Green Tips for the Holiday Season

Image source: http://blog.wegowise.com

Image source: http://blog.wegowise.com

It’s that time of year again! The holidays are a wonderful time to enjoy company and show appreciation of family and friends. But amidst this joyous time of celebration, the holidays are also one of the most wasteful times of the year. Gifts consume large amounts of material, whether it’s packaging or wrapping, and most especially shipping. Approximately 1.5 billion cards are sent during the holiday season in the United States, requiring 300,000 trees to be harvested. Holiday lights use more than 2.2 million mega watt hours of electricity, which could run more than 173,000 homes for a year. This can all add up to a large impact on the planet. In the past 50 years, people have consumed more resources than in all previous history.

Luckily, there are many ways to save resources and still be festive. Here are some ideas:

  • Purchase hardy decorations that will look great year after year. This habit will also save money in the long run.
  • Reuse gift bags, and even wrapping paper. If wrapping paper is not salvageable for reuse, remember that it is recyclable in Monroe County (and most others).
  • Reuse newspaper as wrapping paper.
  • Ribbons and bows are especially sturdy for reuse.
  • Buy locally – this will reduce shipping impacts and support local businesses.
  • Create a homemade card out of recyclable materials, or send one via email.
  • Get crafty and make your own gifts. Etsy.com has great ideas for homemade presents.
  • When choosing a gift card, consider an e-gift certificate. It works the same but does not require plastic.
  • Buy products from socially responsible businesses. For example, choose fair trade registered coffee as a sustainable treat.
  • While feasting, avoid using disposable dishes and cutlery. Send your guests home with leftovers and store them in reusable containers.

What do you give to that person who already has everything? In addition to the old favorite practice of donating to a charity in one’s honor, there are other ways you can give without giving “stuff”.  At oceana.org you can adopt a sea creature in a friend’s name. The money goes to support ocean conservation efforts and costs. You can even purchase a tree at Treepeople.com to help provide sustainable solutions to urban ecosystems. Consider local activities, like taking your spouse on an organic wine tour or handpicking produce with a friend at a nearby farm. Changing the Present has information about all kinds of charities. By being conscious, you can spoil your friends and the planet.

But, before you go on that much-needed vacation, remember to keep your office and dorm room low impact in your absence.

  • Eliminate the phantom load by unplugging chargers, printers, copiers, coffee makers, toasters, computer paraphernalia, microwaves, electric kettles, lamps, fax machine, and clocks. Even easier – if your electronics are plugged into a surge protector, flip the switch off.
  • Turn off the lights, or set up a light timer for security.
  • Close and seal windows as tightly as possible to keep heat in. Closing blinds and curtains can add additional insulation and prevent the warm air from literally going out the window.
  • Turn down the thermostat, or call the Customer Service Center (273-4567) to see if Facilities can do it for you at the University. No need to heat an empty room.

When leaving for vacation, treat your office like you would your home. The University and planet will thank you.

Happy holidays!

By Alanna Scheinerman, Class of 2013

10 Comments on “Green Tips for the Holiday Season

  1. While some goods points are made in this post, I would like to point out several statements in need of revision:

    1) Electronic cards or gift certificates do not necessarily save resources. In order to make these things, electricity — which comes from, for example, burning coal — is required. Please consider that electronic cards/gifts take time and thus electricity and whatever resource used to make the electricity. In this way, an electronic card might, over its lifetime, waste more resources than a disposable or recyclable paper/plastic card. Lifecycle analysis is needed to claim that electronic cards save resources.

    2) Reusuable containers do not necessarily save resources; it really depends what the containers are made out of and how they are cleaned/disposed of. Consider that a Tupperware container is made from plastic (which requires chemicals, etc.) and needs to be thoroughly washed whereas a non-waxy paper plate (while it too requires resources to be made) is compostable in a landfill. Again, lifecycle analysis would be needed to determine which product saves fewer resources and minimizes waste.

    3) Buying locally does not necessarily save resources. It depends on the product and the situation.

    In general, there exist many tradeoffs when we discuss whether one behavior is more environmentally-friendly than another. We need to consider what resources a product uses over its entire lifetime, what resources we are trying to conserve (and why), and whether a proposed sustainable behavior is truly feasible. Maybe sustainability-interest groups at the U of R can consider this in the new year?

