Christmas is one of the most consumption-oriented times of the year. Everything from the food we eat, to the gifts we buy, have a major impact on the Earth. First step: get informed. Its much easier to make changes once you know the eco-impact the holiday season has.
Holiday decorating and gift giving
In 2006, Americans spent nearly $32 billion dollars on holiday gifts, decorations, and festivities, with $21 billion spent online. Gift giving, giftwrapping, as well as festive decorating and lighting all make up a large portion of total holiday spending, but the resulting waste can be a real downer for those concerned about the environmental impact of their celebrating. Not only do these products entail oft-wasteful packaging, they also require the extraction of new natural resources during production, and energy for transport from extraction site to manufacturer to recipient, much of which can be wasted in no time when an item breaks, becomes obsolete, or no longer suit the a owner’s tastes or needs.
More people purchase and display artificial trees from year to year than those with real trees. In 2006, 36 million one-use real trees were purchased, but 46 million multi-use artificial trees were purchased, adding to the existing stocks of reusable trees. Real, live Christmas trees have several important advantages over artificial trees. Most importantly, when grown organically and sustainably, real trees can slow climate change, protect wildlife, and reduce soil erosion. In 2008, close to 45 million trees were planted in North America, adding to the total of over 400 million trees growing nationwide. One acre of land planted with Christmas trees will produce enough oxygen for 18 people, and since there are over 500,000 acres of land in production for Christmas trees across the US, these farms produce enough oxygen for almost 28,000 people.
Real trees are also relatively easy to recycle, and because of strong public recycling programs, 93 percent of consumers in the US claim to recycle their trees in some fashion. These programs reuse trees as mulch for hiking trails and public parks, for beachfront erosion prevention, for fish habitat, and to manage river sedimentation and shoreline stabilization.
Although artificial trees last longer than real trees (six years on average), their manufacture and disposal are more problematic because of their composition. Most artificial trees are made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a soft plastic used commonly in consumer products that poses severe environmental risks throughout its life cycle. PVC is not recyclable, nor is it biodegradable. When disposed of, lead, phthalates, and other toxic additives contained in the PVC can leach into the ground and drinking water supplies from landfills. Lead levels in the environment have increased by 1,000 times in the past few hundred years.
Incineration of PVC products is also problematic since it produces dioxins and furans, which are among the most toxic environmental contaminants and are known carcinogens. PVC also contains health-threatening phthalates. In fact, 90 percent of phthalates in production are used to make PVC.
Christmas decorations and gifts
Much of what is purchased around the holidays will inevitably end up in the trash, not least of which are the gifts and decorations selected for the season. In 2005, over 245 million tons of garbage were produced in the US. Each American resident generates approximately 4.5 pounds (a little over 2 kilos) of garbage every day, and much more during the holidays. In fact, US residents generate more solid waste than the residents of any other country. Canadians generate the next largest amount of waste, about 3.75 pounds (1.7 kilos) each per day, whereas Germany and Sweden produce less than 2 pounds per day (less than 1 kilo) per person, the least of all the industrialized nations.
Buying products made of eco-friendly or recycled materials (ones that are recyclable, too!) is good for the environment for a variety of reasons. Choosing products made with natural, renewable materials means less land, water, and chemicals are used to produce the finished item. Recycled content products also require much less energy, water, and virgin resources. And recycling programs even play a role in reducing emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases—they’re estimated to have kept the equivalent of 39 million car's worth of carbon out of the atmosphere in 2005.
The traditional Christmas meal is filled with ingredients collected from far and wide—turkeys from Minnesota, cranberries from Wisconsin, sweet potatoes from North Carolina, vanilla from the Caribbean, sugar from Brazil—most of which is likely raised conventionally with the help of chemicals and machines. As a result, the ingredients gracing the average American holiday table may be wreaking havoc on the planet in more ways than one.
Holiday meat consumption
Americans consume more than 13 pounds of turkey every year, with a staggering 22 million birds killed for Christmas meals around the country every year. But of the 270 pounds of meat eaten yearly by the average American (the largest national average in the world, by the way), turkey makes up only a small portion. Chicken and beef only slightly edge out pork in popularity, with all options fair game during holiday meals.
Though the ills of meat production are becoming more well-known, global meat consumption has increased rapidly over the last several decades. Sixty percent of the recent growth in meat consumption has occurred in the developing world, which collectively eats half of all meat. Production of meat is set to double from 229 million tons in 1999/2001 to 465 million tons in 2050. As the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) recently noted: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” Vegetarian holiday meals have the potential to mitigate many environmental problems associated with the conventional production of meat.
