How to celebrate Christmas, the ecofriendly way

Donnachadh McCarthy shows how to cut the waste
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The Independent Online

I take my lead from nature at Christmas. She takes a rest and hibernates in the middle of winter. I, too, look on the wonderful break from work as a time to rest, reflect and recharge for the coming year. I have a wonderfully busy life as a media environmentalist and charity worker, with the usual plethora of e-mails, telephone calls, deadlines, paperwork, text messages, interviews and so on. I will often spend Christmas Day quietly by myself at home, with a simple lunch of veggie pie and roast potatoes and some organic Christmas cake for afters. To me, a day by myself away from the hurly-burly is sheer bliss.

But Christmas is also meant to be a time of peace and goodwill towards our fellow tenants on the planet. It is crucial that the way you celebrate the festivities not only fosters love between you and those close to you, but is also not causing troubles for others on the planet. With the climate crisis bearing down upon us, we Britons need to cut our CO 2 emissions by 80 per cent to stop the planet burning up. However, our modern Christmas celebrations have become an orgy of consumption, almost every aspect of which involves copious CO 2 emissions. Not wishing to be a seasonal spoil-sport, I am going to set out here how you could have a wonderful and loving Christmas, and still reduce your festive CO 2 emissions by 80 per cent.

CHRISTMAS TREES

You can also improve your festive eco-brownie points by choosing the right Christmas tree. Your usual Christmas tree could have been hauled from Denmark or, if it is plastic, it probably has come all the way from China. Ask when buying your tree where it has come from. If you want to guarantee a locally produced Christmas tree, www.christmastree.org.uk lists local suppliers by county. This will enable you to slash your tree-miles! Personally, I think it is more interesting to think outside the box of the supposedly traditional conifer tree. Far better to buy a real live tree in a pot that can be transplanted afterwards into your garden, local green open space or woodland. A bay tree will give you free bay leaves for the rest of your life, as well as greenery in winter. A holly tree, which is a UK native, also provides welcome winter-time succulent berries for your peckish local birds.

If you have to have the traditional cut fir-tree, ensure that it is recycled afterwards. Out of the six million trees bought last year, only one in six were recycled, leading to an extra 9,000 ton of rubbish being dumped. The recycling section of your local council website will tell you how to recycle dead Christmas trees. Even Ken Livingstone now recycles the huge Norway fir tree that adorns Trafalgar Square. Real Christmas trees absorb C0 2 , even if only temporarily. It is estimated that, in the UK, real Christmas trees absorb five million tons of CO 2 every year.

Avoid plastic imitation trees as they cannot be recycled. Plastic Christmas trees are made from by-products of liquid fossil fuels. Poisonous gases are released while they are being manufactured. They are not bio-degradable and, if burned, they produce a combination of noxious gases. A plastic tree may last six years in your home but it will last more than six lifetimes in a landfill site.

CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS

Instead of shopping for Christmas decorations, why not set off into the December countryside this year and gather some? There's no better time for scavenging Christmassy objects from the wild. And, needless to say, it's more fun than high-street shopping. On a dry, frosty morning glittering in the low winter sun, you will return with a basket brimming with good cheer.

Perhaps the soul-satisfying nature of winter gathering has something to do with childhood memories of going out with dad to find a berried holly. Or possibly it digs deeper into our consciousness to touch our ancient roots as hunter-gatherers. Or maybe it's just the satisfaction of finding a treasure instead of buying one. However you look at it, gathering natural decorations from hedges and parks lets a little nature into our lives. Here are a few ideas on what to look for:

WELCOMING WITH HOLLY

Gathering holly at the dark year's ending is an ancient practice. In pagan times, the halls were decked with evergreen holly and ivy to provide a warm refuge for spirits fleeing the cold and dark. It was easy for the Christian church to absorb the symbolism of holly, turning the prickles into the crown of thorns and the berries into Christ's blood.

Traditional wreaths twine holly and other evergreens such as ivy, yew and bay around a willow hoop. For added decoration, you can tie or stick on ribbons, dried fruit or gilded fir cones. Alternatively, try building a holly star out of six berried twigs of similar length, bound together into two triangles.

