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Greening Christmas (Hanukkah or any other 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.

Are 1/3 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.

Just say no to battery-operated toys

On another note, batteries in children’s toys can be both a choking hazard and a health hazard. Most batteries contain acids and heavy metals (e.g. cadmium, lead, mercury), which can be very harmful to a child if it leaks or bursts, and are harmful to the environment if thrown in the garbage. Eventually, these heavy metals can leach out of the landfill and into the water or air and thus become harmful to human health in that way as well.

Find out how safe or healthy your child’s toys are, really

To see whether your child’s toy, crib, or other product has been recalled: go to the CPSC in the U.S. or Health Canada.

If you want to know more than just the recall status, but also the health of your toy (most PVC containing toys are not recalled) go to or on your mobile go to and text your question.

Finding better stuff

Gifting doesn’t have to be a guilt-ridden thing. There are MANY fabulous gifts, companies, and products that will make the recipients life a little better. (We ALL love getting gifts. I particularly love eco water bottles. Throat clearing sounds and winking.)

Check out The Green Mama Ratings and the Local sections and this feature too.


Let your mobile device help

Here are a few mobile apps that are FREE and will make shopping green this Holiday season (or anytime) easier.

The GOOD GUIDE  helps you Find healthy, green, ethical products according to scientific research and ratings. It even includes a barcode scanner.

GREEN MAP helps you find green living, nature, and cultural resources near you.

And, finally, two mobile apps from the Environmental Working Group (one of The Green Mama’s favorite green non-profits), doing independent research on everything from food safety to sunscreen. These two apps cover both of those, the Sunscreen Buyer’s Guide and the Dirty Dozen.  Don’t leave home without them!

Give the gift of gifting

Donations make great gifts and it is a very good way to maximize your impact. More and more, it is also trendy to give a gift of a donation for the holidays, a child’s birthday, or an anniversary. Here are some of the organizations that I will be donating to this year:

Project Somos is establishing a green village for abandoned and orphaned children in Guatemala.  This holiday season you can give the gift of square footage and help them build their first homes.  Only $20 bus a square foot of home.

Vancouver’s Daniel Budgell started the Global Peace Network when he was little more than a school kid himself. Last year 300 kids were sent to school through donations and GPN also provides malaria prevention, supports an orphanage, and is constructing a green community centre in kanyama village, Africa. One of those shoe-string operations where you can feel good knowing all your donations are directly helping a child in need.

Children’s Forest Trust is an alliance of community members working to save forest lands for the children of this little, nearby island of Cortes. The land is currently slated to be logged by Island Timberlands and your donations will help preserve ecologically sensitive forest lands.

Of course, I would love to know you had donated to one of these incredible, small, impactful organizations, but I would be just as happy to know that you had found a project meaningful to you in your own community and donated to that. Remember, if money is short, donating time, cookies, or even just a “Thank you!” can make a difference!

After all, isn’t that what this season is really all about?

Article by Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green Mama. Photos courtesy of Shutterstock, thanks to the following artists (in order of appearance)  Nadav,  Gorilla,  TFoxFoto.

One response to “Greening Christmas (Hanukkah or any other Holiday)”

  1. […] here are a few more great links: Here’s a piece on having a green holiday from our friend, The Green Mama. This covers the debate on what kind of tree to get. If you’re in Vancouver, here’s the […]