6 Green Alternatives to Toxic Holiday Decorations
Every Christmas season, U.S. consumers purchase tons of cheaply made garland, wrappings and ornaments that are chock-full of toxic chemicals. Why not try a green approach to holiday decorating this year that is gentler on the environment and is far more beautiful.
Here are, courtesy of Care2, six common holiday decorations that contain harmful chemicals or unsustainable ingredients, as well as eco-friendlier alternatives you can use to achieve the same look.
1. Artificial Christmas trees. If you’re going to use a fake tree (and there are many green reasons to do so), it’s important to choose carefully. Until recently, artificial Christmas trees were cut from compressed sheets of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a known human carcinogen. Now some tree makers have switched to injection-molded polyethylene plastic, which is safer but still plastic.
Alternatives: Use this guide from SoftLanding to choose a non-PVC artificial tree. Or choose to decorate a living pesticide-free tree, bush or houseplant that will continue to clean your indoor air long after the holidays are over.
2. Spray-on snow. If you live in a region that doesn’t get much winter snow, you might be tempted to pick up a can of faux snow to give your windows and tree a just-frosted look. But many snow sprays contain acetone or methylene chloride and these solvents can be harmful when inhaled while spraying, according to California Poison Control. However, once the snow spray is dried, it is not dangerous.
Alternatives: Try cutting decorative snowflakes out of paper. You can use them again next year if you’re careful. You can also use cotton batting (sold at craft stores as stuffing for quilts and pillows) to create faux snow drifts along windowsills or around the tree.
3. Vintage ornaments. Like many things made before the time of health and environmental regulations, these pretty baubles can be hiding a toxic secret. They’ve been known to contain lead paint or mercury. Some are even called mercury glass ornaments. Even newer ornaments bearing the “Made in China” label can contain lead or toxic paints.
Alternatives: Consider wearing rubber gloves when you handle the old ornaments, or at least wash your hands right after. If you’re in need of new ornaments this year, think about making your own from natural or upcycled materials.
4. String lights. It’s nearly impossible to imagine the holidays without lights—those twinkling, blinking strings of color that adorn everything from tree to porch. Sadly, 54 percent of holiday lights tested in a U.S. study had more lead than regulators permit in children’s products, with some strands containing more than 30 times those levels, according to a recent report by Bloomberg. Lead is a common component in vinyl, the material used to coat light wirings and bulb sockets, according to HealthyStuff.org, which tested the lights.
Alternatives: Adults only should handle light strings and with care. If you’re in the market for new lights, look for LED strands sold by IKEA or on EnvironmentalLights.com. IKEA’s light strings satisfy the stricter European Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) regulations, while some brands sold by Environmental Lights claim to be lead-free.
5. Wrapping paper. While most wrapping paper and ribbons are non-toxic, foil and colored gift-wrap have been known to contain lead, making them dangerous to touch and even worse for the environment after they’re thrown away. And never burn holiday wrapping paper in the fireplace.
Alternatives: Make your own. Wrapping paper only lasts a few minutes anyway, and there are lots of other ways to prevent eyeballs from deciphering what’s inside the package. Check out these alternatives to gift wrapping paper.
6. Candles. Many types of candles pollute indoor air and put our health at risk. Most of the candles on the market are made with paraffin wax, derived from petroleum, and scented with synthetic fragrances, also derived from petroleum. Researchers have found that the petroleum-based candles emitted varying levels of cancer-causing toluene and benzene, as well as other hydrocarbon chemicals called alkanes and alkenes, which are components of gasoline and can irritate respiratory tracts and trigger asthma, reports Moms Clean Air Force.
Alternatives: Look for candles made from soybean, palm, hemp or beeswax—or make your own fragrant holiday candles using natural ingredients. Here are some recipes to make your own.
Want to make your own decorations? Remember the four Ps of holiday decorating from the Nature Conservancy's Nature Rocks project: Paper, plants, popcorn and pinecones. These natural and recycled materials are better for the planet, are prettier than manufactured products and creating them with your children or a friend is an enjoyable way to spend time during the holidays.
Visit EcoWatch’s TIPS page for more related news on this topic.
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Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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