DECEMBER SCENTS

Pot-pourri is big business. We spend about £50m a year on commercial dried flowers, fruit and petals, most of them imported from India or the Far East. Yet the same ingredients can easily be gathered for free. You need strips of bracket fungi, which can be dried on a warm radiator or in an oven on low with the door open and the fan full on. The best ones, like blushing bracket, which grows on willow, and mazegill, which grows on oak, have a tough but rubbery texture that will dry well and absorb scented oil. You should also add some dried lichen gathered from fallen twigs, and any dried flower heads and berries that take your fancy.

Dried lichens and some fungi have a natural perfume, but their main function is to absorb the oil and release its perfume slowly. Ground-up lichens and flower petals used to be sold as "Cyprus powder" for perfuming wigs. The scent may be less powerful than the full-on aroma of commercial oils, but it will possess the essence of what the French call the terroir - the very earth itself.

NATURAL TINSEL

Feather-lichens, also known as tree-moss, lend a primeval feel to the Christmas tree. They grow on twigs in well-lit places, but don't pluck them from living trees. You often find them on fallen twigs, especially after a windy night, and they can be collected without harming the environment. No gilding or painting is needed. Just hang them on the tree in a naturalistic way. Feather-lichens are most common in the West, but, with cleaner air, they are slowly returning across England. Look out, too, for strap-shaped lichen, which also grows on twigs.

Another natural tinsel is wild clematis, with its twirls of feathery seeds. It lasts longer in a cool place, and also looks good twined into wreaths.

TABLE GARDENS

Mosses are at their best at Christmas time. Together with lichens and fungi, they can make beautiful miniature gardens. They also lend a more natural look to the Christmas tree when tucked into the tub. Mosses need to be kept cool and damp.

The perfect partner for moss is the ground lichen called cladonia - the sort used to create trees on model railways - and small fungi. Various colourful fungi are still about in the weeks leading up to Christmas, especially in mild weather. One of the prettiest is the scarlet elf-cup, which grows on mossy hazel twigs. It is widely used for table decorations in Germany, and is worth looking for in damp mossy woods near a stream.

Much more common is the strangely named Jew's-ear fungus, which is reddish, rubbery and grows on elder twigs. The Jew in question is Judas Iscariot, who is said to have hanged himself on an elder tree. There is also a brilliant-yellow jelly fungus called yellow brain, which grows on the bare wood of gorse on commons.

TWIG FANTASIES

The expensive silver twigs you find in stores are based on the humble silver birch. You can find your own on any common or even in a garden. The best twigs for arrangements are those at the trailing ends of branches, which form intricate traceries of spray with knobbly pairs of catkins. In December, you can also find coloured twigs in the hedgerow - yellow willow, orange poplar and fiery-red viburnum.

St Nicholas, the original Santa Claus, was a sterner figure than his ho-ho-ho-ing modern counterpart. His gifts were exclusively a reward for good children who said their prayers, ate their greens and did the washing-up. For children who did none of these things, the saint arrived not with toys but with a bundle of twigs to administer what was referred to as a jolly good birching. One can acknowledge this tradition by hanging little bundles of twigs on the tree alongside the goodies, to symbolise reward and punishment, darkness and light, Yin and Yang, or what you will.

HOLLY SKELETONS

For making collages out of nuts, cones, leaves and other autumnal delights, you are almost spoilt for choice. The most brilliantly coloured leaves will be found in sheltered places in full sunlight where the wind hasn't yet removed and scattered them. Among the best are paintbox-bright copper beech, golden maple and pink guelder-rose.

You can find delicate leaf skeletons by rummaging among dry leaf litter beneath a tree. One of the best is holly. Because holly leaves take a long time to break down, the skeleton of leaf veins is often beautifully preserved and is less fragile than those of other trees.

JINGLE CONES

Although conifers tend to look very similar as trees, their cones vary, from the marble-sized balls of cypress to the long sausage-shaped ones of spruce, the fat oval ones of cedar or the more common conical ones of pine. Fallen cones are often twisted and split into interesting shapes by feeding squirrels and birds. Spray them gold and silver, or leave them as they are. If you know of a Wellingtonia, you can even use the crushed cones in pot-pourri if you like the resinous scent of aniseed.

IS IT LEGAL?

