Monday, December 8, 2008

Less In the Season of Excess

Tips for a Green Holiday

From the December Issue of Verdugo Monthly

My husband says some day my mouth is going to get me killed. It’s the not profanities or my short fuse, but the little tidbits of neighborly advice I dispense. The way I tell people they should consider adjusting their sprinklers so they don’t irrigate the street, or use their leaf litter as mulch instead of blasting leaves (and pollution from the blower) around their property.

The end could come this holiday season. Many of my neighbors launch an all-out blitz: every shrub blinks; giant (electric-powered) blow-up Santas perch on roofs; Christmas trees glow around the clock. Entire North Poles are erected without irony. (Lighting my yard; melting the Arctic.) Garbage cans burst with things that shouldn’t be trashed. I don’t want to deprive people of their holiday pleasures. I just want to inject a little moderation. California waste officials say Americans throw away a million extra tons of trash a week from Turkey Day to the New Year.

An easy solution is to apply the conservation mantra: reduce, reuse, recycle—in that order. Buying sparingly means less energy consumed, fewer pollutants produced and resources depleted. Ditto for reusing; plus it keeps junk out of landfills. Recycling is great, but it takes energy to reformulate materials. Still, by all means recycle, and buy recycled products.

Looking for a little grinchy sympathy, I called a few people who have simplified their holidays. They left me less cranky — even inspired.

’Tis the Gift to Be Simple

Robert Lilienfeld, the stingy but sharp mind behind says, “The earlier you shop, and the more you plan, the more likely what you buy is something people will like. [The problem is] the last-minute trip where you buy whatever you see.” Lilienfeld likes experiential gifts. This year he’s giving his teenaged daughters tickets to the musical Wicked. He also recommends ball game tickets, and iTunes cards. “If you think about your holiday memories from when you were a kid,” he says, “what you remember are the experiences you had. Grandma drank too much eggnog. What you ate for dinner. ”

Last year, Los Angeles journalist and mom Julia Posey asked her family to skip the “stuff” and give memberships. She was delighted with the result: Free admission to the L.A. Zoo, the L.A. County Natural History Museum and Descanso Garden. Posey has simplified her family life and documents it on her blog, Ramshackle Solid. She makes lovely homemade gifts. She recently bought plain wooden nesting dolls and painted them with animals her son has seen at home and on hikes. “Kids don’t need a lot,” she reminded me. “You want to give them less, so their imagination has space to play.” She inspired me to sew finger puppets. For this, I’m using both naturally dyed wool felt and synthetic felt made of recycled plastic. The tiny bird puppets will also double as holiday ornaments. 

When you buy tangible gifts, pay attention to the amount of packaging. Is a tiny doodad encased in yards of plastic? If so, look for a better choice. Martin Schlageter with the L.A. environmental group Coalition for Clean Air advises, “Look at product labels. Look at where something is made, and if it has recycled or organic content.” He tries to buy things made locally, because of the pollution generated by transporting goods. Schlageter also evaluates durability: “Pay a little more for something that’s going to last.”

It’s a Re-Wrap

In the 1970s, my family was either a conservation pioneer — or just thrifty: We always opened gifts carefully and reused the paper, bows, and boxes. I still do. Use-Less-Stuff guy Robert Lilienfeld says the key is to have separate, marked boxes ready to collect the scraps as people unwrap. Don’t bother to wrap the really big stuff, put a bow on it or hide it. “Especially for little kids, they don’t care,” says Lilienfeld. “No one is ever going to say in therapy at age 35, ‘I wish my mom had wrapped gifts better.’” Get creative. You can use brown paper bags, old comic books, and scraps of fabric. 

Similarly, my friend Julie Wolfson offers this Chanukah tip: “If you are determined to give your kids a present every night, don't waste wrapping on all of them. Buy or make one gift bag for each kid, and put her gifts in it each night. My kids love to see what's in their ‘Chanukah bag.’”

To Tree or Not to Tree? 
Despite my reputation, I certainly wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of a Christmas tree. Burbank and other cities will mulch them. To cut pollution from trucks that haul the trees away, consider chopping up at least the fine branches at home and using them to mulch flowerbeds or improve your compost pile.

A couple of years ago I tried a Christmas rosemary bush — with mixed results. It was cheap, easy and smelled great. The idea was, after the holiday, I’d plant it or cook with it. It graced my Christmas day, but died before I could reuse it. Nevertheless, it’s a lot easier to chop up — and make mulch or compost from — a small shrub than a large tree. Some years, I’ve just decorated a few boughs, placed on the mantle.

For the trimmings, LED holiday lights — which use a lot less energy and last longer — are now widely available. The bulbs also fit some electric menorahs, says Liore Milgrom-Elcott of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. “If it’s big enough,” she adds, “you can use compact fluorescents (CFLs).”

Adan Ortega, board member of the open space group Amigos de los Rios, decorates and reuses a tree made of recycled plastic. He says, “My preference is to celebrate the way Mary, Joseph and Jesus did: with humility. I prefer my son’s hand-made decorations.”

Waste Not

To prevent wasted food, Robert Lilienfeld advises a little planning: “You know there will be leftover turkey. Think what you want to do with it before you shop. Look at it as an ingredient for the next couple of meals. If your family loves soup, buy the ingredients at the same time.” Pay particular attention to poultry, meat, and dairy. It takes a lot of resources — and puts a lot of greenhouses gases into the air — to produce that protein at the top of the food chain.


Buying carbon offsets has become a fashionable way to unburden the consuming conscience. Why not undertake your own mitigation? To start, you can pay a junk-mail – removal service, such as Green Dimes, to remove your name from advertiser and catalogue mailing lists. Guilty of buying too many electronic gadgets? Make amends for the hazardous waste they create (when discarded) by investing in a battery charger and rechargeable batteries. You can even buy solar-powered battery chargers. Be sure to donate unwanted toys, housewares and clothes to charity. Many people here in southern California would appreciate things I see stuffed in trashcans.

If you must have Las Vegas on your lawn: unplug cell phone chargers, computers, and other electronics when you’re not using them. They draw down power even when they don’t need it. 

Saving energy will save you money. So embrace your inner Grinch. Being lean and green is a good strategy for our times.

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