Your Daily Green Bit

How to recycle/ reuse your Christmas tree

“Nothing lasts forever” is an all-too-accurate adage for the more than 25 million Christmas trees purchased each year in the US.  All those darn little pine needles drying up and interminably scattering around the house just prove that even the sweetest celebrations must come to an end, especially if you want to keep your home clean. Live Christmas trees readily biodegrade, so long as they're exposed to oxygen, not smothered in landfills. Their useful lives can be prolonged as mulch for garden beds, barriers against flooding and so on. Preparedness is all!

Whenever your family tradition prescribes the removal of the tree, here are some tips for thoughtfully dispatching it.  For instance, if you live near Phillipsburg, NJ, there's the Perfect Christmas Tree Farm’s 5th annual Tree Chip Day celebration on January 10th.  Events at this farm party include Smokey the Bear's birthday party; a tailgate auction with pro auctioneers helping you sell some of those unwanted presents you received; a worm exhibit that helps folks visually understand the decomposition process; and of course, free tree chipping and big bag of mulch to take home with you. If you live near NYC, one great excuse to party is the annual five-borough MulchFest, including kids’ activities galore. If you live elsewhere, check out the resources below.

But first, here’s the deal with mulch:  Not only does it protect sloping groundfrom soil erosion, it also reduces soil compaction from rain, keeps soil moisture from evaporating, keeps weeds down and provides the perfect environment for helpful garden critters like earthworms. In short, it’s a gardener’s cure-all. Best of all, after Christmas you can get your mulch for FREE, courtesy of your tree. You can hack off branches with a hand saw and lay them on garden beds as winter decoration and protection. The trunk and thicker branches, however, must be composted or chopped up to make good mulch.  “Some municipalities will use a larger size chipper that can handle the bigger tree trunks.  The branches could be cut off of the tree trunk and used as mulch or to hold leaf mulch in place,” says Anne Edwards, president of the New Jersey Christmas Tree Growers Association . Heads up: Most of the comomunity chipping events around the country happen on January 10th.  So wrap your tree in an old sheet, tarp, or what have you, to keep it stored in one piece until you can cart it to the chipping place.

To locate Christmas tree recycling centers and services in your neighborhood, type in your zip code at Earth 911, the brilliant online directory that helps you recycle just about anything. You can also find your municipal parks department or recycling services by searching here at the eminently useful  Many locales pick trees up curbside, just as they do regular yard waste. Just doublecheck that your municipality recycles trees instead of just dumping them.“After Christmas is dull compared to the holiday celebrations,” says Cynthia Curtis of Perfect Christmas  Tree Farm.  “We do this event each year to extend the holiday pleasure.”   For more tree-repurposing ideas, the National Christmas Tree Association highlights how a variety of communities nationwide reuse trees; for how to use your tree as a wild bird feeder, see this article in the Chicago Sun-Times.  


New Year's resolutions: green, healthy, keepable

If you didn’t keep your 2008 New Year's resolutions, maybe they didn’t satisfy a deeper connection with yourself, your friends, your planet, or your car. With that in mind, following are some tips for lightening your calorie, carbon and pollution loads in 2009.   

1. For your next getaway, take a hike instead of a drive. It's better for your health, of course:  A brisk walk (at 3.5 mph) burns from 250-400 calories an hour, depending on your weight. Hike all day and you'll easily burn more calories than you ingest. Driving a car burns about 125 calories. It's a no-brainer that driving releases far more greenhouse gases (GHG), too, with one exception:  If you offset the calories you burn walking by eating only red meat, the GHG will exceed that of a drive of the same duration, thanks to all that methane the animals excreted. If you eat the normal American omnivore diet, however, walking releases fewer GHG than driving.

Where to walk? For inspiration, we recommend The High Sierra of California ,above, which focusses on the back country above 9,000 feet, accessible only by walking. Artist Tom Killion's block prints (you can order originals here ) and Gary Snyder's nature diaries (the poet lives in the Sierra foothills) combine to bring you one of the few places left where you can experience a truly dark and quiet night. Only $24.95 from Heyday Books ; with free shipping if you order by Dec. 31!  We resolve to backpack Yosemite in 2009.

2.  If you smoke, quit.  First, it'll be easier to hike. And there are more than 4,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke, some of which are also in the insect poison DDT, arsenic, nail polish remover, and rat poisoning.  And don't let your car smoke, either. Just like your lungs, a car’s engine needs clean air.  But if the air filter is jammed with dust and debris, it cannot filter effectively and gasoline burns much less efficiently. Replace your air filter every 15,000 miles to increase fuel efficiency by 30 to 40%.  