Picking nuts, berries, fallen leaves and fungi is a common right anywhere with public access, including rights of way. So is picking flowers and seed-heads so long as the plant is not uprooted. However, places such as urban parks and nature reserves may have by-laws prohibiting collecting without permission. On private land, you obviously need permission.

There are no conservation issues about collecting twigs, leaves and other debris on the ground. However, mosses and lichens are slow-growing and should be collected sparingly. As for cutting boughs of holly, always ask the landowner.

CHRISTMAS CARDS

Even the humble Christmas card comes with a carbon price. We send nearly one billion Christmas cards every year. I admit that, out of laziness, I usually opt out of this annual chore, using eco-friendliness as my excuse. However, for those of you who are fond of tradition, you could send an e-card with your own personal message instead; or, alternatively, buy Christmas cards made from recycled paper, available from the WWF website. Recycling them afterwards at the special collection points at Tesco and WH Smith will not only save paper but will raise money for the Woodland Trust to turn more British land into wildlife- rich native woodland.

CHRISTMAS HOME

One modern Christmas "tradition" that we could definitely do without is the importation of the American fad for draping the outside of your home in tacky Christmas lights. One Lanarkshire family spends £50,000 on the lights and up to £5,000 on electricity bills for the three-week period. The money spent on equipment would pay for solar panels, wind-turbines and geothermal water-heating systems for three homes, making them carbon neutral for 20 years. The electricity wasted on this egomaniacal contraption releases 30 tons of CO 2, the equivalent of four times the average CO 2 emitted by one UK resident over the entire year. Ways of reducing your emissions include using fairy lights or LED displays in the window instead, which use a fraction of the electricity. Also, fit the lights with a timer so that they go off at midnight at the latest. Having them burn through the night when no one is passing is ecologically criminal.

The good news is that the traditional log fire, if sourced locally, is almost carbon neutral and, of course, gives a lovely warm heart to your celebrations. If you have central heating, make sure it is not set above 20C to 21C. If you have lots of family or friends around and you are all eating and drinking hot food, you will find that you are warmer and so can turn the heating down even further and still be nice and cosy. Every degree you turn it down saves you 8 per cent on your Christmas heating bill. One way of cutting the energy bill for cooking the Christmas dinner would be to have roast vegetables and potatoes with your turkey or nut-roast. This means you only have to turn on the oven and not the hob as well. You can also turn off the oven about 10 minutes before the turkey is finally ready, as the oven will remain hot for this time. Otherwise, you are simply paying for the oven to be hot for the 10 minutes after you take the turkey out.

Christmas is also a time when lights get left on all over the house, even though people are gathered downstairs. Why not give one of the children the responsibility of ensuring that all unused lights are off, but don't forget to reward them for a job well done. By this simple trick, you can slash your lighting bills by up to 60 per cent. Of course, the cast-iron way of ensuring that you have a clean CO 2 conscience for the rest of your Christmas electricity use is simply to take five minutes the day before Christmas Eve, get on your computer and change your electricity supplier over to a 100 per cent green electricity supplier. Ecotricity and Good Energy are both pure green energy suppliers. They add a small premium on to your usual electricity bill, and this is the easiest but most effective way of giving the planet a green Christmas present. The full green electricity range in your part of Britain is available at www.greenelectricity.org.

Nearly two million Britons will go abroad this Christmas, creating millions of tons of CO 2 in the process. Millions more will drive hundreds of miles to visit relatives and friends. If you insist on not relaxing in your own home, you could instead treat yourself to a long weekend in your local luxury hotel. The majority of guests in many Japanese luxury hotels come from their immediate locale. They come in to be pampered with spa treatments, swimming and gourmet meals without having the worry and expense of travelling to get there. Alternatively, you could ensure that you visit distant relatives before the Christmas rush by train and enjoy a more leisurely visit, with the train driver taking the strain. Finally, if you feel that you have no choice but to join the millions clogging the skies at Christmas, you could contribute to carbon-offset. This means paying for a reduction in CO 2 emissions elsewhere, equivalent to that released by your flight. British Airways allows you to do this when you book online. Alternatively, you can do so at www.climatecare.org. Thus you easily reduce your travel emissions by over 80 per cent or, indeed, abolish them altogether.

THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT

Create some space amid the madness for some quiet contemplation and try to reclaim the true meaning of Christmas.

