Tips: Dreaming of a 'Green' Christmas

As the song goes, it's "the most wonderful time of the year." But what most people don't realize is that the holiday season is also one of the most damaging times of the year for the environment, generating wasted energy, added pollutants and millions of tons of extra trash.

The Nature Conservancy is issuing tips for a greener holiday with ideas to help save the planet -- to say nothing of your wallet and your sanity.

Tip No. 1: Think global, eat local, and get outside.

  • Try a feast with fresh, local ingredients: For a similar effect without hunting for your own turkey, shop at farmer's markets or in the organic section for environmentally friendly fare that hasn't been packaged and infused with preservatives for maximum shelf-life.
  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Try not to purchase more than you need. Around a third of the food bought during the holidays ends up in the trash. If you do have leftovers, reheat them: you'll use less energy than you would be cooking a new meal. And keep in mind that those Thanksgiving vegetable scraps are the perfect start for a compost bin.

Tip No. 2: Give a meaningful gift.

  • Consider an "experience" gift: Gift certificates, tickets to an event, or an offer to help a friend clean out a closet don't require any wrapping, and they definitely won't end up in the garbage, unlike that dancing snowman novelty mug that, at the time, seemed so perfect for your wife.
  • Buy something sustainable, organic and environmentally friendly: From fair trade, bird-friendly coffee to organic flowers or local fruit, there's something for everyone. Make a statement with the choice and brand.
  • Give the gift of the great outdoors. Buy someone a pass to state or national parks to help them reconnect to the world around them.

Tip No. 3: Avoid automobiles, and maybe planes and trains too.

The additional traffic on the roads and in the air can be a nightmare for not just travelers, but for the climate as well. Figure out your carbon footprint (http://www.nature.org/initiatives/climatechange/calculator) or that of someone you love, and make adjustments where you can.

  • Plan your holiday errands in advance to minimize your time behind the wheel, and use public transportation whenever possible.
  • Offset: If you're going to brave holiday air travel, consider purchasing carbon offsets along with your ticket, helping to minimize the negative environmental effects of flying.
  • Avoid travel if you can: Consider having a local celebration with nearby family, friends, and neighbors.

Tip No. 4: To tree or not to tree?

Many people wonder what's better (or worse) for the environment: real or fake trees. The truth is that both have their downsides: fake trees can be loaded with chemicals, shipped from China and will "live" in landfills for many holidays to come. Real trees can be grown with pesticides on tree farms before they were chopped down and driven across the country to get to your community.

  • Plant your tree: Though it's hardly the same as chopping down the perfect pine, a potted or balled tree (be sure the roots are still attached) can be planted post-holiday, reducing your celebration's carbon footprint. Or make a tradition of decorating one that lives in your backyard.
  • When in doubt, shop local and recycle: If fresh-cut is more your style, try to get it from a local tree farm. Many cities offer tree-recycling programs, turning this winter's Christmas tree into next spring's garden-boosting mulch.
  • Go natural: Cinnamon sticks, pine cones, and the classic popcorn or cranberry garland also are eco-friendly. Get your kids to help decorate. It's more personal, cheaper and less wasteful than buying all those trimmings at the store.

Tip No. 5: Deck the halls with LED (light-emitting diode).

LEDs rely on the same technology that illuminates calculators and watches to emit that holiday glow. Though they cost a bit more than traditional holiday lights, LED lights last much longer and consume a fraction of the energy, which leads to greater savings for years to come.

  • The U.S. Department of Energy reports that if all conventional incandescent Christmas lights in the country were replaced with LED lights this season, annual energy savings would total two billion kilowatt-hours -- enough energy to power nearly 200,000 homes for an entire year.

Tip No. 6: Wrapping it up.

Ever wonder how many trees died for the mountains of wrapping paper left after the Christmas morning frenzy? Wrapping paper costs you money and generates tons of extra trash. You can recycle the paper or get even more creative:

  • Local young "artists": All that artwork that your kids bring home can be put to excellent use during the holidays. Use it to wrap presents or use brown paper bags that your kids can help decorate.
  • Holiday cards as gift tags: Instead of buying gift tags, use last year's holiday cards. Cut them out in interesting shapes and sizes, and write your "to" and "from" on the flip side.

For more "green" Christmas ideas, visit http://www.nature.org.

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