Most of the year, shoppers seeking to be ecologically correct worry about the age-old paper versus plastic bag dilemma (The answer? Bring your own bag.). Around this time of year, those who celebrate Christmas worry whether they should get an artificial or real tree.
Fake firs from the middle of the 20th century that once looked high-tech have made a retro comeback. Dressing up an old one can be relatively eco-friendly, whether it sports flocked snow, aluminum branches, or ceramic gumdrops. The Doris Day aesthetics might irk some neighbors, but at least you'd do the planet a favor by keeping a used, imitation pine out of a landfill. Options abound on Freecycle, eBay, Craigslist. Resale shops run by charities, like Goodwill and Salvation Army, could also use the business.
Just don't let pity for the pathetic Charlie Brown tree fool you into taking it home. Along with legions of other fake, new trees, it's made of PVC plastics that offgas toxic chemicals. Most fake trees are made in China, which requires shipping them far with fossil fuels, and many contain lead.
Chopping down a tree may hurt if you're normally compelled to hug one, but it usually supports a local economy. Plus, replanting in that spot or elsewhere, and sending the dead wood to a mulch-making service, can ease the blow. Environmentalists who like the oxygen and aromatherapy provided by a real tree may prefer potted varieties that can be planted outside later.
To swaddle a tree or entire home in lights, LED strands come in all kinds of colors and shapes and are brighter, more durable and far more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs. They're good enough for the trees at Rockefeller Center and the White House. However, the high price of LEDs can be a letdown. Solar-powered lights can take a tree off the grid, unless you want to revert to low-tech popcorn and cranberries. (Although there are lots of other solar-powered doodads, most are made of non-recycled plastic.) You can mail in recycle used lights for recycling, or check for options at nearby hardware stores.
For the festival of lights, menorahs made of recycled pipes, glass, and mixed media. Soy-based or beeswax candles are less polluting than those made of petroleum-based paraffin. Or, make your own LED menorah.
To warm a hearth, should you do a real or fake fire? Duraflame announced last week that its logs, made of sawdust and castoff nut shells, will use plant-based wax, potentially saving 100 million pounds of petroleum each year. The Java Log packs coffee grounds that burn brighter and cleaner than wood. Gas fireplaces pollute the air less than those that burn wood, but they use fossil fuels.
If you aim to shop sustainably, it's a good bet to avoid Christmas stores at malls, where most goods are made abroad under dubious working conditions. Hunting online for vintage greeting cards, menorahs, and wall hangings can be more creative and less wasteful. Backed by the Etsy artists' emporium, Craftster, and other creative sites, you could pledge only to buy handmade gifts and trimmings this season. One of the cardinal rules of craftiness is that pretty much anything can be turned into a lamp, a clock or a Christmas tree ornament. Just gather last year's ribbons or bend paper clips to string up and hang old DVDs, CDs, circuitboard chunks, and shwag stress balls from CES.
Wrapping paper also can be reused, bought recycled, or ditched altogether for cloth bags or funny pages. You can reuse packing peanuts from boxes mailed to you, or stuff packages with cushioning that can double as extra goodies, such as candy, stockings, pine cones, napkins, pot holders, and popcorn (but ship quickly). Just be wary of tinsel and glitter, which can hurt furry, curious pets.
If you're making all this fuss for a party, nothing screams green like manual labor. The Vortex hand-powered blender lets your guests whip up spiked eggnog smoothies by hand. You could also toss around this ball for handmade ice cream. And no matter the mess, skip the urge to use disposable cups, plates and utensils, although compostable options may be better.