Why not drop into your local church, light a candle and say a prayer? Even if you're not a Christian, the silence, stone and stained glass windows will soothe the spirit and the soul.

If conventional church services don't tempt you, and you've been meaning to find out a bit more about another form of spirituality, why not do it now? The Quakers ( www.quaker.org.uk) and the lay Buddhist society of Nichiren Daishonin (01628 773163; www.sgi-UK.org) hold regular introductory meetings all over the country.

Even if we're too busy for any of the above, let's harness the Christmas spirit to create peace at home, with our families, friends and neighbours. Creating peace here, in our hearts and in our communities, is the starting place for creating peace everywhere.

Take a break from the tinsel and the ringing tills to reclaim the true, mysterious, altruistic spirit of Christmas. Volunteering to do some charity work and brighten someone's day will brighten yours, too.

As the Japanese Buddhist monk Nichiren Daishonin wrote in the 13th century: "If you light a lantern for another, it will also lighten your own way." The Buddhist philosopher Dr Daisaku Ikeda also says: "The higher your flame of altruistic action burns, the more its light will suffuse your life."

The following charities really need your help - not just at Christmas but all year round, too.

Crisis Open Christmas (0870 011 3335; www.crisis.org.uk) is probably the best known Christmas volunteering project. It runs six shelters in London between 23 and 30 December, offering homeless and vulnerably housed people companionship at a time of year that can be particularly lonely for those without a home or family.

The shelters are run by more than 4,000 volunteers and are open 24 hours a day, providing companionship and a range of services including a full medical service, a learning and skills service, counselling, advice, hairdressing, massage and dog-sitting. Unskilled tasks for volunteers include serving meals, staffing an internet café and an arts and crafts centre, and spending time talking and listening to homeless people.

The Salvation Army ( www.salvationarmy.org) needs help staffing its 800 centres, wrapping presents, driving minibuses and so on. Your local office will be listed in The Yellow Pages.

Age Concern (0800 009966; www.ageconcern.org) is always looking for seasonal volunteers to befriend elderly people, or run errands for them.

Volunteering England: www.vde.org.uk. This easy-to-use site gives details of your closest volunteering centre.

Two great sites that give a general overview of volunteering opportunities all over the country are www.do-it.org.uk and www.timebank.org.uk.

ECO-GIFTS

Christmas gifts are the way in which many people demonstrate their love for family and friends. Unfortunately, this love leads to a huge mountain of unwanted presents. It is estimated that, each year, Christmas leaves more than £1.2bn-worth of unwanted presents in its wake. Rather than contributing to this mound of wasted resources and CO 2, why not consider buying an experience instead. Theatre and cinema vouchers bring great joy, as people can choose for themselves what they would like to see. For children, a gift of a day pony-riding or a visit to an adventure park will bring memories that will last much longer than the latest plastic nonsense mass-produced by badly treated workers in China.

If you're determined to give material gifts, there are a whole range of ideas that can be eco-friendly. There is a handy list of ethical gift ideas at www.goodgifts.org, which are ingenious, fun and really help to make the world a better place. Stocking-fillers can also be eco-friendly. These could include linen handkerchiefs, tea-dunkers, organic chocolate bars (I am currently addicted to Green & Black's new caramel bar) or even a bottle of organic bubbly if you wish to start Christmas morning merrily! Buying a book token instead of a book ensures that they will get the book they really want instead of another tome gathering dust unread.

If you have a deep-greenie friend, instead of the ubiquitous Moulinex, you could buy the latest soya-milk maker from www.livingearth.co.uk. With this they will be able to make home-made milk from organic soya beans or oat-groats at less than one tenth of the price that it costs in the shops. It will eliminate a lifetime's mountain of the dreaded Tetra Paks, which will win any greenie's heart!

If you want to make them even happier, though, a set of luxury organic bedsheets will help them to love you every time they snuggle down. The production of cotton is one of the planets most poisonous processes, accounting for more than 25 per cent of all poisonous pesticides used worldwide. Creating a market for these at Christmas is a really rewarding thing to do. They can be easily procured from www.naturalcollection.com.

