by Carlos Martin Diaz

At a very young age, my younger brother realized that Christmas was as much about gift giving as gift receiving. One Christmas, when he was very little and – like most youngsters – did not have a steady source of income, he made us all Christmas gifts out of recycled materials. Mine was a bottomless milk gallon with which to play catch.

It wasn’t Call of Duty, but we played and had fun for hours. In retrospect, my 10-year-old brother’s innovation has a lot to teach – and warn – about the consumption that surrounds the holidays.

Unfortunately, our society has been led to believe that the best way to show that we love someone is by spending money on them, especially during the holidays: the greater the magnitude of money, the greater the magnitude of love.

The problem with that, besides the value that it places on materialism, is that once we buy all this “stuff,” we can do one of three things. We either keep the outdated or old product, give it away as a gift or donation, or throw it away. Naturally, we would expect an increase in waste to follow an increase in consumption, but this self-feeding cycle needs to stop.

According to a study conducted by Use Less Stuff, a nationally recognized and widely read newsletter based in Colorado and aimed at spreading the benefits of resource reduction, Americans produce 25 percent more trash (or 25 million tons) during the holidays than any other time of year.

All of that wrapping paper, ribbon, plastic bags, Styrofoam, cardboard boxes and plastic packaging adds up, too. California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery reports that every year, Americans discard enough ribbon to tie a bow around the Earth (over 38,000 miles) and purchase enough Christmas cards to fill a football field 10 stories high (about 2.6 billion cards).

Holiday consumer mania is bad for the environment in more ways than one. We celebrate the holidays by eating foods high in fat content. All that fat and used oil –about three to five gallons for each deep-fried turkey – can cause clogs and overflows in our sewers, which pollute our water supplies. In 2011, the same USPS trucks that delivered our Christmas cards drove 1.25 billion miles and put 125,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Even our sacred trees are not free from environmental problems: The PVC inside artificial trees leads to dangerous lead contamination levels and produces more than 100 pounds of greenhouse gases in its lifetime, while 30 million live trees are thrown out each year after the holidays.

Moreover, think about the gifts we will be buying: cheap toys for our kids that will break before spring, a tie for our dad when he already has 20, a sweater that our nephew will probably never wear, a “World’s Greatest Mom” mug that, while cute, only adds to her collection.

This uninformed gift-giving is definitely a sizable contributor to the 25 million tons of waste that we generate over the holidays. While well-intentioned, the cheap and excessive knick-knacks, filler presents and “stocking stuffers” (which imply that you are supposed to “stuff” your stocking to the breaking point with these items … Oh wait! There’s a bigger stocking on sale! Thank heavens!) are designed to catch your attention as that “gift for anyone” when in reality, after they are neglected or thrown away, it becomes a “gift for no-one,” and a loss for our planet.

At this point, you must be thinking, “What a Grinch!” I, you might be surprised to learn, love the holidays, but we need to prioritize our ecological well-being over any iPad or Xbox. Of course, we will keep buying gifts for loved ones during the holidays, but we need to think more about what it is we are buying and what effect it will have on the environment. And there are plenty of alternatives to wrapping, taping, boxing, and tying bows on presents.

Two Christmases after the aforementioned one, my little brother had another brilliant idea: to hide the unwrapped presents and give clues as to where to find them, like a scavenger hunt. Really, my brother shows us that to be more environmentally conscious in gifting, we need not take the joy out of it.

There are plenty of other alternatives, too, such as homemade gifts. Nothing says “I love you” like a gift that says “I know you.” A batch of cookies, a box of chocolates, a picture frame, a photo album – each are gifts that are personalized and that significantly reduce individual environmental impact. When purchasing gifts, we should make sure that we do our research in finding an appropriate one Sometimes the trash can is more appealing than driving all the way back to the mall for a refund.

I think a simple solution to our problem is acknowledging that it is a problem. Our greatest tool is our consciousness and awareness. This Christmas take note of all the packaging, food waste, and replaced accessories that you wind up with after the presents have all been opened and the family has finished dinner. When these miscellaneous holiday “byproducts” are given more attention than the trinkets they were designed to hold, only then will we give our planet the greatest present of all, responsible conservation.

Besides, does Aunt Sonia really need you to box, double-wrap, and bag that pair of slippers?

Carlos Martin Diaz is a Chestnut Hill native currently studying at Columbia University.

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