Earth Matters: Celebrating the holidays with a clear conscience

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This is the season for giving – and for most of us, shopping. The challenge is doing it with a clear conscience, being ever mindful of the impact our decisions will have on the environment, our health, and indeed, on the people who are making all those things available to us.

Just a few clicks online can begin the journey of a gift that will eventually arrive in a box on our doorstep. It’s never been more convenient.

The inconvenient truth is that our purchasing choices can have a huge impact. Let’s look at the cost of moving all those items from warehouses to your door, using planes, 18-wheelers and UPS and FEDEX delivery vans.

With free shipping, free one-day delivery and free returns, the process of transporting gifts bought online involves cutting down trees (for shipping boxes) and pumping large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. After all, most delivery trucks run on diesel fuel, which emits toxic exhaust and threatens the health of people living in communities that are located near warehouses and freight hubs.

Consumers can help solve this problem by advocating for changes in corporate practices. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers make handsome profits and have the resources to address this growing problem by investing in clean, electric delivery vehicles.

Amazon announced in September that it would purchase 100,000 electric vehicles! Good news! When you place an order for any item, it’s worth asking if they will be using environmentally sustainable packing materials and transport systems.

If they hear it from enough customers, it can make a difference.

For many of us, buying gifts for children and watching their faces when they open them gives us the greatest pleasure.

However, we need to be especially careful not to inadvertently purchase a toy that may be harmful to their health. December is Safe Toys and Gifts Month. Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine warns parents to avoid known toxins, such as lead in children’s jewelry and imported painted toys, and BPA, PVC and phthalates in plastic toys.

You can read their top toy tips in their current eNews from the Children’s Environmental Health Center.

Avoiding plastic for little ones who mouth their toys and being mindful about the lifecycle of other plastic toys is important. When buying toys for very young children, silicone or unpainted wooden toys are good choices.

Many discarded plastic toys find their way into our oceans, where, along with plastic straws, plastic utensils, plastic food packaging and Styrofoam containers, they are polluting our water and sickening and killing aquatic species in unprecedented numbers.

Just this month a dead whale washed up on a beach in Scotland, it’s stomach bulging with plastic fishing nets and plastic garbage from our “throw-away” world.

Fossil fuels are the feedstock for plastics and the myriad companies that manufacture plastic items are highly polluting industries. Communities surrounding plastic manufacturing plants are known as “sacrifice zones” because of their high rates of cancer, respiratory illness and reproductive problems, among other illnesses.

Again, consumers should question manufacturers of popular plastic toys about their commitment to reduce their toxic releases.

The ever-popular electronic gifts utilize components that include plastic, rare metals, toxic chemicals and LED lights, all of which raise both environmental and social justice issues. How many children in Asia and Africa are forced to work in dangerous mines or to pick through discarded electronic devices in unsafe makeshift sheds to find small pieces of valuable, but toxic materials used to manufacture electronics?

More than we want to think about.

Lots of people will give or receive new phones, game consoles, smart speakers, smartwatches, video doorbells, earbuds and other wireless devices this holiday season.

But wireless anything should give parents pause as more and more research is revealing serious health risks from long term exposure to radio-frequency microwave radiation. Children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable and should avoid “near field” and prolonged exposure.

Clothing is also a popular gift, but winter clothing that is weather-resistant, like ski wear and snow boots, contain perfluorinated compounds, just like the toxic PFAS chemicals we have recently detected here in our water on Long Island. And all those warm and fuzzy fleece coats, hats, gloves and scarves will send millions of micro-plastic fibers into our waters when we throw them in the washing machine.

If you take the time and trouble to trace a product’s complete lifecycle, from its manufacture to its disposal, or “cradle to grave,” you may be surprised to discover how even the most innocuous gifts can come with a heavy environmental price tag.

So what to do this holiday season when it comes to gifts for the ones you love?

The good news is there are plenty of gifts you can choose for your friends and family that pose no risk either to them or our environment. The first things that come to my mind are family recipes and traditions.

I know a family that exchanges only homemade gifts and another that agrees that all gifts must be consumable. I do like the zero-waste idea, and I am a big fan of finding second-hand treasures…reduce, reuse and recycle. Kids might find this a fun challenge as they are very aware of this mantra from school, scouts and other youth programs.

Environmentally friendly gifts include puzzles and books, tickets to concerts and shows, and memberships in museums, gyms or recreational clubs. Yoga, meditation, dance and cooking classes are all great gifts, as are music lessons or tickets to a lecture series. A piece of beautifully framed original art or an enlargement of a family photograph or a child’s special drawing make great and lasting gifts.

Subscriptions to inspiring, entertaining and informative magazines will be appreciated all year long. So, enjoy your holidays with family and friends while also showing your care for our fragile world!

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