Chemical pesticides and fertilizers used in conventional farming are not only believed to be harmful to human and animal health, but also pollute ecosystems and waterways. It's estimated that approximately 670 million birds are exposed to pesticides used in farming annually. Ten percent die as a result. The fruits and vegetables containing both the highest and lowest amounts of pesticide residues are as follows.
- Heavy pesticide residues: Apples, apricots, red and green bell peppers, cantaloupe (Mexico), celery, cherries (US), cucumbers, grapes (Chile), green beans, potatoes, strawberries, peaches, pears, spinach, winter squash.
- Low pesticide residues: Avocado, bananas, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, corn, grapes (US and Mexico), green onions, onions, plums, sweet potatoes, watermelon.
While omitting chemical pesticides and fertilizers through organic farming helps to protect human and animal health as well as prevent soil and water pollution, organic farming may also be key in fighting global climate change. A study of conventional versus organic farming methods by the Rodale Institute discovered that organic farming combats global warming through carbon sequestration. In agricultural applications, the more organic matter that is retained in the soil, the more carbon is sequestered. While conventional farming depletes organic matter through the use of chemical fertilizers, organic farming uses animal manure and cover crops, which actually build soil organic matter.
Fruits and vegetables are often associated with regional farming given that different crops thrive in different climates and terrains. For example, potatoes are associated with Idaho and Red Delicious apples with Washington. Although regionally produced, most produce is subsequently traded on a national (and international) scale, making "food miles" an issue to consider. Researchers at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found that non-locally grown produce travels an estimated 27 times as far as its homegrown counterpart. For example, the researchers, using Iowa as an end point, found that Iowa-grown garlic traveled 31 miles to reach buyers while garlic grown and distributed conventionally traveled 1,800 miles. In another instance, Iowa-grown apples traveled 61 miles to reach consumers while conventionally grown and distributed apples traveled 1,726 miles. The Leopold Center is also exploring the idea of creating an eco-label to help consumers select produce grown and shipped with the least environmental impact.
Enjoying a festive meal with family and friends at Christmas means gearing up for a road trip or hopping on a plane for most Americans. It’s no surprise, then, that US residents travel an average of 275 miles between Christmas and New Years, a longer distance than any other time of the year. Every gallon of gasoline burned by cars and trucks releases 20 pounds of CO2, and, because no combustion is perfectly clean, cars are also a primary source of local air pollution. Comparatively speaking, air travel and car travel—both heavy greenhouse gas producers—use equivalent amounts of energy to transport one passenger 1 mile.
Though US holiday travelers primarily move from one place to another via planes and private vehicles, alternative modes of transportation with a far smaller impact on climate change can shrink both holiday travel budgets and carbon footprints. Trains carry 200 car-loads of people, making them the most efficient transportation option. Buses are another good choice since they emit 80 percent less carbon monoxide than the average car and can carry the equivalent of 60 car-loads of people. According to Amtrak, which operates train service across the US, the carbon emissions per passenger mile when traveling by plane is .48 kg compared to only .21 kg when traveling by train. A report commissioned by the American Bus Association says buses produce the least—just .056 kg of carbon emissions per passenger mile.
- US Census Bureau - The 2007 Holiday Season
- Center for a New American Dream - Counting on Christmas
- National Christmas Tree Association - Quick Tree Facts
- Earth 911 - Treecycling
- The Center for Environmental Health - An Unnecessary Poison: Babies, Bibs, and Lead
- Center for Environmental Health - Target Agrees To Reduce Use of PVC, a "Poison Plastic"
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Municipal Solid Waste Basic Facts
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Municipal Solid Waste FAQ
- US Census Bureau - Thanksgiving Day
- National Turkey Federation - Turkey History & Trivia
- WorldWatch Institute - United States Leads World Meat Stampede: Meat Consumption From Around the World
- Worldwatch Institute - New Meat Byproducts: Avian Flu and Global Climate Change
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations - Livestock a major threat to environment: Remedies urgently needed
- Food and Agriculture Organization report - Livestock’s long shadow: Executive summary
- Pesticides and Birds Campaign
- Consumers Union - Consumers Union Report: Pesticide Residues Still Too High In Children's Foods
- Food and Society Policy Fellows - Organic Farming Fights Global Warming
- Science News Online - Local Foods Could Make for Greener Grocers
- Fueleconomy.gov - How Can 6 Pounds of Gasoline Produce 20 Pounds of Carbon Dioxide?
- US Federal Aviation Administration - Office of Environment and Energy: Aviation & Emissions, A Primer Page 11
- RITA Bureau of Transportation Statistics - US Holiday Travel
- Ideal Bite - Want to get away for Labor Day weekend but hate the thought of all that traffic?
- Amtrak - Amtrak Recognizes Environment with Whistle Stop Events
- American Bus Association - Motorcoaches are Tops in Fuel Efficiency Per Passenger Mile, New Study Confirms