December 7, 2015
By Pamela Berns
With the holidays upon us, you can make the decision to be either naughty or nice when it comes to your carbon footprint. From treats to trees, from toys to travel, your choices make a difference in the health of the planet. How can New Yorkers stop dreaming of a white Christmas, and take actions toward a green one? Here are a few ideas for sustainable celebrating.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
Choose an earth-friendly tree: According to Thomas Harman, founder of artificial Christmas tree maker Balsam Hill, “The minimal use necessary to make an artificial tree green is about seven years. Use it for three and a real tree is better.” But artificial trees are often made of materials that don’t readily decompose and may even contain toxic chemicals. Leaving a real tree in the ground is still best for the environment, so if you choose to go for a cut tree, make sure you get it from a reliable sustainable source. If you’re not sure what to make of the whole artificial vs cut tree controversy, consider a living tree. Think of it as buying a potted plant rather than cut flowers, only bigger. The tree comes with roots intact, and can be planted afterward. If you don’t have a yard of your own, gift it to someone who does. There are also are plenty of community and school gardens in need of green. (Keep in mind that living trees sequester carbon; they actually store it and turn it into nutrition.)
Make mulch at a New York City Mulchfest: If you do decide to go for a cut tree, be aware that the tree’s useful life doesn’t end with the holiday season. So, instead of just dumping your tree on the sidewalk after New Year’s Day, take part in Mulchfest 2016 on January 9 and 10 from 10am-2pm. “Join the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, the New York City Department of Sanitation, and GreenNYC to recycle your Christmas trees into wood chips,” which will then be “used to nourish trees and plants on streets and gardens citywide.” Find a Mulchfest location near your home HERE.
Adopt a tree: If you celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, or are just someone who’s not into the whole tree-in-the-living room thing, you can still make trees part of your holiday commitment to a greener planet. Consider making a gift of a tree from the New York Restoration Project’s Sponsor a Tree project, which is part of the MillionTreesNYC green space initiative.
Or make a donation to the Nature Conservancy to help with their forest management and reforestation programs. They even have a footprint calculator that correlates your donation to a carbon offset equation.
Eco-friendly decorating: Ditch the lights and plastic decorations, and make your own. How about re-purposing old socks as figurines? Or use nature’s decorations, such as pine cones and berry branches, which can be composted along with food scraps when the holidays are over. Check out New York City’s Zero Waste composting program for ways and places to compost or find a GrowNYC composing station near your home.
Make your own: Photo albums, crafts, scrapbooks can all be made from re-purposed and recycled items, and they have sentimental value. They can be passed around and shared, and even handed down to children and grandchildren later on. Or give something edible, a great way to help a host overcome the limitations of preparing a meal for fifteen in a typical New York City galley kitchen.
Buy services rather than products: How about a Groupon for a yoga class or music lesson? Or tickets to a show or concert? Offer to water plants when a friend goes on vacation. And, of course, no one would say no, thank you, to free babysitting or pet care.
Give gifts that keep giving: Buy the family a membership to the New York Botanical Garden or the Bronx Zoo. Or make a donation to a favorite green charity or advocacy group in someone’s honor. (Hint: GreenHomeNYC gets you both–and we’re local!) You can even name a park bench in Central Park in honor of your family. For the little ones, you can adopt a wild animal from the World Wildlife Federation or the Sierra Club. Your donation gets you a cute, plush stuffed animal and helps “protect our forests, mountains, and oceans–and all the endangered wildlife that call them home.”
Think before you shop: As time constrained New Yorkers, we’re all familiar with the old adage, “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” If you do decide to buy things, think carefully about whether the recipient is really going to use them. Plastic toys that make their way to the bottom of a toy chest may ultimately end up clogging a landfill. Be aware of what products are made of, and where and how they’re made. The Mindful Home blog has lots of listings of eco-friendly gifts. Also, upcycled sweaters and quilts make wonderful winter warmers.
