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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Simple Christmas

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood talks with author John Lillienfeld on tips for enjoying the forthcoming holiday season without creating extra waste and needless environmental damage.


CURWOOD: Mr. Lillienfeld.


CURWOOD: What are you getting your friends and families this year as gifts?

LILLIENFELD: Gift certificates. First of all, it's a way for me to say to somebody I want to give you a gift that doesn't use a lot of stuff, but secondly, it's a way for somebody to get something that they want that I know that they're not going to throw away. And that basically means if it doesn't get thrown away, resources are going to be conserved.

CURWOOD: Bob Lillienfeld is an environmental consultant and editor of the ULS Report. That stands for Use Less Stuff. Lillienfeld, along with the EPA and 6 conservation organizations, is trying to promote that Use Less Stuff concept during the holidays. Now, I'd like you to break it down for me. How much of the 25 million tons of junk that's generated over the next few weeks is packaging and how much is paper and what proportion is food?

LILLIENFELD: Well, you hit on the big 3. Most of it is food followed by all sorts of packaging, paper, plastic wrap, ribbons, bows, boxes, and all those things we end up putting our gifts in. In fact, we estimate that Americans generate about 25% additional waste during the holiday season, which works out to be an extra 1 million tons of stuff each week.

CURWOOD: Now, you pulled together some 38 holiday tips for consumers, an effort to get us to consume less. What' s the most important thing we can do?

LILLIENFELD: Probably, to think smart about what you buy before you buy it. And by that I mean we always tend to buy more food than we really need during the holiday times. We tend to think that there probably are going to be 30 or 40 people visiting us when there probably are only going to be 3 or 4. So buying smart, shopping smart, really saves from wasting stuff after the fact. The other thing that it does is, it really saves us money. The advantage to using less stuff is not only is it good environmentally and ecologically, but it's also good economically.

CURWOOD: But wait a second. Maybe my Aunt Lillian is going to come over and maybe Uncle Wayne is going to come with them and, you know, with a couple of my cousins, or maybe not. Now, if I don't buy enough food to feed them they're not going to feel very welcome if they do stop by.

LILLIENFELD: Well, I have a defensive strategy for that. And that is to buy ahead of time what you think you're going to use to make sure that all your leftovers get used up as well. So that if you do buy a little bit more you have an extra, let's say, pound of turkey sliced up sitting in the refrigerator, you know in fact that you're not going to eat that turkey unless you have cranberry sauce to go with it. Buy a little extra cranberry sauce because that's going to guarantee that whether your Aunt Lillian comes over or whether you're going to sit in front of the next 3 days worth of football games, that food will be eaten.

CURWOOD: Now, a lot of us travel at the holidays, and we eat at our relatives' or friends' houses. I mean, how are we going to control the consumption problem there? I mean I can't tell my Uncle Bill how much he should cook or shouldn't cook.

LILLIENFELD: Well, start the first time around by taking less than you think you're going to eat, so that your plate has a little less food than you would probably normally take. The reason for that is to make sure that you eat it all. Think about the fact that probably everybody in your family left a little bit of cranberry sauce on their plate last year. Now it doesn't look like much, but on our collective American plate that one teaspoon of cranberry sauce translates to 14 million pounds of stuff that gets wasted and thrown out. If you think about the fact that there's more than cranberry sauce on your plate, there's also turkey and stuffing or maybe mashed potatoes, you can see how a little bit really adds up.

CURWOOD: What's the most egregious Christmas gift that you can think of? Within limits, a common egregious Christmas gift.

LILLIENFELD: Okay. I do have an answer for you. A lot of people aren't going to like my answer because it's a traditional gift and it's, frankly it's perfume. And the reason for that is if you think about how much perfume you get, it's a teeny little amount, maybe it's a quarter to a half of an ounce. It comes in a heavy crystal bottle which is ensconced in some sort of paper or plastic container. Then that's put into a box, which is then wrapped up with some kind of cellophane which then has a bow on it and then has wrapping paper, etc. etc. etc. So the amount of gift you get is probably 3 % to 5% and the amount of packaging is in the neighborhood of 95%.

CURWOOD: Hm. If I stop giving my wife perfume will you give me a discount certificate for a divorce lawyer?

LILLIENFELD: (Laughs) No, but I can give you a bottle you can fill instead of having to buy a new one.

CURWOOD: Oh, that sounds better, doesn't it? (Laughs) Well, Mr. Lillienfeld, thanks for joining us.

LILLIENFELD: Well thank you, Steve, and have a lovely, trashless holiday.

CURWOOD: Bob Lillienfeld is an environmental consultant and editor of the ULS Report. That stands for Use Less Stuff. He joined us from the studios of WDET in Detroit.



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