Dec. 20, 2012 at 1:00 AM ET
Have you heard about the great Christmas tree debate? The one where you try to figure out which is worse for the environment, chopping down a perfectly good live fir or shipping a factory-made plastic one all the way from China? Well, the truth is, it's not that big of a deal. If you're dreaming of a green Christmas, there're other issues that take precedence.
“You can have the most leverage elsewhere,” Jean-Sebastian Trudel, founder of Ellipsos, a sustainable development consulting firm in Montreal, Canada, told NBC News.
Yes, the tree debate gets our eggnog-filled noggins thinking about the environmental impact of the holidays, and about the decisions we make on everything from the lighting in our decorative displays to food, packaging, and electronic waste.
How about wrapping a gift in recycled paper that you decorated by hand? "Any time you get started [thinking and acting green], the chances of continuing that are better than if you don't start at all," Cindy Parker, the co-director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told NBC News. "The holidays are a really nice time to do that."
That darn tree debate
For what it's worth, Trudel and his colleagues took the natural versus artificial tree debate seriously enough to perform a definitive life-cycle analysis back in 2009 that got to the root of the matter. They concluded natural trees are better, but only because people tend to toss their artificial trees after six years.
“You need to keep an artificial tree for more than 20 years for it to become the better option,” he said.
The comparison was between a natural tree grown in Quebec and a plastic one from China. If the natural tree had been grown farther away and trucked into town, or if the artificial one was made with environmentally friendly materials, the scales could tip the other way.
More than 80 percent of households that display a tree will have a fake one, according to the American Christmas Tree Association, a trade group for makers of the artificial variety.
“If you’ve already got an artificial one, stick with it and hopefully go through that 20-year lifespan with it,” Jenny Powers, a spokeswoman with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental organization, told NBC News.
Otherwise, the organization recommends purchasing or renting a potted living tree and either planting it after the holidays or returning it to the store. If living trees aren’t an option, then get a cut real tree and make sure it finds an afterlife as wood chips or garden mulch.
Trudel said that people who are preoccupied with this debate should really let it go, relax, and enjoy the holidays. Then, when it is time to return to work, do so on a bike or in a carpool. That will have a much more profound impact on the environment than tree choice.
Twinkle, twinkle LEDs
The lighting choice is prevalent to anyone out for an evening stroll or drive around the neighborhood where houses and shrubs shine bright with holiday displays.
Simply switching out traditional lights with new, energy-efficient LED lights is a sure way to save money and help the planet, according to Johns Hopkins' Parker.
A few years ago, the cost of such lights was prohibitive, but today they are comparable with traditional lights, she noted, and they use a fraction of the energy. Using them means electric bills are much smaller and, in most places of the country, using them means fewer greenhouse gas emissions as well.
“It is a gift you can give your community and the rest of the world,” she said.
You get a gift, too: It doesn't hurt that LED bulbs last longer, aren't a serious fire hazard, and are less apt to burn out, rendering your whole strand useless.
Wrap up the waste
For many of us, the best of part of the holidays are the packages under the trees, and the delights they contain. Those gifts can bring a myriad of enviro-woes, however.
Annual trash from gift wrap and shopping bags in the U.S., for example, amounts to 4 million tons, according to Use Less Stuff, publishers of a newsletter that teaches "source reduction." And household waste, in general, rises 25 percent in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
“We don’t necessarily need to buy reams and reams and reams and reams of brand-new brightly colored paper to wrap up our gifts,” said Parker. Rather, she said, wrap gifts in something useful, such as a dishtowel.
For those driven to use wrapping paper, choose post-consumer recycled paper or the comic section of the newspaper, suggested the NRDC's Powers.
However the package is wrapped, what’s in the package could open another can of environmental concerns, especially if it is a shiny-new must-have gadget to replace that almost-shiny-new must-have gadget found under the previous year’s tree.
The question is: what to do with the old one?
“Instinctually, we all kind of know it is not the kind of product we just toss in the trash,” Powers said. “There is good reason for that. Not only is there personal information on there but some of these things also contain potentially toxic materials.”
To get rid of this so-called e-waste, she recommends using a service such as Earth 911 to find a local electronics recycler. “It is a good way to recycle the one you just retired as well as the ones you may have hidden in a basement corner.”
Gathering for the feast
The holidays are also a prime time to join with family and friends around the dinner table. For better and worse, much of the food that doesn't add to the waistlines ends up adding to the waste bin.
America loses up to 40 percent of its food from farm to fork, NRDC reported earlier this year. To reduce waste, do some advance planning — buy and prepare food that works well as leftovers, and have a plan to share the leftovers with family, friends and food banks.
“This is probably the best time of the year to think that through, and do the same thing all year long,” Powers said.
Gathering family, too, has its costs. Planes, trains and automobiles tend to be sources of greenhouse gases that are causing the climate to change. If the option exists, take a bus or train instead of a plane, recommends Powers.
But, she added, the holidays are an important time of the year to be with family and loved ones. Go ahead and travel. Maybe cut down business travel later in the year and do a video conference instead. “I’m not really going to suggest you don’t go see your loved ones,” she said.
In other words, it’s possible to be green during the holidays without being a Grinch. All of these options — from the tree choice to travel choice — are about staying as efficient and eco-friendly as possible, not simply depriving yourself.
“All of it is about extending that spirit of giving beyond, including to your community, but also, frankly, the planet,” she said. “And I would like to say that that is very un-Grinch-like.”
John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. To learn more about him, check out his website.