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Posted on Wed, Dec 19, 2012 : 9:26 a.m.

Dreaming of a greener Christmas in Washtenaw County: Tips for reducing holiday waste

By Washtenaw County Public Health

For Americans the “most wonderful time of the year” is also the most wasteful time of the year. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas we toss out one million extra tons of household trash each week!

Although we strive to be green, no one wants to give up their new electronic gadget, visit to Grandma in Florida, Secret Santa exchange, Christmas tree, or Hanukkah bash, but the environmental cost of such luxuries can be mitigated through mindful choices that reduce waste and fossil fuel consumption during the holidays.

Here are 10 suggestions for being greener during the holidays:

1. Get to chopping your tannenbaum
Unless you plan to reuse an artificial Christmas tree for 20 years or more, or you drive hundreds of miles to chop the perfect, wild fir, a “real” tree is the sustainable choice. Farmed Christmas trees fix carbon during the growth phase, provide wildlife habitat, support local jobs and economies, and can be recycled, while the production, importation and disposal of plastic trees generates harmful pollutants. With Michigan ranking third in Christmas tree production, local farms offer a wide variety of live conifers, some organically grown. You might also choose a living potted tree which can later be planted on your property, donated or given away. In Washtenaw County, cut trees can be left in a secluded corner of the yard for wildlife habitat, or they can be dropped off for recycling through Jan. 31 at:


  • Recycle Ann Arbor’s Drop-off Station, 2950 E. Ellsworth Road, at Platt Road.
  • West Park parking lot off Chapin near West Huron Street.
  • Gallup Canoe Livery boat launch parking lot, 3000 Fuller Road, near Huron River Drive.
  • Olson Park parking lot, 1515 Dhu Varren Road, near Pontiac Trail.

2. Regift
Resolving not to purchase useless, new gifts this season is a step in the green direction. Although regifting last year’s fruitcake to your Secret Santa is frowned upon, used gifts can be extra special. Family heirlooms or reclaimed childhood treasures are priceless gifts, even though the items are used. Maybe a coworker has always loved your paperweight or you have one too many designer handbags sitting untouched. To get others into the “green-giving” spirit, suggest swapping used books as an alternative to the $25-limit office exchange, or replay memories with relatives by trading old, family snapshots at a holiday gathering.

3. Give meaningful, green gifts
Some gifts even keep on giving to the planet, like shade grown coffee, native wildflower seeds, or transplantable trees and shrubs, which help by creating vital wildlife habitats. Durable, monogrammed shopping totes, reusable coffee mugs, or gift cards for ebooks, can help your loved ones make ecological choices throughout the year. In addition, there are a myriad of lovely, one-of-a-kind upcycled items — gifts made from repurposed materials — that are handcrafted in the U.S. or support women in impoverished countries, from purses sewn from colorful sari silk, to a bed within a classic car frame, to jewelry cast from shrapnel.

4. Give “zero waste” presents
Packaging accounts for about a third of the waste generated in the U.S., 4 million tons alone from wrapping paper and shopping bags. There are plenty of terrific presents with no packaging at all including gift certificates, tickets to a sporting event or performance, a membership to a favorite club, or gifts of services like housekeeping, lessons, or a spa day. To up the “green factor” consider giving a month’s worth of a community supported agriculture (CSA) timeshare or donating to an environmental nonprofit on the receiver’s behalf. There are numerous organizations offering “adoption” of the rainforest, endangered wildlife, zoo animals, trees, or education and nutritional support for the needy.

5. Give naked presents
When wrapping presents, remember that most decorative gift wrap and cards are coated with plastics, chemical dyes or foils. As an alternative, give gifts in durable shopping totes or graduated sizes of pre-wrapped, boxes which can be reused for multiple holidays, or wrap a gift in a gift, such as new slippers rolled in a bathrobe. If you must gift wrap or send a card, look for products with recycled content, and for parties, send evites rather than invitations. When mailing gifts, opt for reused paper shreds over styrofoam and sketch a bow on the outside of a box rather than double wrapping. If every American family chose not to wrap three gifts, the paper saved could cover more than 45,000 football fields!

