Dreaming of a Green Christmas? Holidays Can Be Sustainable

December 03, 2009

December 3, 2009 — Whether or not your Christmas is just like the ones you used to know, several sustainability mavens at the University of Virginia have suggestions for ways to keep your holiday as sustainable as possible.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Matt Kelly:

Every year there is a clash between those favoring an artificial tree and fans of fresh-cut trees. Jeff Sitler, environmental compliance manager at the University's Office of Environmental Health and Safety, said that, while the most sustainable solution is not to have a tree, "the next would be to buy a locally grown fresh tree."

"Most of the artificial ones are made with PVC plastic and there are health concerns about polyvinyl chloride," he said. "And most artificial Christmas trees are made in China and Korea, so there is a transport issue. I don't think there are any domestic makers of artificial Christmas trees."

Jessica Wenger, environmental management systems coordinator at the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, suggested a locally grown, live tree that can be planted after Christmas. Purchasing locally made wreaths is also an option.

Once the tree is up, strings of light-emitting diode bulbs are the way to go.

"Absolutely get LED lights," said John Quale, assistant professor at the School of Architecture and ecoMOD project director. "The reduction in energy use will offset both the purchase cost and embodied environmental impact quickly if you intend to leave them on for hours at a time."

Armando J. deLeon, sustainability programs manager for the utilities and energy department within Facilities Management, agreed with LED lights.

"Alternatively, use no lights at all or reduce the number used," he said.

"Clearly the greenest thing to do is not do anything … no tree, no lights, no consumerism, no fun," Wenger said. "However, most of us want to have fun."

Christmas cards and wrapping paper are part of the season and Wenger suggested sending cards made from recycled paper, not using cards with foil or other difficult-to-recycle products and to e-mail Christmas cards where applicable.

Gifts can be wrapped in paper grocery bags, newspapers or wrapping paper saved from the previous year.

"Children can decorate their wrapping to personalize it and then recycle the paper afterward," Quale said.

And what is within the wrapping is important as well.

"When gift giving, consider something 'environmentally' friendly or made from recycled material," Wenger said, such as donating a tree in someone's name to the Arbor Day Foundation. "Instead of giving gifts, consider giving a charitable donation to a local organization or family."

Wenger said new appliances should have Energy Star ratings and Quale suggested replacing old electronics with new ones and recycling the old ones.

"Invest in highly energy efficient electronics and appliances if your current ones are more than 10 years old," he said. "But wait on recently introduced electronics – they will have higher price tags the first year or so. Wait until the prices come down, so you can potentially offset your financial commitment with your energy savings in a reasonable amount of time."

DeLeon recommended not giving gifts with unnecessary electric loads, such as digital picture frames.

"Invest in the gift that keeps on giving, and will far outweigh anything else: weatherization and insulation," Quale said. "Dollar-for-dollar, there is no better investment for improving your bottom line and improving the state of the environment. Not exactly the most exciting Christmas present, but definitely one you will not regret."

Kendall Singleton, sustainability coordinator at U.Va. Dining Services, recommended consumables for presents, such as food, much of which is produced locally, or concert tickets.

"Last year I gave my parents a cheese/egg consumer-supported agriculture subscription," Singleton said. "Starting in April and lasting through September, they received a weekly share of either a dozen eggs or a selection of cheese."

Zachary M. Richards, a senior writer in the School of Engineering and Applied Science's marketing and communications office, suggested practical gift-giving, both in terms of the economy and environment.

"Personally, I think socks' designation as the lamest Christmas gift is undeserved," he said. "Wool socks from a company such as Wigwam are a practical way to not only buy American, but also save energy by turning down the heat. "

And for the Christmas meal, purchase local food, such as eggs, dairy products, wine, cider, jams and meat.

"Of course, all of this shouldn't just be a Christmas thing," Wenger said. "These tips should be ingrained in our everyday living. I do put up Christmas lights myself because I love them, but I also turn off the rest of my lights to compensate. The atmosphere is more festive with just the Christmas lights on."

— By Matt Kelly