For children, the perfect CO 2-friendly gift is a bicycle. Getting young people into the habit of cycling is one of the greatest Christmas gifts you can give them and the planet. This is a gift that will help them to remain healthy for life. The British Medical Association estimates that people who cycle have hearts that are up to 10 years younger than those who do not do regular exercise. Your Christmas gift could also help to cut your own year-round emissions if you get your children to cycle to school instead of being driven. The other perfect gift for children that will help to reduce CO 2 emissions is an iPod. As it does away with the need for CDs and tapes, it is the perfect, almost resource-free method of recording hundreds of titles and, of course, it also fulfils the really important criterion of being cool.

WRAPPING PAPER

After Christmas trees, the next biggest Yuletide tree issue is the acres and acres of wrapping paper that litter our living rooms after the frenzy of gift opening. More than 8,000 tons of wrapping paper will be used this Christmas, which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates is enough to wrap the entire island of Guernsey. This involves the felling of more than 40,000 trees. There are lots of ways you can reduce the masses of emissions resulting from this modern fad. First of all, ask yourself whether your gift really needs wrapping, or would a little card attached to it suffice? One of my friends wraps her presents in pages from the newspaper. She carefully chooses which section or page is appropriate for each particular friend, using sports, arts or political pages. Thus she eliminates all carbon emissions resulting from her wrapping but gets the bonus of it being more personal than mass-produced wrapping paper. If you feel that you have to have commercial wrapping paper, avoid at all costs the hugely polluting glittery wrappings. The best option is to use wrapping paper made from recycled paper, which is available from www.shopwwf.org.uk /store. Do not forget to open wrapped gifts carefully, so you can reuse the paper, or if torn ensure that the paper gets recycled. Even the tape used to seal your gifts is important. Sellotape is made from benign plant cellulose, whereas most other tapes are fossil-fuel and chemical-based.

POST-CHRISTMAS ECO-RESPONSIBILITIES

Finally, let us not forget the post-Christmas clean-up. We consume far more bottles, cans and paper at Christmas than at any other time of year, with more than three million extra tons of waste hitting our refuse sacks. Our bins overflow with an extra 750 million bottles and 500 million drinks cans. Therefore, it is crucial that all this gets recycled, if we are to slash our Christmas CO 2 emissions. About 80,000 tons of old clothes also get thrown out every Christmas, as we renew our wardrobes. Charity shops love good-quality cast-offs, and council recycling points often collect all forms of old clothes, shoes and used cloth; similarly with unwanted presents. One person's horror of a present is another's dream find, so after Christmas make sure to do a good spring clean and take unwanted presents down to your local charity shop.

If you implement everything on these pages, you will still have a fun and festive time, but will also have a clear conscience knowing that you are slashing your CO 2 emissions by more than 80 per cent. After all, would not Jesus Christ, whose birth Christians celebrate on this day, be horrified that the celebrations of his birthday created future climate chaos for our fellow human beings? This turmoil is leaving millions of people homeless, starving and poverty stricken, as desertification, flooding and crop destruction is intensified. Instead of contributing to a deepening global crisis, would it not be a wonderful thing to know that your celebrations were contributing towards making it better? Now, that would be a truly festive Christmas.

Donnachadh McCarthy is an eco-lifestyle coach and author of 'Saving the Planet Without Costing the Earth'; www.3acorns.co.uk; 'Christmas Decorations' tips written by Peter Marren

Graham Hill: Founder of Treehugger.com

For Christmas, I'm going to be giving books. Books change lives. And we need to change some lives if we are going to pull ourselves out of this mess. Grab a second hand book locally or hit Amazon. Pick something that relates to the giftee's world. Write a nice note inside (don't be preachy). Stand back and see what happens. A few suggestions: Biomimicry by Janine Benyus, Natural Capitalism by Hawken, Lovins and Lovins or Cradle to Cradle by McDonough and Braungart.

CHRISTMAS LUNCH

A typical UK Christmas dinner, which often includes Australian wine, American cranberry sauce, South African carrots, Dutch Brussels sprouts and Israeli potatoes, may have travelled 30,000 miles from producers and growers, generating more than 20 million tons of CO2, according to research carried out by MEPs.

These so-called "food miles" can be easily slashed. Instead of buying New Zealand apples or Cypriot potatoes, buy locally grown produce. Local farmers' markets sell a range of locally grown food - and they are far more fun to visit than battling the hordes in a monolithic Yuletide Tesco. If you have to go to a supermarket, choose any locally grown vegetables and fruit it offers. Reduce "wine miles" by buying English organic wines - local organic wineries are listed at the Soil Association's website ( www.whyorganic.org).