  2. You made very useful suggestions about the Holiday Season – related to saving on resources, tips on office and house, but also good ways to donate/take action for our environment.
    (Please correct some of the links because they are broken.)

    Article worth sharing!

  3. Amy-

    “Not sure why so many UR students have recently posted negative comments on this blog lately…but I have been led to suspect Professor Rizzo may be offering extra credit to do so??”

    Don’t flatter yourself. Whoever has led you to “suspect” such a thing has misled you. It is an absurd accusation.

  4. Yes, this is coming from a former Grassroots Co-Pres. and also former EcoRep. I think good environmentalism starts with asking the right questions, recognizing that nothing is free, and that unintended consequences lurk in every corner–I’ve always held this position.

    Here you will find data on natural resources: http://minerals.usgs.gov/ds/2005/140/

    My question of “so what?” was to bring the question of supply to the author’s attention. Looking at demand and consumption is not enough.

    Natural resources only become resources when people find use and value in them for something else. Oil was once seen as a waste product.. a nuisance. That is of course, until people found use for it. I was not referring to resources as “money” in my earlier post, but even if I were, there is nothing wrong with that. After all, money is simply a claim on a resource.

    Those who care about the environment should jump for joy when businesses maximize profits and cut costs.
    The thickness/weight of plastic grocery bags, trash bags, milk jugs, or aluminum cans have decreased over time..

    Grocery Bag–1976: ~2.3 mils -> 2009: .5 mils
    Trash Bag– 1975: 2.5-3 mils -> 2009: .4-1.1 mils
    HDPE Milk Jug– 1965: 120 grams -> 2009: 64 grams
    Aluminum Can– 1972: 20.8 grams -> 2009: 13.3 grams

    What explains the above data?
    ..Businesses have always sought to seek maximum profits. This is not a recent phenomena.

    You’re right, some gadgets/items do need to be replaced more often (you’re referring to planned obsolescence?), but again, this is not some sort of recent phenomena and not necessarily environmentally detrimental. Let’s look at cell phones. My smart phone is probably not going to last for 10, 15, 20,… years, but my phone manufacturer could have probably made my phone much more durable (maybe make it out of high quality titanium?) than it currently is and have it last for more than its expected lifespan. In this case, the rate of technological progress is so fast, that it is in fact wasteful to build a phone with a lifespan much longer than its useful life. Here, using slightly less durable, cheaper materials saves resources and delivers more value for everyone.

  5. Interesting to see the conversation this post has sparked! These tips were offered as suggestions to get people thinking of the little things they can do to help minimize the amount of waste that is typically generated this time of year. Of course, not everything we suggest is going to appeal to everyone. The point is to provoke some thought (glad to see we have done that successfully) as to what things would make sense to you and your own holiday traditions. While wrapping gifts in newspaper might be a good option for some, there are other great options out there as well that would be more appropriate for others. Take a look at these cool Japanese wrapping cloths at: http://blogs.rochester.edu/thegreendandelion/2011/12/holiday-cheer-for-you-and-the-environment/.

    I would welcome other POSITIVE suggestions we have not mentioned as well. Not sure why so many UR students have recently posted negative comments on this blog lately (especially in the last Student’s Corner post) but I have been led to suspect Professor Rizzo may be offering extra credit to do so??

    Stan (a former co-president of the student environmental group Grassroots?), I completely disagree with your statement “We’re not running out of resources, per se. Instead, what we’ve learned to do over time is use resources more efficiently and find appropriate substitutes when needed.” Well if you are referring to “resources” strictly as money, you are correct, but it is at a cost to the planet’s NATURAL resources. I believe over time we have seen an increasing trend for businesses to maximize their profits while cutting their own costs wherever and whenever possible. As a consequence we have that products are made out of cheaper materials and need to be replaced more frequently, which results in more money being spend into the industry. But this practice is not environmentally preferable, nor is the trend we’ve seen trends towards disposable items.

    Both Alex and Stan Y, questions the significance of this statement “In the past 50 years, people have consumed more resources than in all previous history.” I offer this visual of what has happened to the Earth’s temperature since the onset of the industrial revolution. http://www.nef.org.uk/climatechange/index.htm “So what.” Says Stan. Alex asks, “Are you sure this is necessarily a bad thing?” Well I certainly do believe that there are consequences to the spike that appears around the time of the industrial revolution and accelerates at an exponential rate. To me it is the simple laws of cause and effect and yes, I do not believe the results will be beneficial to living things, including humans.

