The Green Mama's Guide to Greening Christmas (and any other Winter Holiday)

'Tis the season.  The lights of Hanukkah will soon fade into the past and the lights of Christmas are on the horizon. Parents everywhere are thinking about gifts. It is one of the questions I am most asked: "How do I green celebrations?" The winter holidays are a test for most of us: wanting to please our children, wanting to have more money, wanting less stuff, wanting to please our relatives. (And despite how many times I have told Aunt Dee that she doesn’t need ANY toys, especially one with batteries, it is becoming increasingly hard to sneak the funny little dog that barks into the regift box without my four-year old wandering around asking where Spot has gone.)

You can green your holidays (save money, and bring more cheer into the season). Here's how.

A few reminders about toys.

Are 2/3 of this year's toys toxic?

When going to the Health Canada website they talk about the “unsafe toys” and caution consumers to be aware of choking hazards (small parts and latex balloons), long cords that might be strangulation hazards, and loud toys that might damage a child’s hearing (or a parent’s sanity). They don’t mention the growing concern of toys made from plastics known or suspected of containing toxins, hormone-mimickers, or brain inhibitors. Or, of toys recalled due to heavy metal or other contamination.

In 2008 the Ecology Center released a study that found a full 1/3 of new children’s toys contained toxins. In 2010, the center has partnered with other consumer & labor groups to issue a report on toxins in the U.S.’s largest retailer of toys: Toys R Us. They found that Toys R Us and Babies R Us had “broken their promise” to reduce the use of toxic PVC in children’s toys. The report showed that 72.5% of all the toys/children’s products tested from the retailer were probably made of PVC (indicated by high chlorine levels), despite virtually none of them being labeled as containing any PVC.

"In order for PVC to be used in toys, it must be mixed with lead, cadmium or organic chemicals containing tin. These chemicals are all toxic to children when ingested," said Dr. Peter Orris, Chair of the National Commission of Inquiry into Toxic Toys and Professor and Chief of Service, Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center. "In particular they are all linked with potential brain damage. Because these chemicals are not tightly bound to the plastic they can enter children's bodies when the children chew or suck on the toys or PVC-containing packaging that the toys come in."

There is some kind of uplifting news. The PIRG’s annual Trouble in Toyland report found that though toxins and safety hazards remain, the expanded role of the Consumer Product Safey Commission (CPSC) has at least sped up the recall process.  (The CPSIA act that gave these increased privileges also has a lot of flaws.) 

The study looked particularly at lead in toys, phthalates in children’s products, and choking hazards. They found that CPSC had recalled ¾ of a million children’s products due to violations of one of the lead standards. (There is a lower standard for lead in paints or coatings and a higher standard for certain other products.)  The study also found at least two products that exceeded allowable phthalate levels still on the shelves (and seems to suggest that the CPSA is not doing as much to enforce phthalate regulations). In the past year, 5.8 million children’s products have been recalled in the U.S. and Canada due to choking hazards.

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