Warning: this post will likely sound a bit like Scrouge to many readers.
Last night I walked down to the main street in my neighbourhood and I noticed lots of shopkeepers had Christmas wares for sale: plastic Christmas trees, polyester Santa hats, and lots of unnecessary, plastic junk.
I get why Christians want to carry on their traditions and festivities (though I do not get why Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and other religious groups do it). I have Christians in my family and I used to enjoy the smell of the tree, the hanging stockings on the mantle, and all the holiday smells coming from the kitchen. Still, I think we would all be doing the Earth a favour if we abstained from this practise (which, of course, isn’t even Christian–it dates back to a pagan, pre-Christian past) altogether.
There are any number of articles in the past few years debating the merits of plastic versus natural Christmas trees. Most of them argue that, on the whole, a natural tree is better. For one thing, a plastic tree contains toxins:
The annual carbon emissions associated with using a real tree every year were just one-third of those created by an artificial tree over a typical six-year lifespan. Most fake trees also contain polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which produces carcinogens during manufacturing and disposal.
If you compare the carbon footprint between an artificial and a natural tree the disparity is quite stark:
According to the British Carbon Trust, a natural tree that ends up as splinters for woodwork or is burnt as firewood has a 3.5 kg CO2 carbon footprint. If the tree ends up decomposing in a waste dump, its footprint significantly increases to 16 kg.
The carbon footprint of an artificial tree is quite bigger, reaching 40 kg of CO2, so it will always be more sustainable to reutilise it for at least 12 years, compared to a natural one which ends up as splinters.
But while Christmas tree farms can serve as a habitat for various birds and other wildlife, the reality is that such farms are probably not serving the various species in its area very well given the practises that most farms use (at least in the U.S.):
…better land management on Christmas tree farms, such as increasing ground cover or possibly through reducing pesticide use, can increase their carbon storage capacity. (MoJo‘s Sydney Brownestone has more on the study here.)
And even if chemicals aren’t harming the trees’ surroundings, what about the farmworkers? “The people with the greatest exposure to pesticides are those that apply it,” says Jill Sidebottom, a forestry specialist at North Carolina State University. The longer the duration and higher the rate of pesticide application, the greater the risk. Christmas tree farming does, however, require chemicals. According to the consumer advocacy group Beyond Pesticides, only 1 percent farm Christmas trees are grown organically; all other farmers use pesticides and herbicides including Roundup and Dimethoate to keep the trees free of pests and holes.
In other words, Christmas tree farmers are using Monsanto’s products, which are toxic not only for the so-called pests, but also for the various plant and animal species (including humans) in the vicinity where such farms exist.
If you’re convinced and ready to forego the tree and spend your money elsewhere, you can do well to support one of the reforestation organisations listed here or in your own community (or you can donate to one of my favourite tree planting organisations, the Arab Group for the Protection of Nature):
As an alternative to buying a tree, why not use the money to help conserve the world’s forests. By making a donation to the Woodland Trust, you can help preserve ancient habitats such as Lincolnshire’s Limewoods. Further afield, Rainforest Concern works in countries including Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica and Sri Lanka to protect rainforest ecosystems and the indigenous people that rely on them. You can contribute to its work by sponsoring an acre of forest at a cost of £25 – roughly the same price as a five-foot Norway Spruce.
In many urban centres in India, you can also choose to rent Christmas items and help to create a sharing enconomy through places like RentSher. If you must have something resembling a tree in the centre of your living room, why not make one out of recycled goods as Anu Life has done–replete with tetrapak ornaments!
Or if you really have a lot of time on your hands, try this upcycled chappal Christmas tree from Ocean Sole:
Of course, once you’ve made the decision to go green for Christmas, why not go all the way? Here, too, those of you celebrating Chanukkah with the Americanised consumption model to keep your children from getting jealous of all the gifts their Christian friends receive, this applies to you too!
There are a few models out there of how to celebrate the holidays in a greenified way. Trash is for Tossers has a nice list of suggestions and also excellent wrapping methods using recyclable materials. The most obvious and best ideas centre around making things from scratch–whether it be a dinner, cookies, or knitting a scarf or anything else you can imagine. The Story of Stuff had a terrific idea: send out a gift exemption certificate to those whom you normally exchange gifts with to encourage the practise of not buying needlessly. This definitely beats Secret Santa, which seems innocuous but judging from how it’s spreading amongst young people in India, I’d say it’s a purveyor of encouraging mindless (often plastic) consumption.
If you must buy a gift, because of family obligation and traditions you cannot escape, buy something long lasting (a great list can be found at Buy Me Once). In India, this can mean that if you’re giving a sari, which is a gift one is often expected to give, you can buy at places like Go Coop which specialises in handloom sarees. There is also an online shop that Trash is for Tossers recommended called Life without Plastic.
If you must give gifts, you can also focus on things people use, that people need (always with the thought that it should be as long lasting as possible). Handloom sarees fall into this category. So do locally, produced, handmade soaps like those by Common Oxen. You can get sustainable, beautiful paper products from El Rhino that are made from elephant and rhinoceros dung. For children you can get some of the amazing, traditional hand-crafted Channapatna toys from Varnam. There are also wonderful products made from temple flower waste by Help us Green–the incense is especially good. A variety of gorgeous handcrafted and imaginative items for children and adults can be found at Dastkar Ranthambhore, a project that has helped to improve the livelihoods and the environment in and around the tiger preserves.
There is also the option of donating to charities, to causes, or even donating your time (like offering to babysit for someone with small children or to weed someone’s garden). I haven’t used it before, but SoKind Registry seems like one place to explore in this vein, too.
Ultimately, trying to create a Zero Waste Christmas–or any holiday for that matter–means that you need to consider how your consumption habits are impacting your community and the planet.