In many parts of the world, Christmas time is without a doubt the most wasteful time of the year, on so many levels. The Christmas crackers whose contents no one around the dinner table wants, will ever use, or will even keep for more than a few seconds. The mountains of single-use – often non-recyclable – wrapping paper. Cards, sometimes signed with just the sender and the receiver, read once and also not always recyclable.
The implication of this annual over-consumption is that vast amounts of energy are poured into creating single-use, unnecessary and unwanted trinkets, decorations and food. Does it really have to be this way? Might the festive period not be enjoyed in a more environmentally responsible manner, whilst still maintaining many of the traditions held dear? This blog piece attempts to propose some alternative ideas.
“Not socks again, Nan!”
It is a time where millions of unwanted gifts are given, which may well never be used. Does the person you are buying that gift for really want or need it? Perhaps it would be more memorable and enjoyable to gift an experience, such as a concert ticket, meal out or weekend away, which you can both share.
In a previous piece on the minimalist movement, I outlined the advantages of having fewer possessions. Owning a large amount of mostly unused knick-knacks can become stressful and diminishing of one’s sense of personal freedom. How much joy does each individual item actually bring?
The burden of unnecessary belongings and gifts is not only felt by the possessor. Material gifts usually also come with the environmental impact of their production, distribution and wrapping. Buying fewer items means having a smaller (implicit) carbon footprint. According to a survey reported in Metro, the UK threw away a total of 108 million rolls of wrapping paper last Christmas. Assuming the average roll of gift wrap measures 2.5 metres by 75cm, that means about 202.5 square kilometres of wrapping paper was thrown away, or more than enough to wrap up all of Glasgow. The environmental cost of creating and destroying all of this wrapping paper could be easily reduced by giving ‘experience presents’ rather than material ones, reusing wrapping paper or newspaper or, at the very least, using recyclable paper.
According to a recent booklet produced by Friends of the Earth, the amount of (often recyclable) waste going to landfill after every Christmas is staggering: six million Christmas trees (which only last for an average of 20 days), 230,000 tonnes of food waste, 125,000 tonnes of plastic waste, 1,500 tonnes of (recyclable) fairy lights and 50,000 trees worth of Christmas cards.
Even non-recyclable Christmas cards can be upcycled and given a second round on mantle pieces and window sills. For example, the cards shown above were made out of ones received in previous years, along with a few festive stickers. Just because cards were made of recyclable materials does not mean that their environmental cost is zero: trees were cut down in order to make the paper and energy will be required in the recycling process. Would homemade cards, personalised emails, phone calls or in-person visits not be cherished as much as brand-new cards (or more)?
Deck the halls
Decorations can also come with a non-negligible environmental cost, especially if cheaply made or containing plastic. Tinsel, baubles and other conventional Christmas decorations often contain a lot of plastic. Friends of the Earth suggest decorating the Christmas tree with edible decorations, such as gingerbread people and cookies, so that you don’t even need to worry about storing them for the rest of the year.
Whilst fake Christmas trees have a greater environmental impact per tree, the fact that they last for a good decade or two means that this averages out as lower impact in the long-run. If you are lucky enough to live somewhere with a garden with a nice tree in it, you could always just decorate that whilst it is still alive. Such a Christmas tree could actually be argued to have a negative carbon footprint, since it will continue to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, even while you have lights on it, twinkling away.
Hopefully some of the ideas in this short blog piece are useful. All the best for the festive season!