    Don’t mean to have taken such a grim turn on things. The purpose of this blog is to encourage, inspire and even empower people on what they can do to make a difference. We are all in this together.

    Happy holidays everyone!

  6. You dont have to wrap anything in newspaper!thats crazy! I dont even buy a newspaper. i look at all the local ads online. Hows that for “green?” alot of wrapping paper and greeting cards are made from recycled paper. By all means get a pretty card from hallmark! for those who appreciate cards.. And if your giving gift cards theres no wrapping paper being used! Happy holidays!

  7. @alex… you dont have to be a “tree hugger.” yes get your grandmother a beautiful card at hallmark. no dont wrap your gifts if newspaper! thats insane! (i personally dont even buy a paper.. I look at all the local ads online- hows that for green!) Alot of cards AND wrapping paper are made from recycled paper! and if your buying gift cards, some of them are recycled plastic too, then your not even USING wrapping paper! Theres a paper saver! Happy holidays!

  8. “In the past 50 years, people have consumed more resources than in all previous history.”

    Okay, so what? Looking at demand is not enough. Let’s look at supply..

    We’re not running out of resources, per se. Instead, what we’ve learned to do over time is use resources more efficiently and find appropriate substitutes when needed. We can take a look at copper as an example. When telephone use began to take hold and increase the US, copper was in high demand (telephone lines needed copper to transfer data). Of course, as one would expect as demand rises, so does price. We didn’t have a sudden shortage of copper, despite the cries people made regarding copper scarcity. Instead, as prices rose so did the profitability for copper “producers” to seek new areas of copper sources that were once too expensive to find. Next, substitutes emerged as a response to prices, and in this case, it was fiber optic cables.. and today fiber optics are responsible for providing the services copper once did (plus more). If we look at proven reserves of copper or bauxite or iron or nickel, etc… we see that proven reserves of those resources have increased and prices have fallen. Perhaps a better way to measure this would be to index resource prices to wages, and one would see that those declines are likely even larger. And even if we saw prices stay relatively unchanged (despite large increases in population growth and economic growth) that would still be something to marvel at…

    The point here is that prices provide an important “social” service. Prices provide the knowledge and the appropriate signal to producers (and consumers) when it’s time to use something more efficiently or to find substitutes.

    Restricting the use of resources is not going to be enough (nor very helpful) if we’re concerned with resource scarcity. It’s prices that matter in encouraging consumers and producers to economize on scarce resources by way of the knowledge and incentives prices provide. Looking at demand alone, is not enough.

  9. The “feel” of plastic gift cards? Are you constantly feeling them up? What an odd phrasing. The point of the article isn’t to keep you from doing any of the tips, but to alert you of issues created by excessive holiday activity. Does everyone on your gift list need a card to accompany their present? Doubtful. Would your grandmother appreciate the card? Then go ahead.

    Your next points are selfish. Hooray for you that disposable dishes are convenient and holiday lights are pretty. There are other ways to throw a party than to needlessly create trash that will sit in a landfill for hundreds of years. God forbid using the dishes you bought for this exact purpose. Power consumption has far reaching implications, especially for freshwater use. Why use power when you don’t have too? Why leave your lights on all night when you’re not even looking at them?

    If your girlfriend would actually get mad at you for wrapping her present in newspaper instead of real wrapping paper, she (and most likely you) needs a reality check.

  10. But what if I simply like the feel of plastic gift cards? I have no artistic talents and my grandmother doesn’t use email; would it really be so horrible if I bought her a card at Hallmark? What if I think holiday lights are pretty? What if it is convenient for me to use disposable dishes? What leads you to believe that fair trade coffee is actually “fair”? You are obviously not economically literate if you believe that fair trade coffee benefits the poor.

    My girlfriend will think that I am being cheap by wrapping her gift in newspaper instead of real wrapping paper, and I don’t think she will believe me when I tell her that I am doing it to save the planet.

    What is your point in asserting that in the past 50 years we have consumed more resources than in all previous history? Are you sure this is necessarily a bad thing?

    Can you elaborate on what it even means that the “planet will thank me”? That is something I would expect to hear on Blue’s Clues. I am always being told (and I am sure you agree) that “corporations are not people”; and so isn’t it sort of ironic that you suddenly grant the ability of human-like feelings, such as gratitude, to other impersonal entities, e.g. a university or nature? I have the sense that you are patronizing me.

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