Ecology activists dreaming of a (guiltless) green Christmas

December 23, 1990|By Phillip Davis | Phillip Davis,Phillip Davis covers the environment for The Sun.

This holiday season, ecological activists are dreaming of a "green" Christmas, trying to lead the way to a guilt-free, ecologically correct celebration.

So for the past few weeks, environmentalists who normally fill their days saving the Earth have pondered imponderables such as the merits of live Christmas trees vs. artificial ones, or gift-wrap vs. gift-bags.

Admittedly, sometimes when they try to put it all into practice, the result can be a bit strange.

The Washington-based group Environmental Action Inc. decided last year that they'd recycle their 1988 Christmas tree that had been moldering outside its offices for a year. How? They spray-painted its needle-less branches a holiday green, and then decorated it again.

This year, they're settling for a Christmas party.

"We don't want to seem to be Scrooges," Dru-Schmidt Perkins, director of Maryland Clean Water Action said recently. But she and other activists note that at Christmas, like any other holiday, the emphasis is on consumption, not conservation.

Her group recommends giving gifts made from natural materials, and either wrapping them in recycled gift wrap paper or putting them in reusable gift boxes.

"Let's face it: Christmas is a relatively wasteful time of year," said Roy Geiger, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation near Washington, D.C. Nonetheless, he said, two weeks of sparkling lights around a Christmas tree is a small extravagance compared to year-round conservation.

"It's pretty much a moot point," he said.

Nonetheless, that doesn't mean that the environmental groups themselves haven't thought about how they will celebrate the season.

Take the annual Christmas quandary -- live Christmas trees vs. artificial ones.

On the one hand, live trees are a renewable natural resource, while artificial trees, though not natural, can be reused for years. Reflecting that split, Americans bought 36 million of each kind last year, according to industry estimates.

Environmentalists aren't taking a strong stand on the issue. But they note there are many more ecologically sound things one can do with a used, natural Christmas trees than with an artificial one.

"Let them sit in the backyard -- they make a good habitat for small animals," Mr. Geiger said. A tree thrown into the depths of a pond can give fish a place to rest and lay their eggs, he said.

Pine boughs can be used to protect perennials against cold winter winds, and needles make a good soil conditioner, loosening and lightening sandy soils, according to the recent book, "The Green Consumer."

On Assateague Island in Virginia, the Committee to Preserve Assateague takes old donated trees and embeds them in the beach -- the trees help stop beach erosion, which threatens the island's famous wild pony population, activist Judy Johnson said.

And many counties offer another option -- they have set up designated places where residents can take their trees to be chipped and turned into bags of mulch that will feed the soil and the plants growing in it.

It's not surprising, then, that Mr. Geiger's group has chosen to use real trees at their headquarters in suburban Washington.

But the Maryland Department of the Environment prefers small artificial trees to give a holiday feel to its sprawling headquarters near the Dundalk Marine Terminal. Some of the trees are festooned with aluminum cans that say "recycle me," one official said.

"I don't know if that's a policy statement, though," he cautioned.

Out on the West Coast, notes the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Air Quality Management District recommends artificial trees -- too many of the real ones end up in smoky beach bonfires, officials said.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has forgone trees altogether, said Eliza Niemann, the group's office manager.

"We don't do a Christmas tree -- we make do with pine roping and ornaments around windows," she said. Since most people have trees at home, there's no need to cut another one for the office.

Jim Pierce, a staff scientist with Environmental Action Inc. in Washington, said staffers gathered over eggnog last week to discuss the issue. They concluded: Don't buy a real tree unless you know how you can dispose of it, he said.

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