3.     Lose Weight – According to the  Center for Disease Control Colorado is the only state in the US with an obesity rate less than 20%.   Maybe we could all learn from a state that loves its outdoor sports. Eating less meat will keep you healthier and less likely to develop diabetes or heart disease, not to mention help the planet, too. And it’s not only our bodies that need to lose weight. Removing excess weight from your vehicle (you know, that crap you keep in the trunk or pile on the roof rack) can increase MPG efficiency by 2% and save you 2 to 3 cents per gallon. The reduction is based on the percentage of extra weight relative to the vehicle's weight and affects smaller vehicles more than larger ones. Get more fuel (and GHG)-conserving driving tips from the Alliance to Save Energy and Union of Concerned Scientists 

4.     Give It A Rest – On the 7th day, even the Lord had to rest.  This year, I have taken a weekly technology holiday from sundown to sundown Friday to Saturday to honor the Sabbath, and to make time with my friends and family.  That means no iPhone, computer, TV, etc.  The break allows my internal engine to appreciate the details of life I normally can’t observe, careening madly through the week. According to the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, studies show that constant noise can hurt children's cognitive development and that we should all listen regularly to the sounds of silence.  Plus, global light pollution from our street lamps, factories, offices and homes has led to disturbed human sleep (and worse health), bird migration, and now, scientists report, it's even harming coral reefs. For what you can do, see the International Dark Sky Organization website. And whenever you're burning the midnight oil, close shades, curtains or blinds. 
Give your car a rest, too. “If all Americans drove just 12 miles less per week, fuel demand would fall by 5%, the equivalent of almost half a million barrels per day, or all the ethanol produced last year,” says energy consultant Geoffrey Styles. 

5.  Learn Something New - Did you know that you can actually change the shape and ability of your brain?! Learning new information and mastering new skills can increase neural plasticity, which is the capacity of the brain to change with learning.  Your car’s engine can also get smarter and more efficient, with your help. Build Your Own Electric Vehicle with the help of author Seth Leitman and increase your brain’s plasticity in one fell swoop.  

6.      Get Yourself Tuned Up – Make sure you are getting your age-appropriate health exams (breast, colon, prostrate, etc) as well as overall body/teeth/skin check-ups this year because prevention is way easier than correction.  For your car, a preventative check up/tune up every 5,000 mile can improve overall gas effiency by as much as 40%.  Don’t have a favorite mechanic?  Check Car Talk's directory of great mechanics across the country.   

7.       Slow Down and Enjoy The Ride:  Take time for yourself.  Eat slower, listen to the sounds around you, and make time for friends.  And like the Kanye West says in his song Drive Slow, you should, “Drive slow, homey.”  Driving 65 in a 55 zone lowers your car's gas mileage by 15%.  For each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph, you essentially pay an additional $0.24 per gallon of gas.

8. Make a year-end, tax-deductible gift to an environmental non-profit.  As a new year arrives with a Presidency promising change, invest in the infrastructure of natural resource protection, which has preserved pristine places like the Olympic Peninsula (see the beautiful article on saving silence, and these places, by Kathleen Dean Moore in the December issue of Orion). Subscribe to non-profit Orion, E., or Earth Island magazines; or contribute to the organizations named above, or to green groups such as the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the Glynwood Center, which provides grants to sustainable food networks and community gardens and small farms nationwide, and the Rainforest Action Network , all of whom need our help in this economy as never before.  

by Margaret Teich

Count the birds this winter, wherever

Looking for an outdoor activity that's educational and helps the environment? You got it: Join in the Audubon Society’s 109th Christmas Bird Count. Every year, tens of thousands of birdwatchers all over the country gather at designated locations between December 14th and January 5th to conduct the country’s longest-running wildlife census. The Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology use this information to assess the health of bird populations and aid conservation efforts. Amateurs and experts alike, and all ages,are welcome.

If you're not a flocker, or you already missed the Christmas Bird Count in your area, not to worry:  There's still plenty of winter left, and another roundup scheduled. Every February, Audubon and Cornell host the Great Backyard Bird Count. This year, from February 13th to the 16th, you’re invited to count birds wherever and whenever you like. You’ll print out a regional bird checklist and then submit it online to the GBBC website when you’re finished. This event is an opportunity for anyone to be a citizen scientist and gives a “real-time snapshot” of what birds are where across North America.

Then there's eBird, Audubon and Cornell’s international, real-time, online bird database. Registration is free and easy, and you can record bird sightings from anywhere you’ve been, including overseas vacations. You observations will be entered into the main database so scientists all over the world can use your experiences in nature to guide conservations efforts.

Bonus bird tip: remember to buy bird-friendly coffee! Deforestation in the Amazon for conventional "sun" coffee plantations destroys bird habitat, so be sure to buy shade-grown, certified organic, cultivated beneath living rainforest canopies. Rainforest Alliance-certified, or Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center-certified coffee.

Maybe you'll become a committed birdwatcher. Remember, they're watching you back, so behave!


By Rachel Brown

Make a BPA-free pumpkin pie

What’s better than making pumpkin pie with your family? No, not getting a store-bought pie and eating it in front of the television. Making BPA-free pumpkin pie! Since the hormone-disrupting chemical known as BPA is found in nearly all canned food in the US, skip the canned ingredients this holiday season and use these eco-friendly alternatives. For Thanksgiving, we made this recipe from Diamond Organics, substituting fresh, homemade pumpkin puree for canned. We'll never do canned again if we can help it!

