12/13/11 – Clean Air Partnership separates green holiday fact from fiction

ST. LOUIS, Mo. DEC. 13, 2011…Another holiday season is upon us, and people across the region are busy decorating their homes, planning holiday parties and searching for the perfect gifts for their loved ones. As we celebrate the season, there are a variety of steps we can take to minimize our environmental impact, but it can be tough to decipher which actions are truly the most eco-friendly. To help clear up the confusion, the St. Louis Regional Clean Air Partnership (The Partnership) is working to provide answers to five common green holiday questions.

Question # 1 – Which is more eco-friendly – a real holiday tree or an artificial tree?

On the surface, artificial trees may seem to be the more environmentally conscious choice, since they can be used year after year, and prevent real trees from being chopped down. But, as it turns out, real trees are actually the greener way to go. That’s because artificial trees are manufactured using polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is a petroleum-derived plastic that is both non-renewable and polluting. While it’s true that artificial trees can be used for many years, they are not biodegradable and cannot be recycled, meaning that once they are disposed of, they will remain permanently in landfills. Real trees, however, can be recycled. Their branches and roots can be ground into mulch, which decomposes and provides nutrients for other plants and vegetation.

Question #2 – Shopping online is the greener way to purchase gifts, right?

The answer to this question isn’t simple because one option doesn’t truly win out over the other. With online shopping, the retail store – and all the lighting, cooling, heating that it requires – is cut out of the equation, as is the need for consumers to drive to the retail location. According to statistics, shipping two 20 pound packages by overnight air – the most energy-intensive delivery mode – uses 40 percent less fuel than driving 20 miles round trip to a mall or store. And, if ground shipping is requested, the energy used is just one-tenth that of driving. So, in terms of energy and fuel use, online shopping appears to be the green winner, but that’s not the case when it comes down to packaging. In fact, research indicates that shopping online results in 2.5 times more packaging waste than shopping in stores. And while most of that waste can be recycled, it takes a great deal of energy and infrastructure to do so. As a general rule, online shopping can be a more eco-friendly choice for those living in the suburbs that must drive more than six or eight miles to go to a mall or retail store. The choice can be made even greener by choosing ground shipping, requesting that online orders be bundled and reusing and recycling packaging materials. But, for city dwellers who live within biking or walking distance of retail stores, or can use mass transit to get to their shopping destinations, making the choice to support locally owned businesses can be the more environmentally conscious route to take.

Question #3 – How much greener is sending e-greetings vs. traditional cards?

In terms of tradition, many people aren’t comfortable with replacing paper cards with electronic greetings, but in terms of our environment, e-greetings easily wins as the greener option. While there are a variety of holiday cards made with 100 percent recycled content available today, emissions are still generated with the making of the paper, the transportation associated with getting the cards to market and the additional transportation required to get the cards from the senders to the hands of their loved ones. In fact, statistics indicate that sending 50 paper cards in a single year generates five pounds of waste, creates 1,000 pounds of emissions and uses 1,000 kilowatt hours of energy. Alternately, using the computer to send 50 e-greetings creates just 3-4 pounds of CO2 emissions and uses mere pennies worth of electricity.

Question #4 – Is it more eco-friendly to use a gas or wood-burning fireplace?

Nothing is better than a warm fire on a cold, holiday night. But, when it comes to the environment, both gas and wood-burning fireplaces each come with pros and cons, making it tough to choose a clear, green winner. In terms of energy-efficiency, wood-burning units push much of the heat in the home right out of the chimney, while allowing drafts from outdoors to come in, requiring the furnace to work harder and use more electricity. Gas units are slightly more energy-efficient, but can still cause some heat to escape from the home. When it comes to the pollution emitted, burning wood releases particulates, while gas units produce carbon monoxide. And in terms of sustainability, wood tends to win out. As long as a tree is planted for each one that’s burned, wood is considered a renewable resource. Natural gas, on the other hand, is a fossil fuel.

Question #5 – Is it greener to wash and reuse glass dishware, or purchase recycled paper dishware for entertaining?

Here, the debate is between the energy and water required to wash reusable dishes versus the energy used to produce, transport and dispose of paper dishware. In this case, the reusable dishes are the greener option. To get to market, paper dishware (including items made from recycled materials) must be manufactured, packaged and transported over great distances. Once these paper items reach store shelves, they are purchased by consumers who use them for just a few minutes before throwing them into a trash can. Because most of the used items are contaminated with food, they cannot be recycled, which means they will be transported by a trash truck to a landfill where they will remain for many years to come.  On the other hand, reusable dishware can be utilized for years, taking the place of countless amounts of disposable plates, bowls and cutlery. This benefit essentially makes the environmental costs of manufacturing and washing these items (either by hand or in a dishwasher) negligible over time.

“We realize that there is a lot of information out there regarding the best ways to go green during the holiday season,” said Susannah Fuchs, senior director of environmental health for the American Lung Association of the Plains-Gulf Region. “That’s why we wanted to try to dispel some of the mis-information that exists and help arm area residents with knowledge designed to help them make it a greener holiday this year. The choices we make are critically important because they can have a significant impact on our environment and the quality of the air we breathe.”

For more information on making your holiday season more eco-friendly, or for additional information designed to help you go green and do your share for cleaner air throughout the rest of the year, contact The Partnership at (314) 645-5505, ext. 1007, or visit www.cleanair-stlouis.com.

The St. Louis Regional Clean Air Partnership was formed in 1995, led by the American Lung Association of the Central States, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, East-West Gateway Council of Governments, Washington University and others, to increase awareness of regional air quality issues and to encourage activities to reduce air pollution emissions.

For more information, contact:

Shelene Treptow, The Hauser Group, (314) 436-9090

Susannah Fuchs, American Lung Association, (314) 645-5505, ext. 1007