More than $25bn (£14bn) worth of pesticide is sprayed on soil worldwide every year, and more than 3 million people are poisoned as a result. Pesticide has to be extracted from drinking water, too - a process that costs UK consumers millions of pounds a year. As well as cutting down on food and wine miles, you can also reduce the trail of poisons left after your festivities, by buying organic food. Recent surveys have shown that three-quarters of UK families buy organic food regularly or occasionally.

Why not buy a turkey that has been reared under environmentally friendly and cruelty-free conditions? Wild turkeys can fly more than 50mph and are naturally docile; factory-farmed turkeys can't fly and, cooped up with almost 25,000 of their fellow animals in darkened sheds, must have their beaks sliced off to prevent damage caused by aggressive behaviour. These creatures are so fat that they cannot mate naturally - the bloated breast prevents natural copulation and the unnatural weight destroys hip joints.

There are lots of delicious alternatives. If you can't buy a cruelty- and antibiotic-free organic turkey at your local farmers' market, the Soil Association website has a list of local suppliers nationwide. The organisation Viva (Vegetarians International Voice for Animals) campaigns against cruelty to farm animals and it has a range of recipes for an ethical Christmas lunch on its website ( www.viva.org.uk). The vegan recipe described below is a real festive treat that beats the standby veggie lasagne hands down.

Mushrooms and artichokes en croute (serves 4-6)

450g/1lb mixed mushrooms 400g/14oz tin artichoke hearts

4 shallots, sliced

3 cloves garlic, crushed

25g/1oz vegetable margarine

4tbs soya cream*

1tbs Madeira (or brandy)

1tbs snipped chives

1tbs plain flour

Salt and black pepper

675g/1lb puff pastry

Soya milk to glaze

1. Slice mushrooms and quarter artichoke hearts. Fry shallots and garlic gently in margarine until softened.

2. Add all mushrooms except oyster mushrooms (if used). Sauté until all liquid has evaporated. Add oyster mushrooms, artichoke hearts and Madeira.

3. Sauté gently for a few minutes. Add flour, salt and pepper, stir. Add 'soya cream' and chopped chives and cook until thickened.

4. On a floured surface, roll out half the pastry thinly and trim to 38x20cm (18x15in). Keep the trimmings.

5. Place on large baking sheet and prick with fork. Bake at 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6 for about 15 mins or until golden. Cool on a wire rack. Roll out remaining pastry thinly.

6. Return cooked pastry to baking sheet and pile filling on top. Brush pastry edge with soya milk and place over filling to enclose. Trim off excess leaving about 2.5cm (1in) to tuck in all round.

7. Use trimmings to decorate with a fine lattice of pastry strips. Brush with soya milk, make two small holes in pastry to allow steam to escape. Bake at 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6 for about 40 mins or until pastry is golden.

*Such as Soya Dream, available in most health food shops and big supermarkets

My Eco Christmas: Steven Tindale, UK Director of Greenpeace

We have a Christmas tree in a pot, which we re-use every year, and we don't send many Christmas cards. We are going away this year, but instead of flying we're going to go to Norfolk. We'll be able to recycle most of the Christmas rubbish, especially cards and wrapping paper, as luckily we live in a good local authority, and recyclable waste is collected from the house. But we won't be recycling it all. We have two young children who will use the wrapping paper for craft, so it gets re-used, which is even better.

My Eco Christmas: Sian Lloyd

The biggest change in my approach to Christmas is that I buy so much less. I'm decorating using plants, branches and berries. I also loathe Christmas cards; I give a donation to charity instead. I don't think everything has to be organic, but it has to be local. At Christmas, there are great farmer's markets and food fairs everywhere. Why would anyone spend £200 in Tesco's? The present I'm particularly excited about is an acre of ecosystem-maintained rainforest in Equador from the World Land Trust. It only costs £25.

www.worldlandtrust.org

Donnachadh McCarthy is an eco-lifestyle coach and author of 'Saving the Planet Without Costing the Earth'; www.3acorns.co.uk; 'Christmas Decorations' tips written by Peter Marren

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