Going Green — beyond the cash kind — for the holidays

By Cathy Janek For Chronicle Media

Instead of trying to find that “perfect” gift at a store, the environmental group SCARCE suggests giving gifts of talents and time to people on your list. Promising to do home improvement projects can be a year-long gift.

In Jim Carrey’s iconic rendition of the Grinch in the 2000 movie “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, he laments about Christmas gifts exchanged between Whoville residents that he later finds in the village’s trash.

“The avarice never ends,” he screams.

It is now estimated that each year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, approximately 25 percent more trash is generated in the United States, according to the National Environmental Education Foundation.

However, local conservation experts Kay McKeen, founder and executive director of SCARCE, an environmental education non-profit based in Glen Ellyn that provides hands-on education programs including one on “greening your holidays” and Jamie Viebach, Will County director of The Conservation Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving and restoring open space in northeastern Illinois spelled out efforts each one of us can take to have a “greener” holiday.

McKeen, said her organization partners with Green Grease Environment to offer a recycling day for cooking oil on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Throughout the rest of the year, permanent cooking oil recycling locations can be found at https://www.scarce.org/cooking-oil/

The group also is in its 11th season of coordinating a holiday lights recycling program.  More information can be found at https://www.scarce.org/holiday-light-recycling-2019-2020/

McKeen estimates that so far through the program 413,000 pounds of holiday lights have been recycled.

“Three types of metal are rescued,” she added.

More than 6.6 billion kilowatt hours of energy are used every year for holiday decorating,

Plants that can be replanted outside in the spring is a gift that lives on after the holidays. Green Earth Harvest, a program of The Conservation Foundation, has an organic farm in Naperville where it grows vegetables in an earth-friendly way for sale. (Photo courtesy of Green Earth Harvest)

Viebach said. “This is enough to run 14 million refrigerators or the yearly energy consumption of countries such as El Salvador.”

Turning off display lights at bedtime will save energy and money, she added.

“LED lights consume a lot less energy and produce a better-quality light,” Viebach said.

Both Viebach and McKeen suggested decorating with natural items such as pine and berries that can be composted after the holidays.

McKeen said, “We encourage people to save dried hydrangeas and make those centerpieces,”

In terms of most environmentally friendly, real trees are the winner.

For communities that don’t provide curbside tree recycling, Viebach suggested residents contact local forest preserves districts or other local government entities who may turn the trees into woodchips.

“Some companies offer a potted Christmas tree so after the holiday, the tree can be planted outside,” she added.

McKeen warned that “some Christmas tree farms cut their trees so early, they spray paint them green”—buyers need to beware.

With five grandchildren, “who don’t need a thing,” McKeen said, she tries to give gifts that are good for the environment and/or also provide the opportunity to support a cause.

“Those two-fer gifts are really a deliberate choice,” she said.

Wrapping gifts in brown paper and using natural elements is more environmentally sound than the glitter of new wrapping paper and bows every year. (Photo courtesy of SCARCE)

Environmentally friendly items such as solar phone chargers, and metal, glass, or bamboo straws that come with a brush to clean them are great stocking stuffers, McKeen said.

Everyone seems to know about reusable water bottles, but sometimes I’m not sure, she added.

“We still need plastic, but we don’t need single use plastic items,” she added.

Plants such as peace lilies which give moisture during the dry winter and oxygen make “wonderful gifts,” McKeen said.

Larger, environmentally friendly gifts include battery-powered lawn mowers, compost bins, and rain barrels, she added.

When it comes to gift-giving, not everyone is in a rush to get the biggest bargain at the mall or at online retailers.

Many people are turning to giving their time or sharing their talents to help friends and family.

Gifts of experiences are tops on both Viebach’s and McKeen’s lists.

McKeen suggested tickets to plays, musicals, or classes such as horseback riding.

Memberships to places like zoos are a way to give experiences your loved ones can take advantage of all through the new year. (Photo by Judy Harvey/Chronicle Media)

With only one Christmas wish, McKeen hopes to spend a night out with her husband at North Aurora’s Hardware, 2000 W. Orchard Road — an environmentally-friendly dining option.

In addition to a 1.5-acre farm to grow hops, a micro-orchard for fruit and nuts, the restaurant also grows its own produce year-round in their greenhouse, she added.

Viebach suggested “Concert tickets, museum and arboretum memberships, adoption programs through zoos, or donations to a favorite charitable organization. These things are still gifts that would be appreciated and create memories. Going to the zoo with your grandparents is something that you are going to remember.”

Giving the gift can turn into a scavenger hunt to find the gift — each clue leads you to another clue.

For example, Viebach said, “If the gift is a zoo membership, each clue has a picture of an animal on it.

New toys are played with for a little bit and then they need to be disposed of, she added.  “They are rarely recyclable and frequently have batteries.”

Toys that are “minimally packaged” can help the environment also, she said.

And don’t forget the wrapping.

Viebach said, “We go through 38,000 miles of ribbon [during the holiday season] which is enough to go around the earth and tie a nice bow.”

Donating to or giving memberships to nonprofits like Morton Arboretum in Lisle not only helps the organization but also gives the gift of nature. (Photo courtesy of Morton Arboretum)

While most gift-wrapping except for metallic or glitter paper is recyclable, ribbon is considered a “tangler” that gets caught up in the recycling mechanism.

She suggested, “Reuse wrapping material including bags, paper, and bows like our grandparents did.”

Wrapping gifts in another gift such as a cloth napkin or scarf or using old maps, magazines, and newspapers to wrap gifts is another option, Viebach added.

Except for photos cards, many of the 2.6 billion holiday cards sent through the mail each year can be recycled, she said.

Paper and cardboard waste is not the only thing to think about this time of year. Holiday time is usually filled with feasts and parties with extra food and drink.

“Wasting food means we also are wasting the land and water resources that went into creating that food,” Viebach said.

She suggested sending leftovers home with guests or freezing them for later.

“Break out that special china and use it, instead of using disposable plates and silverware.”

During these busy times it is common to feel overwhelmed and stressed, feeling we need to meet some unrealistic standard of a holiday celebration.

Taking your grandchildren to exploring local places like the Trailside Museum of Natural History in River Forest is a gift that creates lasting memories. (Photo courtesy of the Cook Co. Forest District)

Being kind to ourselves makes us more accessible and willing to give to others.

“Remember to take care of yourself,” Viebach said. “The holidays are very stressful make it a point to take some time and go for a walk. Studies show that being outside can reduce stress hormones.”

Each year, the Audubon Society sponsors a Christmas Bird Walk.

“At the Conservation Foundation, we talk about nature RX; it is healthy for us mentally and physically,” Viebach said.

Environmentally Conscious Gift Giving


Conscious Step – for every pair of socks purchased, a donation goes directly to a non-profit.  https://consciousstep.com/

Ten Thousand Villages – sells ethically sourced items made from developing countries.  https://www.tenthousandvillages.com/

Motherboard Gifts & More – Lake Zurich-based company makes gifts out of recycled mother boards.    http://shop.motherboardgifts.com/

(Source: SCARCE)