Eliminate electronics: One way to keep your holiday offerings out of landfills is to keep your purchasing power out of electronics stores. But if little Eddie insists on it, try for companies and stores that offer take-back programs, such as Best Buy Recycle and Staples Easy on the Planet, and products that use batteries that can be recharged rather than disposed of.
Go vintage: It’s the fashion rage, especially among twenty-something’s, and actually puts gently used clothing on someone’s back rather than in the rag bin. Old clothes and jewelry look cool, and are often better made than new ones. You ‘ll find pick hits at scores of retro and consignment stores throughout the five boroughs. Thrift stores may require more picking through before picking out, but they have the added benefit of giving proceeds from sales to people in need. Check out CBS New York’s favorite Manhattan thrift shops.
Buy local: You can locate the latest local “foods fashion, furnishings, and other products from emerging designers” at MadeInNYC, a project of Pratt Institute’s Pratt Center for Community Development, and help accomplish their goal to “phase out polluting and unproductive waste.” Check out their website, and source some truly innovative gifts directly from manufacturers right here in New York. “Made in NYC highlights companies that are adopting sustainable business strategies to help consumers make environmentally responsible purchasing decisions.” And shop at any of the numerous holiday crafts fairs around the city for unusual recycled or up-cycled items.
Wrap and ship responsibly: No need to buy fancy wrapping. Just look around your house and you’ll find plenty of paper just crying out to be useful. Get the kids involved in decorating with organic, non-toxic crayons. If you don’t fancy yourself the creative type, go for seed-embedded recycled wrapping paper (a number of companies also offer plantable greeting cards). Finally, if you’re sending things long distance, ship ground. (Air freight is right up there with cows on the emissions front.)
Meals and Miles
Shop green and local: In addition to locally and sustainably grown produce and poultry for the table, (forget the beef—cattle-raising produces a large percentage the planet’s greenhouse gases), check out your local Greenmarket for locally, organically, and sustainable grown and made gifts such as fruit preserves, breads, pastries and wine. You can also find New York State and Long Island varietals, as well as locally distilled spirits at many neighborhood liquor stores. Remember, fewer shipping miles equal lower emissions.
Tame your travel: While you probably can’t get around in a reindeer-generated sled, you can be smart about your travel options. Gather at the home that requires the fewest collective travel miles to bring everyone together. Choose public transit over cars, or even bike if weather permits. More and more neighborhoods now have CitBike racks. If you must drive, fill the car, not just the tank (and fill it with people, rather than things, to reduce per-person fuel consumption). Going to Grandma’s up in Boston? Take the train, NOT the plane. (It’s also cheaper and gives you time to catch up on that novel you’ve been meaning to read all year.). If you absolutely must fly, choose direct flights rather than stopovers, as takeoffs and landings are big gas guzzlers. And don’t forget, take the train (or bus) TO the plane.
While the air travel industry is at the top of the list of emitters worldwide, some airlines are less bad than others. According to a report on domestic airlines issued by the International Council on Clean Transporation, Alaska Airlines ranks number one on earth-friendlier flying. United is number five on the list, but they do offer carbon offset certificates that can be purchased with money or miles. After you calculate the carbon footprint of your travel using their carbon calculator, you can select from three carbon reduction projects to support through your donation. “You can also buy offset certificates in a private marketplace, from companies such as TerraPass …that follow strict rules set up by the state of California; some people even give these as holiday gifts,” says the New York Times. (Do keep in mind, though, that not all environmentalists love offsets, as they are concerned that it’s just a way for the airlines to pass the emissions reduction buck onto passengers rather actively tackle strategies themselves.)
Pay it Forward and Share the Spirit
Gifts for the Future: Let’s face it, unfortunately, not everyone thinks about these things as much as you do. So spread the word. Share this article. Let others know what you are doing to reduce your own impact, and offer to help them do the same. (These are incredible teachable moments for kids.) And don’t forget to raise a glass together in celebration of your contribution to future generations. Perhaps that’s the best gift of all!
All of us at GreenHomeNYC wish you a joyous holiday season! Please help us celebrate another year of contributing to a sustainable New York City. Click here to make your tax deductible contribution before the New Year.