It's beginning to look a lot like Earth Day. Everywhere you go. Take a look at the Five-and-Ten, it's glistening once again, with . . . recycled party goods and rechargeable batteries?
To peace on Earth and goodwill to all has been added a new holiday message: Be green, buy green; but, for the sake of your Christmas and the good of the planet, don't ask any questions!
Environmental "truths" can be as hard to pin down as children chasing candy canes. And at times, it seems as if all the "sage" holiday advice contradicts itself. Buy presents at stores to cut down on air shipping and packing materials, or shop online to save on gasoline and discourage sprawl? What's a family to do?
Some experts put five green holiday edicts through the environmental meter. Read on to see which emerge as "green giants," and which rate nearly as natural as AstroTurf.
Environmental-meter rating: GUMBY: Green, but it's a stretch.
Choosing LED lights over standard bulbs can save energy, and recycled-paper plates can save trees, but environmental products alone are not the solution. "People need to beware of products that say that they're green," says Sarah van Schagen, assistant editor at Grist.org, an online environmental magazine. "People need to pay attention to how an item is packaged. Is it flown all over the world? Manufactured in one place, sold in another, shipped in another? A lot more goes into a product than the material it's made out of."
Buying products with recycled content also does little by itself to break the cycle of consumption. Americans discard more than 120 million tons of non-food waste annually, the Environmental Protection Agency reports.
"Reducing and reusing are just as important as recycling," says Emily Linn, program director for the Clean Air Council. "Reducing one's consumption or reusing products, whether reusing them yourself or donating them, both help reduce our overall waste. In the solid-waste-management hierarchy, reducing and reusing are actually preferred over recycling."
Environmental-meter rating: ASTROTURF: Manu-fractured logic.
Annie Berthold-Bond, executive producer of Care2.com's Green Living channels and author of four books on green housekeeping, observes, "For most of the world, the holidays occur at a time when people are cooped up inside, where they're inhaling indoor air, which could be dirtier and more polluted than outdoor air."
Ironically, one of the ways indoor air can become hazardous is through the combination of overzealous energy-proofing of your home and the use of harsh chemical cleaners. This creates an environment in which toxic fumes have no place to escape.
"People learn to brace themselves for the chemical onslaught," says Berthold-Bond. "When they walk into a home that's been cleaned with natural materials, they say they feel good, but they can't exactly explain why."
To bring a good feeling into your holiday home, choose beeswax over petroleum-based candles, which give off pollutants as they burn. Replace commercial window cleaner with a solution of vinegar; scouring powder with baking soda; silver polish with a mixture of water, baking soda, salt and aluminum foil. Or whip up a batch of Annie's Antiseptic Clove and Cinnamon Holiday All-Purpose Cleaner. (See box for recipes.)
Environmental-meter rating: INAD-"VERDANT"-LY GREEN: Helpful, yes, but more by accident than by design.
Having a daytime party instead of an evening bash may take advantage of natural light and higher daytime temperatures, but it saves a negligible amount in utility costs, says Pete Hussie, communications administrator for PGW. A better solution would be to limit the gathering to a portion of the house. The concentration of people will keep things toasty, so the host can keep the thermostat low. Cathy Engel of Peco Energy adds, "The real energy-efficiency savings are achieved through longer-term changes in energy usage and taking advantage of energy-efficiency products like Energy Star appliances and CFL [compact fluorescent] bulbs."
Environmental-meter rating: GREEN GIANT: "Ho, Ho, Ho."
The benefits of real trees over fake start the moment they do. Christmas tree seedlings prevent soil erosion, purify the air, and provide homes for birds and animals. The National Christmas Tree Association says, "Every acre of Christmas trees grown produces the daily oxygen requirements for 18 people. In the United States, there are approximately 500,000 acres of Christmas trees, which means that 9 million people a day are supplied with oxygen thanks to these trees."
Buying a cut Christmas tree is also an opportunity to buy locally. In the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture, Pennsylvania ranked No. 4 in the country in Christmas tree acreage and No. 1 in the number of Christmas tree farms. By contrast, 85 percent of artificial trees are imported from China, the U.S. Commerce Department reports. That means the trees must be packed, shipped overseas, and transported to nearby stores before they reach the consumer - an investment in fuel and materials.
Still, some environmentalists may be squeamish about advocating the cutting of trees. To them, Lorraine Kiefer, a 40-year grower of Christmas trees and owner of Triple Oaks Nursery in Franklinville, Gloucester County, replies, "Cutting a Christmas tree is the same as cutting a head of lettuce. It's a crop. When you cut one, you plant another in its place. . . . Growing Christmas trees keeps a large block of land from becoming asphalt. And when a Christmas tree dies, it goes back into the earth. When an artificial tree 'dies,' it goes into the landfill."
Of course, real Christmas trees are recyclable, too. In Philadelphia, drop off your tree - free of decorations and plastic bags, netting or string - at the Streets Department Sanitation Convenience Center, 3033 S. 63d St., from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Jan. 7 through Jan. 12. Trees put out on the curb will be collected as trash and not recycled.
In other area municipalities, check local Web sites for tree-recycling details.
Environmental-meter rating: YODA: Wise in the way of the environmental holiday, you are.
Nearly 20 percent of the year's retail sales occur during the holidays, the National Retail Federation reports. All this concentrated shopping can take its toll on the environment, whether it's through the excessive packaging associated with e-commerce or the fuel consumption associated with driving. Though some Green Giants shrink their impact to almost nothing by making presents at home or valiantly lugging Barbie's dream house on the bus, for most of us the choices are carpooling to the mall or using the Internet. Which is best?
"Each has its drawbacks, but e-commerce has an order of magnitude less impact than what we do now because it eliminates all the ancillaries associated with that consumerism," says professor Francis A. Galgano, chairman of the department of geography and the environment at Villanova University.
An online retailer "may have five or six regional warehouses that have a footprint on the landscape, but compare this to several thousand mall stores. . . . Stand in a bookstore and look around. . . . E-commerce is lowering the human footprint on the environment, from the paper bags they put the books in to the store's heating and cooling costs to the runoff generated by the mall parking lot. . . . Plus, all of that driving back and forth to the store and fuel use contributes to carbon emissions. Multiply that by millions of holiday shoppers, and it's a significant savings."
Whether it's tied to shopping, prepping, decorating or hosting, the overload of seasonal eco-advice can make even the most green-minded person see red.
Our experts helped untangle these five environmental edicts. You can do the same: Do your research to cut through claims that seem too glossy to be true, trust your gut, and remember that "green" doesn't have to be a green light to spend.