The season for giving easily can become the season of waste. Today’s Christmas gift may be tomorrow’s clutter. Old electronics are abandoned for the latest must-have gadget. If you fight with your spouse every year about whether to buy a real or artificial tree, we have some advice for how to keep the annual frenzy of consumption to saner levels.


DO THIS: Tap into your inner Martha Stewart and decorate your front door and porch with natural materials such as pine boughs, berries and cones you find in your own yard. Or buy solar-powered Christmas lights and decorations. Cutting back on outdoor lights or lighting more creatively will help cut your electric bill. Instead of doing the whole house, light up your walkway or garage. Wrap two trees in 30 strings of incandescent lights, and you will use 1,224 watts of power per season, according to Cut back to 10 strings in one tree, and you will use just 408 watts. Be sure to buy a timer for your lights so Rudolph’s nose is only shining when it’s dark outside.

NOT THAT: Outdoor Christmas light displays seem to get bigger and more audacious every year. Sure, they’re fun to look at, but they can be energy hogs. If you must keep up with the Joneses’ North Pole display that moves to the tune of “Santa Baby,” at least switch from incandescent lights to LEDs. They last longer and can save 80 to 90 percent on power costs. Ninety-five incandescent icicle lights suck up 6,056 watts per season, compared to 458 watts for LED icicles.


DO THIS: Approximately 33 million live Christmas trees are sold in North America every year. If you don’t mind the falling needles and regular watering, a natural Christmas tree is the way to go, according to a 2009 study by Ellipsos, a sustainable development consulting firm in Montreal. Yes, real trees may be grown with some pesticides, but they provide wildlife habitat and fight climate change by trapping carbon from the atmosphere. When the Christmas season is over, the tree can be sent through a chipper and used as mulch in your yard.

NOT THAT: The Ellipsos study found that artificial trees have three times as many negative environmental impacts as a real tree, including using up resources and contributing to climate change. Most people throw their fake trees away after six years, and they end up in a landfill. You’d have to use an artificial tree for 20 years to make up for its negative impacts, the study found.


DO THIS: Instead of buying more things that will just end up in future garage sales, give your family and friends the gift of an experience – tickets to the theater, a book of movie passes, a river rafting trip to look forward to in summer, or a gift card to a favorite restaurant.

NOT THAT: Seriously, how many Americans need more stuff? Stay away from stuff for stuff’s sake, or adventures involving lots of eco-unfriendly travel.


DO THIS: Chances are you’ll be buying at least one electronic gadget as a gift this Christmas. Be smart about it. Did you know that laptops and tablets use less energy to stream movies or videos than larger devices? According to the Department of Energy, tablets with the Energy Star label use 10 times less power to stream a movie than a game console, seven times less power than a television, and six times less than a desktop computer.

NOT THAT: If you’re upgrading electronics this holiday season, don’t toss the old ones into the trash. Dispose of them properly. With an E-Card, which allows free disposal of eligible items in the city’s recycling program, Portland residents can take old electronics to Riverside Recycling. Best Buy also accepts them. Goodwill has a partnership with Dell; any donations of old computers and such that can’t be sold in Goodwill stores will be recycled by Dell. There are lots of other options in the area as well – and therefore no excuses for not doing it right.


DO THIS: If there are children on your gift list, sign them up for a nature camp next summer, or give them a homemade coupon good for one afternoon of sledding followed by a steaming mug of hot chocolate. Sign them up for ski lessons. Study after study has found that kids benefit socially and intellectually from spending unstructured time outdoors, yet many of today’s youngsters rarely go outside to play.

NOT THAT: Don’t buy your children a bunch of plastic, battery-operated toys that will end up in a landfill someday. About 40 percent of all battery sales occur during the holiday season, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and even rechargeable batteries end up in the waste stream eventually, where they can leach toxic substances.


DO THIS: When shopping for gifts, keep it local. Gifts shipped from thousands of miles away contribute to climate change. You can also cut down on your gift list by drawing family names out of a hat or planning a Yankee Swap for Christmas morning. Help your friends and family keep control of household clutter by giving them homemade gift certificates instead. Offer to mow their lawn, weed their garden, wash their windows or watch their kids for an evening so they can have a date night.

NOT THAT: If you prefer to shop online, don’t double dip on shipping charges or the environmental impacts of shipping any gifts you order. Instead of shipping a gift to your home for wrapping and mailing, ship directly to the recipient from the online retailer. Many retailers offer gift wrapping for a nominal charge.


DO THIS: If you have an elderly person on your gift list, consider making a few dishes to store away in their freezer. Women of a certain age who have spent their entire lives cooking for their families may need a break. Put together a few casseroles they can thaw out for dinner later, or make a big pot of chili or chicken stew that can be divided into smaller portions. If your older friends enjoy cooking but hate shopping – maybe there are mobility issues – treat them to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription for meats and vegetables from a local farm. Some will make regular deliveries of their fresh, local food.

NOT THAT: Don’t give your elderly friends one more unwanted bottle of cheap cologne, bar of scented soap or hand lotion. They already have enough. Really.


DO THIS: Stick with locally raised meats, fish and vegetables for your Christmas table. See if you can go without things like citrus fruits for this one day, since those items are often transported over long distances. Coffee doesn’t grow in Maine, but you can choose an after-dinner coffee that is organic and certified fair trade.

NOT THAT: Roast beef is a traditional Christmas centerpiece dish, but if you worry about your impact on the environment, choose pork or poultry instead. A comprehensive study of the cow’s environmental hoofprint published last summer in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that cows require 28 times more land and 11 times as much irrigation water than pork, poultry, eggs or dairy. Raising cattle also pumps five times more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere per calorie than those other forms of animal protein. (Pork, poultry, eggs and dairy, the study showed, all shared similar environmental footprints. The cow was the outlier.) When it comes to warming the planet, one study author calculated that eating a pound of beef is worse than burning a gallon of gasoline.

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