Monday, December 2, 2013

More on Consumerism: The Story of Stuff

Today is Monday, December 2, 2013.

Sustainability the Musical on Facebook posted this Internet meme recently that says "99% of what's beneath a Christmas tree will be landfill within 6 months."   If you think this is an exaggeration, you need to watch the video called "The Story of Stuff," narrated by Annie Leonard, a proponent of sustainability and an aggressive critic of excessive consumerism.  In the film, she says she spent ten years studying the materials economy system, which has five phases: extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal.  The system looks good on paper, until you read between the lines and look at what's not being taught in the economics textbooks.  As Leonard points out, this is a linear system, but our planet and its natural resources are finite.  You can't run a linear system indefinitely with finite resources. 

There's a lot of waste going on here in the United States, especially in the period of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.   For one thing, our shopping orgy results in thousands of paper and plastic bags ending up in landfills.  And that's just our shopping bags.   When we get our purchases home, we wrap them up in gift wrap, all of which gets ripped off on or before Christmas morning. Once we dispense with the holiday wrapping paper, we still have to deal with the packaging: cellophane, plastics, cardboard and Styrofoam.  As Annie Leonard says, most of the products, themselves, get tossed out within six months.

And think of all those Christmas cards and letters that we send to friends and family.  Picture this: the 2.65 billion Christmas cards sold each year in the U.S. could fill a football field 10 stories high.  That's how much "stuff" ends up in landfills, and that's just greeting cards and year-end letters. 

If you have kids, some of the toys they get at Christmas require batteries.  In fact, a number of your adult toys require batteries, too. In the United States 40% of battery sales occur in the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas shopping period.  We all know what happens to batteries, don't we?

Then there's holiday food waste.  According to the USDA, Americans throw away 25% of all the food they buy.  That equals 52 billion pounds of food each year.  But wait, that's not the worst of it.  During the holiday season, between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, our food waste triples, which means an extra 5 million tons of food in our landfills.  

Finally, we take down the Christmas tree.  Many of these also end up in landfills instead of being cut up and turned into mulch for gardens.  Sure, they're biodegradable, but they they will not be replaced within our lifetime.  Did you know that we have only 4% of our original forests left in the United States, and that globally, only 20% of the original forests are left?  Did you know that the Amazon Rain Forest loses 2,000 trees every minute - that's 7 football fields worth of trees.  Of course, your Christmas tree doesn't come from the Amazon Rain Forest, but the oxygen that you breathe does.  

What can you do about this?  

For one thing, even if you are in the habit of using cloth bags for your weekly grocery shopping, you probably leave the bags at home when you go holiday shopping.  This is when you really need those bags, and for large items, you will need large bags, which can be made at home out of canvas cloth. There's your autumn sewing project.

Scale down on the food you serve at parties and holiday dinners.  Make only as much as people will eat, or use all of the leftovers.  And find ways to get together with family and friends that don't necessarily involve food.

Start some new gift-giving traditions in your household and your extended family, or within your group of friends.  Challenge yourself to find creative ways to re-use or re-purpose items and give those recycled items as gifts.  Or instead of "things," give people the gift of your time and effort.  Arrange for a busy person on your gift list to receive a cooked meal at home from a delivery service, or better yet, make it and deliver it yourself.  Gift friends or relatives with a service such as a massage, a haircut, or a facial.  Give them an IOU to call in when they need a babysitter for a couple of hours while they get some errands done, or when they are just too tired to mow the lawn on the weekend.  The more gifts you give that don't have to be wrapped, the better.  If you have very young children, consider shelving some gifts and letting them open one gift at a time, over a period of weeks or even months.  

If you can, send holiday greetings and post holiday pictures online.  Consider not sending cards to people you communicate with often.  Explain that you're trying to save paper, and feel free to give them some of the statistics in this blog to reinforce your message.  Encourage people not to send you cards, either, especially if you correspond often.  These days, phone calls are cheap and video calls are easy to make online.  Consider including Grandma in a Skype session or video phone call.

About wrappings: find creative ways to use recycled materials as gift wrap.  According to the Use Less Stuff website, if every family in the U.S. used just re-used 2 feet of holiday ribbon, we could save 38,000 miles of ribben - that is enough to tie a bow around the entire planet!  If every American family wrapped just 3 presents in re-used materials, we could save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields.  If we all bought just one less greeting card, we'd save 50,000 cubic yards of paper from going to the landfill.   

Don't get me wrong: there's nothing wrong with Christmas, but the excessive consumerism that goes on, especially around this particular holiday, is not OK.  Let's nip it in the bud, folks, before it comes back to bite us, big-time!  :-/

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