Dreaming of a Green Christmas?

This season’s winter holidays used to be the greenest things going: you decorated your home (or hut or castle or cottage) with holly, ivy and evergreen, burned a decorated log, lit a candle each night and perhaps feasted a bit on roast meats. With the arrival of the second half of the twentieth century, however, the “green element” fled the building: we now have gifts made of plastic from the Far East to replace last year’s gifts which are then consigned to landfills to make room for the new treasures, trees and decorations pre-treated with enough chemicals to kill a plastic lawn reindeer, electric lights (and electric bills) galore, and feasts whose ingredients arrive in a heap of wrapping, packaging, labeling and safety seals thrice as voluminous as the food itself.


So what’s a green holiday lover to do? You could eschew all modern decorations and gifts and convince your family that a garland of holly, a mug of eggnog and some singing of holiday songs are all you need. But at the risk of spending the holidays with your children, your mother-in-law and your spouse refusing to speak to you, you could choose an alternative path toward a green holiday and take a little time to think before you buy.

Green the Gaming. We’re certain that you choose your gaming console based on how green it is (doesn’t everybody)? What’s surprising is that someone actually measures statistics like this. That “someone” is the Electric Power Research Institute, and its testing that revealed that out of the three top-selling systems: Nintendo’s Wii, Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360, the Wii system uses about six times less power than the other two while in active mode. To make sure the test was fair, EPRI played the same game on the different three systems for the same amount of time. Researchers tested one hour of active play of EA Sports’ Madden 2011 football game, a popular game on all three consoles. During the hour, the Nintendo Wii system used an average of 13.7 watts, the Sony PlayStation 3 used an average of 84.8 watts, and the Microsoft Xbox 360 used an average of 87.9 watts, making it the most power-hungry of the three.

Of course, by measuring the games only in active mode, the conclusions may not tell the whole story. The Nintendo Wii has a feature called WiiConnect24, which allows the gamer to keep the console connected to the Internet while it’s in standby mode, letting users to receive messages from other players and system and game updates. This feature is unique to the Wii, so it’s possible that all the energy the console is saving during active play is being used while the unit is in standby mode. The feature can be shut off, but clearly not all players are choosing to do so.

This news makes you wonder whether the energy efficiency of the Wii is an accident or was part of a deliberate design. It’s hard to tell. Some gamers will tell you that the Wii uses less power because its graphics aren’t as high quality as those of its competitors, nor is its processing power. So it’s really only possible to compare the three superficially. Bottom line is…if you’re an avid gamer and committed to the greenest lifestyle possible, consider the Wii and skip the WiiConnect24 function Or, better yet, game online and shut your computer off when you’re finished.

Green the Christmas Tree. OK, so most Christmas trees are technically green, at least in color. The brief 1970s craze for silvery-white artificial trees seems to have faded (luckily) along with leisure suits and Wayne Newton’s career (also luckily). Artificial trees used to be touted as conservation options: they eliminated the guilt of contributing to deforesting the nation. This sounds reasonable, and might be if artificial trees weren’t made with petroleum-based plastics and sprayed with environmentally unfriendly chemicals, and didn’t require a lot of energy in shipping from wherever they are manufactured (locations including China, China and China). Live Christmas trees are grown on farms (innocent wild trees are seldom harmed), and the energy used to plant, maintain, harvest and ship the trees a relatively short distance can’t compare to the eco-impact of an artificial tree. Most species of evergreens used for Christmas trees are remarkably talented at growing in poor soil suitable for growing little else, so your holiday tree probably isn’t supplanting a critical food crop. And if you really want to be good, check among local tree growers to find one that doesn’t use pesticides.

Don’t like the idea of chopping down a living thing to decorate your home? Consider purchasing a live tree with a wrapped root ball that can later be planted in your own yard or a public space that needs more trees. The trees are pretty widely available at nurseries. But they do require a lot of TLC to ensure they thrive in their new location after planting: sticking the tree in a hole in the ground and walking away won’t do it.

Once the tree is in the stand, consider going LED in your lighting. While LED holiday lights have been available for a few years now, this seems to be the first year that Americans have really splashed out on the lights (which are more expensive than traditional incandescents). LED Christmas lights remain cool during use, and the lack of wasted energy in making heat means the lights use up to 90 percent less electricity than old-fashioned bulbs, chopping the dreaded January electric bill down considerably. They also last much longer: an LED light can be good for about 100,000 hours of use. Considering the short amount of time they’re used on a Christmas tree or Hanukkah bush each year, this means they will last for years – maybe even decades – reducing the number of strings of lights that end up in landfills each year.

Hanukkah: Already a Conservationist Holiday. As for other end-of-the-year holiday traditions, it would be hard to find a more environmentally friendly and conservationist holiday than Hanukkah. To trot out a little history: when the Second Temple in Jerusalem was looted and profaned by Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucids in 167 BC and the Jews subsequently took the temple back and cleansed it, they found that all the holy oil had been despoiled by the looters, save one single jar of olive oil that remained sealed. Since the menorah was required to burn all night and there was so little oil, when the menorah remained lit for eight days anyway (and by then a new batch of olive oil had been pressed and blessed), it was declared to be a miracle, and the festival of Hanukkah was instituted to commemorate the event. In addition to being a holy holiday, therefore, it’s also a story about oil conservation. Are you listening, BP?

Ditch the Purchased Wrapping Paper. Wrapping paper is nasty stuff. In many cases, it’s not even paper, but some variety of petroleum-based synthetic stuff. It’s usually printed with rather toxic ink and then treated with other unpleasant chemicals (if you’ve ever burned wrapping paper in the fireplace, you’ll notice it turns an interesting variety of chemically-induced colors). Instead, consider using alternatives. The Sierra Club recommends old maps, children’s artwork or the newspaper’s comic section. If you’re crafty, you can even wrap in plain white paper and block-print a design onto the paper yourself, perhaps in soy ink (remember making block prints with potatoes in grade school)? According to the Sierra Club, if every family in the U.S. wrapped just three gifts this way, it would save enough wrapping paper to cover 45,000 football fields. And if you’re the parent of young children, you might find it’s a guilt-free way of reducing the reams of kiddie artwork you no doubt have covering most surfaces in your house.

Going Green with the Yule Log. If you’re one of those people who used to shake your head at the unimaginable cheesiness of the televised burning “Yule Log” in the 1960s and 70s but you’re unwilling to light a real wood fire (traditional wood-burning fireplaces create up to 50 grams per hour of particulate matter in the form of smoke, ash and soot), perhaps there’s an answer for you. On the market today are gas fireplaces that are so ecologically friendly they don’t even need to be vented. The newer fireplace technologies can actually earn a building LEED points (Leadership in Energy Efficient Design, a standard for green building design) during construction. It may not have the snap and crackle (or the wonderful smell) of a good old-fashioned Yule log, but they can heat the room and keep the air clean, particularly if you live in a densely populated urban environment.

So if you’re unwilling to build yourself a personal landfill full of ghosts of Christmases past, there are options that can help you eat, drink and be merry. And remember to keep the pouting and crying to a minimum: Santa’s watching, and that coal for your stocking doesn’t come cheap anymore.

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