National Spokesperson, the Natural Resources Defense Council
When you purchase online early in the holiday season, you save money on delivery and leave enough time for ground shipping, which requires far less fuel than would an overnight express package traveling by plane. In general, the key is to avoid heavy traffic, endless circling of parking lots, and multiple trips to the mall -- this will save your sanity as well as the environment.
In a perfect world, every gift would be something the recipient wants and can put to use. And yes, it requires more work to find those things. Try at least to give a gift that isn't just a waste, like so many stocking stuffers. Make a donation in the recipient's name to an organization that he or she cares about. And when looking at gifts overall, if you have the option, go for one that has less packaging. Finally, big-ticket electronics like flat-screen TVs and video game systems are popular gifts -- look for those carrying the Energy Star label; they will save money down the line in electricity costs.
Explore ways to use something you already have on hand for wrapping presents, whether it's newspaper or gift bags you've saved from last year. Incorporate your kids' artwork. For bows, opt for fabric ribbon or raffia, which can be reused, rather than disposable plastic ones. If you do purchase wrapping paper, make sure it's marked "post-consumer recycled," which means it's coming from consumer products and not just from wood pulp. Then, of course, recycle it again.
This is a tough one -- lots of people think it's environmentally friendlier to get an artificial tree that you'll use for years. But they're made of plastic, of nonrenewable resources that get shipped a long way. A real tree is better. Ideally, it would be a living tree that can be replanted. If you get a chopped tree, be sure to recycle it afterward. Lots of municipalities offer mulching for Christmas trees; check Earth911.com for locations.
Try to find a tree grown in your area so you're not wasting gas on the journey. If cutting down a tree is part of your Christmas tradition, we like to recommend starting an Easter tradition of planting one.
The holidays are a time to celebrate -- we don't want people beating themselves up over the fact that every part of the celebration isn't green. There are lots of little ways to be more sustainable. For instance, you don't really need to get new ornaments every year -- homemade and hand-me-downs are some of the best trimmings on family trees. You can also find them at garage sales or in thrift shops. And when you can, go for natural and biodegradable decorations, like popcorn strings. Get garland-style tinsel, which you can use year after year, instead of icicles that get thrown out.
One thing that's definitely worth upgrading is holiday lights. Switching to LED bulbs -- they're available for indoor or outdoor use -- is such a smart move, because they use one-tenth the energy of regular lights. You won't see that huge electric bill that people are so used to getting every January. They're a wise investment, too, since they last 10 years or more.
© 2013 Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. All rights reserved.