation and renewables. In addition to the change driven by consumers who buy green, we need elected officials to pass comprehensive state and national legislation that solves our solid waste, toxic pollution and wasteful energy problems.
Written by: Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)
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