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‘It's a hard time of year to be green’

Despite growing desires for a "green" Christmas season, it can be hard to avoid the waste associated with gifts, packaging and travel for the holidays.

One green Santa wraps his homemade Christmas gifts in old maps to shrink his carbon boot print.

Dave Kerr of Albuquerque, N.M., hand-carves furniture made of wood from plantation trees —  not virgin and never ever endangered ones. But rather than an emission-free reindeer-guided sleigh, Kerr climbs aboard a polluting plane or into his gas-guzzling car to deliver a sack full of presents to his family sprawled across three states.

"It's a hard time of year to be green," the 40-year-old says.

Kerr is one of the many people caught between new green Christmas wishes and old holiday traditions that happen to wreck havoc on the environment.

The hallmarks of the holidays — gift cards, wrapping paper and superfluous feasts — combine to make this one of the trashiest times of the year. Our household garbage grows by 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year's, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Changing our wasteful ways may prove difficult, says Su Avasthi, who keeps a blog called "It's Not Easy Being Green."

"We have preconceived ideas which involve a big tree and beautifully wrapped packages underneath the tree," she says.

Some of those ideas may be changing. About 43 percent of U.S. consumers say they intend to give green gifts such as organic products this year, according to an October report by the Conservation International, an environmental nonprofit.

And retailers have made headlines this year by joining the environmental movement too. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., for example, has announced plans to trim back on packaging as part of its push to sell products that can be made with less energy expenditure.

But is this just an Al Gore-inspired fad or are the green holidays for real?

Despite the green intentions of customers and stores, America seems far from letting go of the holiday's culture of consumerism. Stores are still giving out thick catalogs, free gift boxes and plastic bags. And shoppers still stormed the malls on Black Friday. They spent $10.3 billion — up 7.2 percent from last year.

Retailers expect the usual shopping frenzy this year. The National Retail Federation predicts a 4 percent sales growth over last year. If consumers do spend less over the holidays, subprime mortgages and soaring prices at the pump will probably have more to do with it than the environment.

And few seem ready to stay at home for the holidays. A record 38.7 million people are expected to travel 50 miles to reunite with friends and family for the holidays.

A truly green Christmas might mean regifting and exchanging homemade presents wrapped in fabric — or nothing at all. It might mean wishing far-away relatives "Happy holidays" over the phone rather than in person. And it might mean stringing fuel-efficient light bulbs on the Christmas tree, to be recycled at holiday's end.

At the very least, consumers "have to change their buying habits," says Noah Buhayar of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmental research nonprofit.

He advises consumers to pay attention to product packaging, which takes up almost 30 percent of the space in our landfills, according to the EPA. But he says stores can help by giving shoppers less to trash.

"It's a win-win situation," Buhayar says, because reducing packaging can curb costs both for retailers and the environment.

Many people just don't know how to be green. Consider the real-or-fake Christmas tree dilemma. Manufacturing artificial ones happens to hurt the environment more than sawing down real ones, suggests Grist, an environmental news and commentary site.

And picking up "green" gifts may come at an environmental cost if you consider the carbon expended in manufacturing and transporting the products and you to the mall, Avasthi says. She doesn't expect this year's green efforts to amount to much.

"They are thinking about it more," Avasthi says. "That is a good thing."

And as Kerr has learned old traditions die hard. He may have adopted green ways, but his family continues to celebrate Christmas with a tree decorated with ordinary bulbs and wrapped store-bought presents. And he says he's not about to push his views on his family during the holidays.

"'Let's recycle this wrapping paper while everyone is having fun unwrapping presents!'" he jokes.