Undecking the Halls
Looking at the Environmental Impact of the Holiday Season
Walking into Baltimore Display Industries' Bayard Street showroom, right where Russell Street turns into I-295 South, is a bit like walking into a mall in the Twilight Zone. Long retail-style jewelry cases, replete with ring and necklace holders, sit devoid of any actual jewelry. Familiar metal clothing racks--both freestanding and wall-mounted--are on display with empty hangers. In the back, a half-dozen nicely dressed sales reps work at their stations and gladly point anyone to the room devoted--this time of year--to holiday decorations, due east of the main showroom.
Speakers in the holiday room pipe "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" from under one of the dozen or so decorated and lit fake Christmas trees, some of which, like the 7.5-foot-tall long-needle style, sell for more than $200. Buyers can find oversized nutcracker dolls, fake wreaths, "moss"-covered reindeer decorations, and an enormous "fiber optic snowman" that sells for $450. Beside the doorway leading into Baltimore Display's holiday showcase stands a display of small twinkling lights. Buyers have 16 options of light strings, and all of them illuminated at once both warms the passer-by from up to six feet away and reminds one of how much energy these twinkling lights must use, and how much material goes into producing light strings, fake trees, and little metal tree-shaped candelabras.
The holidays seem to be a time when people forget about environmentalism and go for broke with gaudy decorations and buying presents. Jeanne Davis, curator for City Hall, says that one of her first stops around Halloween, after making her list of holiday must-haves, is Baltimore Display. "They have a lot decorations there and they're inexpensive," she says, adding that she carefully packs and stores each year's decorations for reuse.
Davis doesn't go in for fake trees but relies on her own sense of taste to pick out live trees, and says she's fond of "birds and berry garlands." The décor at City Hall is more than just Baltimore Display's offerings. The city's Department of Recreation and Parks helps out, too. "[They] do a beautiful job of putting greens all over the building," she says. "There are these niches in the rotunda, and they really put greens in there very artistically."
Quantifying the amount of trash produced and energy used during the holiday season is difficult. There's no line-item dollar amount in the city's annual operating budget for holiday decorations, and various departments often handle their own decorating expenses. And people hesitate when asked about the holidays and the environment, carefully choosing their words.
As far as the waste involved from holiday cheer, the head of the city's Bureau of Solid Waste, Joseph Kolodziejski, says via e-mail that "there is no accurate method to measure whether [trash] has increased or decreased due to the holiday. While in January 2004 trash increased by 324 tons compared to December of 2003, and in January 2006 trash increased by 369 tons when compared to December of 2005 . . . in January 2005 the bureau collected 945 tons less trash than in December 2004."
Kolodziejski says that recycling tonnages "decrease every January as compared to December" from 2004 to '06. He calls it an "unsolved mystery" and raises the rhetorical questions: "Could it be that most of the larger boxes are collected in December while in January all we are collecting is wrapping paper? Could the snows we had in January 2006, when the paper collection day was held up, cause the citizens to just place the materials out on their regular trash day instead of taking the paper to one of our citizen drop-off locations?"
Department of Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher notes that city government cannot control whether people recycle their holiday waste, but DPW encourages people to recycle through its calendar listings of tree pickup and citywide mulching days, when residents can haul their tree to an appointed central location and have it mulched. People are also free to pick up as much mulch as they want.
Two years ago DPW promoted recycling wrapping paper through a TV ad: the "Christmas Wrap Rap." But whether jingles about recycling encourage recycling is a question Kocher can't answer. "Who can say if it worked?" he says. "Too hard to pin that down, but at least some people heard it and it could have encouraged them to recycle."
Recycling is only part of keeping a city green, however, whether it's around the holidays or not. What matters more is what we use and how we use it before we dispose of it. Sarah Roberts, communications director for Takoma Park-based Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit that encourages limiting consumption, says that re-education is key to reducing an individual's environmental impact on his or her community, especially with respect to the holidays.
"Buying gifts creates a lot more waste," Roberts says. "Every time you buy something new, it's wasting more resources." She refers to the "life cycle" of goods that make up a holiday, from wrapping paper to the very things inside the boxes. "If they're created from raw materials, what happens when you're done with them? Where do they start and where do they end up after they `die'?" But, she says, "not everyone looks at the holidays through an environmental eye."
Beth Lefebvre, communications coordinator with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says that one key way to be environmentally friendly around the holidays is to buy a locally grown live tree. "Buying a Christmas tree that was grown in Maryland helps preserve farmlands," she explains. "It helps keep those farmers in business. And compared to developed land, farmland is way better for the bay and the environment."
Lefebvre says that the local tree industry--often grown on land unsuitable for other crops--helps ease the amount of polluted runoff that seeps into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Such runoff, usually marked by high nitrogen levels, helps feed the so called "dead zones" that pop up in the bay.
Back in City Hall, a veteran security guard on the fifth floor tries in his own way to turn holiday products into sustainable resources. Bill Ferandes, 60, sits outside City Hall playing with the filter from the Marlboro he just finished and describing how he takes the poinsettias from City Hall when the season's passed and nurses them to keep them alive.
He doesn't remember how long he's been keeping the poinsettias, but recalls that "they were going to get rid of them and I said I'll take them." For the remainder of the winter, he stows the poinsettias in the little alcove about 20 feet from his desk. He speaks of the alcove and of the poinsettia plants lovingly. "It's like a little hothouse," he says putting his hand inside the alcove to demonstrate. "And what you do with poinsettias is you let them dry out, and then you give them a little drink, then you let them dry out and give them a little drink."
In June, Ferandes gives the poinsettias to his brother or his Highlandtown neighbors. The ones he keeps for himself, he sets to a strict regimen of 10 hours daylight, 14 hours in a closet, for 30 days, and he swears that that schedule will make the plant bloom red leaves for next year's holidays.
But Ferandes' interest goes beyond keeping poinsettias alive. His desk has three or four plastic water bottles (he refers to them as his "imported vases"), each with a different plant rooting; he doesn't even know the names of all the plants. When their roots are strong enough, he'll plant them in his yard using soil pulled from his backyard compost pile.
For Ferandes, this kind of environmentalism comes naturally. He doesn't think twice, though the activity borders on the sacred for him. "It's only you and Mother Nature, and you're accomplishing something," he says. "You can grow something you can eat, or it'll look pretty. You need Mother Nature around you.
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
Trash Trove (8/16/2006)
City Council Holds Hearing On Increasing Recycling Program To Include Businesses
Carless Culture (7/5/2006)
Artscape Organizers and Curators Cut Art Cars From This Year’s Festival
Reduce, Reuse, Rehab (6/28/2006)
Local Architect Creates Prototype of an Environmentally Friendly Rowhouse Rehab
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201