As the festival of lights, Hanukkah has the potential to be the most illuminating and joyous on the Jewish calendar for both celebrants and the earth alike. From family meals and meaningful observances to gift-giving and game-playing, there are more ways than ever to green-up the traditional Chanukah festivities.
Hanukkah ambiance and gift giving
In 2006, Americans spent nearly $32 billion dollars on holiday (Hanukkah, Kwanza, Christmas) gifts, decorations, and celebrations, with $21 billion spent online. Gift giving, giftwrapping, as well as decorating and lighting with dreidels, menorahs, and Hanukkah bushes all make up a large portion of total Hanukkah 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 suits the a owner’s tastes or needs.
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.
The burning of traditional Hanukah candles also contributes to growing atmospheric pollution—the Green Hanukkia campaign maintains that every menorah candle that burns produces approximately 15 grams of CO2. It’s not a huge amount, but collectively can add up to a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions over the course of one Hannukah season.
Buying and using 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 Hanukkah meal is filled with ingredients collected from far and wide—Hanukkah gelt from Africa, potatoes from Idaho, olive oil from the Mediterranean—most of which is likely raised conventionally with the help of chemicals and machines. As a result, the ingredients gracing the average Hanukkah table may be wreaking havoc on the earth in more ways than one.
Holiday meat consumption
The average American consumes more 270 pounds of meat every year, which is the largest national average in the world. Chicken and beef are the most consumed and both are popular choices at traditional Hanukkah meals. Yet, a growing body of evidence implicates meat in a variety of serious environmental problems—not least of which is climate change.
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 Hanukkah 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 during December holidays, 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.
- Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life - 8 Actions in 8 Days
- Jewish Veg: Recipes and ideas for all sorts of Jewish holidays and events.
- Simple to Remember: A discussion of Judaism and vegetarianism.
- Sustainable Table - A Very Sustainable Chanukah
- US Census Bureau - The 2007 Holiday Season
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Municipal Solid Waste Basic Facts
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Municipal Solid Waste FAQ
- The Jerusalem Post - 'Green Hanukkia' campaign sparks ire
- 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