01/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Top Holiday Traditions that Warm the Heart, not the Planet

The holidays are such a wonderful time to connect with family and friends. We gather around fires sipping cocoa, swapping stories and opening presents. People you may not have heard from in months or years send you photo cards of their maturing children. You may even receive a gift basket filled with fancy snacks. And many of us give our children's teachers gift cards and bake cookies for the kids to decorate.

All of these thoughtful, magical activities may warm our hearts, but they likely warm the planet as well. Isn't it time to evolve some of our customs so that they communicate that we care about the planet too? I'm not talking about giving up chocolate, cutting off communication with distant relatives or giving your kids' class the cold shoulder. I just want us to understand the truth behind the traditions that we all cherish so much. The EPA estimates that Americans throw away 25% more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year's than any other time of the year, which translates into an extra million tons of waste generated nationwide each week. And even the greatest holiday tradition of all, the Christmas tree, has its own dirty secret: each year, 50 million trees are purchased in the U.S., 30 million of which end up in the landfill rather than being recycled or replanted (The Cygnus Group and The Environmental News Network). With all of the current changes in politics and the economy, now is the perfect time to become more conscious about every action we take - those cumulative small actions really do add up! I want to share a few ways you can continue your traditions without trashing the environment.

The most common culprit of holiday excess is found in greeting cards and wrapping paper. The EPA estimates that 2.6 billion holiday cards are sold each year in the U.S., enough to fill a football field 10 stories high! The best solution is to send tree-free wishes using one of the many great e-card services such as Not only do you save paper, ink, time and money (it's free), you can share so much more than with the pulpy alternative. If you really want to make friends and business associates laugh out loud, try Watching your work or home team dance to crazy music in elf costumes is priceless. But, if you are not ready to forgo the tradition of sending a physical note, try one of the eco options that abound. If you are a little subversive, you'll be wild about Seltzer"s wacky cards, like "Pimp my sleigh". Night Owl Paper Goods' FSC-certified cards are elegant little artworks, and Smock Paper makes lovely retro bamboo letterpress cards. The do-it-yourself alternative is repurposing old cards into backgrounds and cut-outs for new cards, using an eco glue stick to combine the scraps.

The greeting card's guilty relative is gift wrap. In the U.S., annual trash from gift-wrap and shopping bags totals 4 million tons ( Your first step should be to always bring your reusable shopping bags with you, whether it's a grocery run or you're stocking up on gifts. My favorite wrapping solution is to collage pages of well-read magazines (for the holidays I usually pick images that are a singular color, like all green or all blue). If you really want the look of traditionally bound presents, go for hemp, bamboo or post-consumer waste wrapping paper and make sure to recycle it. If you're thinking bows are just a tiny issue (I mean, really, how much damage can that cute little ribbon cause?), think again, because 38,000 miles of ribbon is thrown out each year, enough to tie a bow around the Earth ( Also remember to use bows and ribbons made from biodegradable materials, like raffia and hemp, to pretty up your packages!

Buying environmentally conscious cards and recycled wrapping paper are a great start: making those two changes alone will divert thousands of pounds of waste from the landfill. After mastering these sustainable steps, stride into the new year by cleaning up what has passed. When the guests have left and all is said and done, consider your options for recycling - every little thing counts within the massive excess of the holidays, so it is essential that we learn what is recyclable and how to dispose of it. is an amazing resource for information about how and where to recycle most household items, including that Spruce tree. For example, about 40% of all battery sales occur during the holiday season (EPA), and they can be taken to Home Depot, Ikea and many local hardware stores to be recycled.

But in case talking about holiday clean-up is putting the horse before the cart (because you still have 14 out of 15 gifts left to figure out) then make sure to check out my Holiday Gift Guide at, which also includes a category for decorating if you want to be an even deeper shade of green.

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