6. Switch to LED lights and recycle incandescents
Modern LED light strings use about 15 percent of the energy of incandescents to emit the same amount of light and can last 10 times longer. Old, incandescent Christmas lights can be recycled in Washtenaw County at: • Lowe’s, 5900 Jackson Road.
• Whole Foods Market, 3135 Washtenaw Ave.
Or, to be eligible for a discount on LEDs, mail incandescent Christmas lights to:
• Attn: Recycling Program, 3849 Guest Rd., Jackson, MI 49203.

7. Donate used electronics, recycle batteries, and splurge on energy-efficient appliances
About a third of the gifts received this year will probably be new electronics. Since discarded electronics contain toxins that contaminate landfills, working items can be donated to a local nonprofit, like the TECH Horizons Program for disabled adults, or given to the ReUse Center. Dead gadgets should be recycled at The Washtenaw County Regional Drop-off Stations, 2950 E. Ellsworth and 7891 Jackson Road, or returned to a store that offers take-back.

All those new electronics use a lot of batteries, so consider giving rechargeables and a charger with them. About 40 percent of all battery sales occur during the holiday season, and more than 3 billion batteries are thrown away by American households each year. Spent batteries should never be thrown in the bin and can be properly disposed of at Washtenaw County Home Toxics Collection Center, 705 N. Zeeb Road, and rechargeables are accepted at many stores where they are sold.

Expecting a house full of company? Perhaps you can put on Santa’s wish list to replace old, energy-hogging appliances with new, Energy Star (ES) rated models. Older dishwashers use about 10 gallons of water each cycle, and in less than a year a refrigerator made before 1990 uses the power equivalent of leaving a hair dryer blowing for a month, while ES appliances use about half the resources of older models.

8. Use your fine china
To reduce waste, set the holiday table with cloth napkins, reusable dishes, glasses, and silverware. Durables are inexpensive, and china is available at any price point. Pretty pieces are easy to find at local, secondhand stores, and mismatched is fashionable these days. Or if you don’t use formal tableware regularly, you could consider renting it. To save water, soak dirty dishes in warm, soapy water during dessert rather than running the tap, and fill up the dishwasher before starting the cycle. Although breaking one of Great-Grandma’s saucers is tragic, she would be proud to see her china put to work conserving resources.

9. Stay home
Close to a quarter of the U.S. population plans to travel this holiday season, with 42 percent intending to fly to their destination. Air travel is perhaps the most environmentally profligate part of the holidays, so it makes sense to consider whether or not it is necessary. Choosing not to fly doesn’t have to mean missing time with family. A road trip can be the most memorable part of a vacation, and the more people packed in the vehicle, the greater the energy savings. Who knows? Instead of flying the entire family south, Grandpa in Mexico may appreciate visiting you up North this year. Just make sure to book him a non-stop flight since half of the carbon emissions come from takeoff and landing.

10. Give peace on earth
During the holidays opportunities to give in the community abound. Spread goodwill by meeting up with neighbors to pick up litter in a park, counting birds for the Washtenaw Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, or delivering holiday goodies to an elderly neighbor. Many small, local charities depend on year-end donations to stay afloat and report an increased demand for assistance in the holiday season, so it is important to give close to home. Food, clothing, toy, and pet food drives are resourceful ways to clean out the pantry and closet while helping others.

Being environmentally conscious is often as simple as taking a moment to consider if a convenience is a necessity. A century ago the holidays were essentially green, full of sleigh rides over the river and through the woods jingling all the way, rather than layovers in Houston en route to LA — but the season was just as merry! For suggestions on being greener in the coming year, check out a list of New Year’s resolutions coming soon!