Buy a little, tender, organic sugar pumpkin at the farmers' market, cut it in eighths, scrape out seeds, and steam or boil it. Cool, remove skin, and blend. Presto, puree! Not only that, but exactly the 15 oz. or so you'll need to fill the deep dish pie recipe above. You can also use pumpkin butter, packed in non-leaching glass jars, from your local farmers' markets or a pumpkin farm near you, which you can locate with Local Harvest’s handy search engine. Two good companies that make pumpkin butter are Muirhead Foods and Latimore Valley Farms.

Many pumpkin pie recipes called for canned evaporated milk. Anyone who grew up across the road from a dairy will say blech and tell you to use thick, heavy organic cream or soy milk, BPA-, hormone-, and antibiotic-free. Organic Valley has some truly scrumptious cream, widely sold in supermarkets,  if you can't find some from a local dairy (see Local Harvest, above). 

Vegans shouldn’t be left out of the cold. You can use sweet soy milk from Eden Foods, in BPA-free aseptic cartons, or use this pumpkin pie recipe that only calls for pumpkin butter, sweetener, and spices.

For those who actually like baking and not just the idea of baking, here are instructions for It's a way to truly be in the moment. A slice of Zen. And a slice of pie.

by Rachel Brown

Gifts of organic (or mostly) personal care

It's not too late; far from it! Hanukkah has 8 days and Christmas 12. So let’s say you’ve committed to buying eco-friendly products and are zeroing in on a body/beauty care gift basket for a special someone. Sounds great, except that just because a beauty product’s label says organic, doesn’t mean you are good to go. To cut the organic confusion, look for USDA organic seal.  While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates cosmetic labeling, does not regulate organic claims in personal care products, the USDA National Organic Program now covers cosmetics that contain agricultural  products, applying the same standards as it does to food. Thus, a product can only claim to be "organic" if it has at least 95% certified organic ingredients, and can say "made with organic" if it has at least 70% of the same.

Craig Minowa, environmental scientist  with the Organic Consumers Association ,says, “The USDA Organic Certification is the most stringent personal care certification in the world and if a company can achieve that, they’ve achieved gold standard.”  Minowa goes on to say that you don’t see the USDA seal, flip it over and look at the back.  “Non-pronounceable ingredients that end in eth have undergone ethoxylation, a process that creates a carcinogenic byproduct,1.4-dioxane.” 

Earlier this fall, the Organic Consumers Association hired a third party lab to buy “eco-friendly” beauty products and test them for 1.4 Dioxane.  Their findings were astounding: Products from green companies like Avalon Organics, Jason Pure, Natural & Organic, Nature's Gate Organics, KissM y Face Obsessively Organic, Giovanni Organic Cosmetics, Head Organics, Desert Essence Organics, and Stella McCartney's CARE 100% Organic all contained ethoxylated synthetic ingredients. With the OCA’s findings, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps took the aforementioned companies to court to force them to drop uncertified organic label and brand claims.

Synthetic ethoxylated preservatives help extend a product's shelf life.  However, there are natural ways to get around that.  Products with coconut oil are naturally preserved thanks to the lauric acid in the coconut, which is solid at room temperature but melts easily when heated.  Packaging also plays a huge part; German company Weleda, for instance, seals products in an airtight tube to avoid using preservatives in the products.

Which brings us to another big issue for the holidays. Yes, you want an aesthetically appealing present to present, but when you are buying products because they're easier on the earth, the packaging should reflect that concept.  In brief, less is more for beauty product packaging.

Here are six safe, sassy, gifts we're loving for the holidays:

Juice Beauty Hydrating Mist and Lip Moisturizer Kit
Hydrate thy face and lips, dear friend, and forget thee not to rock the Keen bag.

Dr. Bronner's liquid castile and bar soaps and body balms in compact tins are now 100% certified organic, leaping bunny (no animal testing) and fair trade in their entirety; paper and plastic packaging is largely post-consumer-recycled. Beyond peppermint, they've new rose oil, orange and "naked" unscented varieties.

Farmaesthetics High Cotton Body Dust
Works like talcum powder (sans chemicals) and leaves skin soft and fragrant
. We spoke with Michelle Bundy, Executive coordinator at Farmaesthetics based in Rhode Island.  While the product is not certified organic, it's pretty pure: They do not use any synthetic ingredients in any of their products.  The body dust (which works like talcum powder) is made entirely of arrowroot, cornstarch, clay, sage, thyme, and certified organic lavender & sea salt.

Origins Skin Care Starter Kit
With Origins’ face tonic, foaming wash, and moisturizer, your skin will glow like a subtler but no less radiant Rudolph’s Nose.

Skin Essentials - Energizing by Living Nature
Replenish moisture at home and away with this travel-sized 3-step skincare ritual.

We've become addicted to Organic Essence's 100% USDA certified organic and fairly traded shea butter creams in grapefruit, lavender, lemongrass and pure shea butter (which in all fairness is a little hard and waxy, and doesn't glide on the way the others do, but that's because it's pure and has to be heated up in your hands a bit). The cute cardboard packages, which look like individual seving ice cream cartons, are biodegradable and the labels are FSC-certified paper from well-managed forests.

Wishing you sensual, essentially organic, holidays!

by Margaret Teich

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