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Recycle the plants and electronics, too

One of the fine things about gardeners is that we tend to conserve and reuse what we can. We try to salvage every last seedling and all the potted plants worth keeping. We dump our used potting mix into the garden. We mulch with our leaves and shrub clippings, and compost the yard and kitchen waste and dead plants. We use newspaper and cardboard under the mulch to block the weeds around our landscapes.

Some of us even do worm composting inside our homes. And many gardeners are famous (or notorious) for making garden art, planters, tools and bird baths out of the darnedest things -- chairs, coat hangers, lampshades, bottles, you name it. It's a mentality of recycling.

The same mind-set is harder to live by during these holidays. It's a culture of consumption, and I fall for it, too -- the secrets and plotting to give perfect gifts, the sparkle and glitz, the bright lights and shopping, and decorating at home.

If we're lucky, all that is cloaked in an aura of love and joy. But it's hardly about reducing, reusing or recycling.

>What can we do?

Only a few people really go "back to the land" and live simply and purely, recycling their family's and animals' waste, etc. Many of us 1960s people compromised, instead, doing what we could to compost and recycle. But even the conservation programs of the '70s and '80s seem naive now, those three Rs, although we try to recycle our paper, cans and plastic.

As a society we just didn't see the steamroller coming -- computers and their entourage, with their built-in expiration dates. We didn't prepare big enough holes in the earth, or ways to reuse them adequately, or melt them down.

So now what? Should we just feel lousy on Christmas morning about the new TV, laptop, camera that makes movies, and fancy phone that's really a computer? Just toss the old version to the curb and forget about it?

This column, alas, does not have all the answers to life. (Gardening questions are so much easier.) It's increasingly difficult to reconcile the rest of our lifestyles with a nature-friendly set of values.

>Recycling electronics

On the day before many of us open presents and throw out a whole lot of paper, plastic and electronics, I can offer just a few suggestions about what to do about the cell phone as well as the tree. The rest is up to you, and (I hope) those young people who are now texting under the Christmas tree.

A little research on this topic may help you feel less hopeless about it than when you started. I do. Beginning with Erie County's Computer Recycling program, there are several ways to reuse and recycle your computer and other electronic goods, and ensure that their hazardous components are handled properly.

Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only 18 percent of electronics are recycled and the rest go to landfills. But yours don't have to. For questions, contact Erie County at 858-6996.

Cell phones can also go to the Erie County Sheriff's Department, for reuse by community organizations for 911 emergency use. And the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning and the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library have teamed up to recycle old cell phones.

At the national level, the EPA has a Plug-In To eCycling program, that forms partnerships with consumer electronics manufacturers, retailers and service providers to make electronics recycling easier. You can learn more from PC magazine's "Electronics Recycling Superguide" (PCMag.com). Or ask at your Best Buy, Office Max or Home Depot how they can help you recycle. Both legislation and consumer pressure are motivating them to take more responsibility.

When you recycle your computer, of course be careful to clean the hard drive to remove personal information. Simply deleting files and emptying the trash is not enough to protect you from identity theft.

>Third life of Christmas tree

Ah, this is easier. First, your tree was part of a habitat on a tree farm. Second, it was decorated and played a starring role in a holiday celebration.

And now it can help in your landscape in several ways:

*Cut off the branches, and lay them over the perennials, bulbs or shrub garden.

*Stick the whole tree into a snowbank, lean it, or tie it where it can form a windbreak. (Pick up some other trees from the street to make a whole row.)

*Decorate the tree with treats for birds and place it where you can watch them enjoy oranges, berries, suet and seeds.

*Shred it for mulch, if you can find someone who owns a mulcher.

*Put it at the edge of the woods, if you're in the country, or in the back corner of your city lot. It will decompose all by itself and in the meantime will serve several useful purposes for insects, birds and others.

*Use it as the base of a brush pile, and pile tree limbs, trunks of sumac, and fallen saplings on it. Brush piles provide shelter and browsing material to many animals.

If you can't do any of those things, perhaps your town or city has a mulching or composting program that uses the trees and offers the mulch back to citizens.

But even if it doesn't, using a real tree should not be guilt-inducing. You contributed to local agriculture; you helped support a tree farm -- how much better than using a plastic tree that will not decompose and ends up in a landfill (with the rest of those computers.)

Do what you can. Happy holidays.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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