All That Glitters is Not Green

All That Glitters is Not Green

 Photo by Christian Harder.

Photo by Christian Harder.

By Hannah Leighton

By the time I rebuffed my partner’s holiday card idea in mid-December, I had been squashing seemingly innocent holiday fun for nearly 8 weeks. I told him that his very sweet suggestion, to send out what would be our first holiday card together this year, was a nice idea but that I worried about using valuable resources to send something that would likely be thrown away by February. “How about a very nice email?” I offered. My tone was gentle but I could tell by his sigh that my attempt to be sustainably-minded at the holidays had finally crossed the line from well-intentioned to downright dampening.

The holidays bring out the excess in us – we waste more food, we use more energy, we buy more stuff and wrap it in even more stuff.

The weeks between Halloween and New Years can be challenging for those who try to live sustainably. The holidays bring out the excess in us – we waste more food, we use more energy, we buy more stuff and wrap it in even more stuff. And while some might quietly make changes in their own lives to circumvent this struggle, my approach has been more vocal and, as it has been pointed out to me, arguably more annoying. Come mid-October I am a walking holiday edition of An Inconvenient Truth. While carving halloween pumpkins and drinking hot cider with good friends, I will bring up the disconnect between the amount of ornamental pumpkins we grow and the staggeringly low percent of land that we use to produce food in our region; I will talk to you about food insecurity rates over Thanksgiving dinner (10-15% of New Englanders don’t know where their next meal will come from); I will tell the room how many trillion fragments of glitter there are in the ocean while making sparkly christmas tree ornaments (glitter is essentially made of tiny pieces of plastic that never break down); and New Years Eve? Don’t even get me started on plastic noisemakers and the garbage vortex floating in the South Pacific. In other words, my partner’s holiday card sigh was not the first one I had induced.

Some of the circumstances that pop up this time of year are cultural norms that are difficult to avoid. But my personal struggle is made more challenging by the fact that I am often the one that got the room excited about the celebration in the first place. In addition to being someone who weighs her kitchen compost to track how much waste she is diverting from the landfill, I am also someone who truly loves much of the pomp and tradition that comes with the holidays. I love glittery ornaments and jack O’ lanterns and noisemakers; I love Christmas lights and holiday cards and Thanksgiving feasts; I love prosthetic halloween makeup and I love those New Years hats that boast the incoming year.

And so, in addition to finding a way to be conservative and sustainable at a time of year that promotes the exact opposite, I am also forced to reconcile my desire to be conservative and sustainable with my equally strong desire to drape my home in twinkle lights. This dilemma can be confusing and frustrating both internally and to those who operate in my line of fire,  AKA my closest friends and family. It’s one thing to bring up how much micro-plastic can be found in our oceans at an ornament-making party, it’s another to bring up how much micro-plastic can be found in our oceans at an ornament-making party that you are hosting.

In addition to finding a way to be conservative and sustainable at a time of year that promotes the exact opposite, I am also forced to reconcile my desire to be conservative and sustainable with my equally strong desire to drape my home in twinkle lights.

Thus, this time of year pushes me to take a long hard look at why I value certain things and to make intentional choices so that I don’t find myself having an existential crisis over which I value more: eating local vegetables when they are in season or my mom’s corn pudding and green bean casserole in December – the effort is ongoing and very much a work in progress. I started with low hanging fruit (metaphorically) like switching to LED christmas lights which hang from a tree that was cut down from a local tree farm and which we will turn into mulch come January. We turn the lights off when we leave the room. I swapped out my yearly disposable Halloween prosthetics for a vintage green flight suit which I now wear every year, alternating between Rosie the Riveter and Maverick from Top Gun. Again, fairly low fruit considering I’m thirty years old. I do believe we grow too many Halloween pumpkins for a country that isn’t growing enough food to feed its people (In New England we use about 5% of our land to grow food), but at least buying a pumpkin from a local farm can support the local community and its growers. Christmas and Hanukkah presents get wrapped in recycled butcher’s paper or paper bags that can be repurposed and I will proudly take discarded tissue paper out of family members' detritus pile to use next year (insert partner’s sigh here). On New Years Eve, we bang pots and pans now which is less sparkly, but somehow more exciting than the horns and noisemakers that get thrown away just after midnight.

This is by no means a tutorial on how to be a hero at the holidays, but merely one kid’s plight to try and do right while protecting some of her holiday spirit and the holiday spirit of those around her. I see ways to do it better every day and I hope I always do. As for our holiday card, we ultimately chose to enlist the help of a friend who does letterpress work out of her garden studio on Martha's Vineyard. She printed a small run of single-sheet cards on paper that she made  from the scraps of other projects. The front of the card has a block-print of a lunar cycle on it with a simple “Happy New Year.” Our hope is that people will want to hold on to them as a piece of locally-crafted art rather than something to be tossed after the holidays. And while we agreed to print only a small number of cards, you can be sure that if you don't get a paper card from us, you will definitely be receiving a very nice email.

Origins of the Waugh Arboretum at UMass Amherst

Blog 01: Emergence

Blog 01: Emergence