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Christmas, the most wasteful time of the year

11 December 2019

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As we draw closer to Christmas for many the excitement begins to increase as we think of spending time with loved ones, gift giving, a few days of rest and enjoying the festivities that come alongside it. Before we finish off our shopping lists perhaps, we should pause and ask what the real cost and impact our Christmas choices make on the environment around us.

The 29th of July 2019 saw us using the global annual allowance of our planet’s natural resources over 5 months early, the earliest it’s ever been before. Globally we are using our annual natural resource allowance more than two months earlier than we did 20 years ago[1]. The way we are living is unsustainable. Qatar, Luxembourg and United Arab Emirates are listed to be the top three offenders, USA ranks 7th, Canada 8th, Australia 14th and the UK is 49th[2].

Globally at Christmas our waste levels increase by 25-30% with much of the excess waste being made up from packaging, wrapping paper, cards and food waste[3]. We must start to seek changes and one good place to start is Christmas, which for the waste industry is the most wasteful time of the year. We all know it is unsustainable to create a weeks’ worth of waste to celebrate one holiday so we must start to make changes.

Here are a few areas where we can all make changes to greatly benefit the planet.

1. Tree and Decorations

Each year the debate continues over which tree has less of an impact to the environment and our carbon footprint. Last year around 70% of American’s celebrated Christmas with a Christmas tree, 82% of trees were artificial[4]. The most sustainable option is to buy a real tree that has roots and can be replanted in the New Year. Alternatively, potted Christmas tree rentals are on the rise in the UK andhopefully this will increase throughout America.  When buying a cut real tree look out for FSC Certification as this will confirm that your tree has been sourced sustainably. If you choose a cut tree, try to ensure you recycle it as best you can.  

If you'd prefer to buy an artificial tree, try picking up a second hand one rather than buying brand new to reduce new plastic coming into our economy. If you do decide to buy a new tree buy one that is good quality. Despite often being sold as the greener option, according to the Carbon Trust, you would need to reuse your artificial Christmas tree for at least 10 Christmases[5] whilst others report it could be 4-6 Christmases[6] before its environmental impact lower than that of a real tree.

Artificial trees are made from a combination of materials so cannot be recycled and will end up going to landfill. If you are sending an artificial tree to landfill, consider donating it or reusing parts where possible. You could snip the branches off and use them to create a garland or wreath to extend its use. Alternatively, you could also to use an alternative tree made from recycled materials such as driftwood.

2. Sustainable Gifts

Instead of buying more ‘stuff’ for people really consider what you are buying and the impact it has on our environment in terms of manufacturing, packaging and lifespan. Consider buying an experience gift such as concert tickets, short breaks away or a voucher for a lesson. Any gifts you do buy try to choose the sustainable option, consider the products carbon footprint. Allure Magazine and The New York Times showcase sustainable gifts that have a lower impact on the environment. Alternatively, you could consider buying a charity gift that will make a lasting change to someone in the world.

3. Plan carefully- avoid food waste

Christmas Dinner can be the most anticipated meal of the year with family, but we often over estimate how much food we really need. According to The Atlantic over 50% of the food produced in America is wasted, 60 million tonnes worth a value of €160 billion. It is critical that we reduce food waste where possible and between Thanksgiving and Christmas when food consumption and waste is at its highest. We need to ensure we only buy the food we require and avoid any food being wasted. Remember to freeze leftover food or consider donating extras to your local foodbank or charity.

Also consider how many miles your dinner has travelled to get to you. Buying local and in season produce will ensure carbon emissions are kept to a minimum. Pick the seasonal organic option and consider buying higher welfare organic meats. You’ll be supporting farmers who grow with fewer pesticides on farms which support wildlife and healthy, living soils.

4. All Wrapped Up

In the U.S. 2.65 billion Christmas cards[7] are sold each year, enough to fill a football field 10 stories high. According to NEEF we waste enough ribbon to tie around the planet and append €11 billion on Christmas wrapping. All of which will need to be disposed of after Christmas. We must understand that we cannot keep up this level of waste and people often do not realize that wrapping paper or cards with glitter, foil and other microplastics cannot be recycled.

However, some retailers are starting to be more aware of the products they produce and how they can be recycled. Many U.S. retailers are starting to remove microplastics from cards and wrapping paper so they can be recycled. You can also buy wrapping paper and cards from ethical sites which are made from recycled paper and can again be recycled. There are alternatives such as Japanese Furoshiki, wrapping gifts in fabric which can be reused and recycled again. Also consider sending e-cards or video messages instead of posting traditional cards.

We know that you’ll have many more ideas to share. Get in touch with more ideas on Twitter @CDEnviro or LinkedIn.

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/earth-overshoot-day-planets-resource-2019-eod-a9025126.html last accessed 6/12/2019

[2] https://www.overshootday.org/newsroom/country-overshoot-days/ last accessed 6/12/2019

[3] https://lbre.stanford.edu/pssistanford-recycling/frequently-asked-questions/frequently-asked-questions-holiday-waste-prevention, http://sydney.edu.au/environment-institute/blog/considering-christmas-footprint/ last accessed 9/12/2019

[4] https://www.christmastreeassociation.org/seventy-seven-percent-of-us-households-will-celebrate-this-holiday-season-with-a-christmas-tree/ last accessed 11/12/2019

[5] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/christmas/christmas-tree-real-living-artificial-plastic-environment-carbon-footprint-a9235551.html last accessed 10/12/2019

[6] https://www.christmastreeassociation.org/real-artificial-christmas-tree-environment/ last accessed 11/12/2019

[7] https://lbre.stanford.edu/pssistanford-recycling/frequently-asked-questions/frequently-asked-questions-holiday-waste-prevention last accessed 6/12/2019