As we enter the height of the Christmas period, it is a good time to consider the environmental consequences of our festivities. Wrapped up in the spirit of the holidays, many of us fail to recognise the damaging environmental impacts of our Christmas traditions. However, by making just a few small changes we can conserve both the magic of Christmas and the health of the environment.
For many, the giving and receiving of presents is a key part of the Christmas period. This year, it is estimated that the British public will spend an average of £602 each on Christmas presents, a 40% increase on last year. The manufacturing and shipping of these presents can have a significant carbon footprint, harming the environment by contributing to global warming.
Another key environmental impact associated with presents is the volume of waste produced from packaging and wrapping paper. Over 100,000 tonnes of plastic packaging is thrown away each Christmas, along with large volumes of glass, card, and cardboard. The volume of cardboard used to package Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo gaming consoles alone could cover “an area larger than central London”. In the UK, an estimated 227,000 miles of wrapping paper is used each year – that’s enough to stretch to the moon when it is at its closest point to Earth! Most of this wrapping paper ends up in landfill.
So, what can you do? Firstly, you can consider the types of present you are buying. Will the present be long-lasting, or is it buying into wasteful consumer culture? Could you gift an experience instead? The Swiss start-up company ‘Climeworks AG’ is even offering a unique gift to help directly reduce carbon footprints. For €85, the company will capture and store 85kg of carbon dioxide, helping to offset carbon emissions during the festive period. Secondly, you can consider the wrapping paper you use. Many recycled options are now available and selecting wrapping paper without foil or glitter means it can be sent for recycling, rather than going to landfill.
The Christmas tree has arguably become the ultimate symbol of Christmas. The British Christmas Tree Growers Association (BCTGA) estimates that each year seven million real Christmas trees are sold.
Real Christmas trees can have a harmful environmental impact. Monoculture fields of Christmas trees do not act as good habitats for a range of species. Also, while a real tree seems beneficial for the environment as it sequesters carbon over its lifetime, many trees are burned after Christmas, releasing that carbon back into the atmosphere. If trees are taken to landfill, they can release even more greenhouse gases (particularly methane) during the slow process of decomposition.
Artificial Christmas trees (made of plastic, PVC, and metal) arguably have an even more damaging environmental impact. Pollutants and greenhouse gases are released during their manufacture and during their international transportation, as unlike real trees (which are usually grown locally), artificial trees are mostly manufactured in China. As artificial trees are also non-biodegradable, they will take longer to decompose, again releasing greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Overall, the carbon footprint of an artificial tree is over “ten times that of a real tree that’s burned after Christmas”.
To reduce your impact, if you have an artificial Christmas tree you can try to reuse it for as long as possible. If you buy a real Christmas tree each year, you can make sure to buy it locally and dispose of it properly after Christmas by getting it recycled. An even better option is a potted tree, which can be kept in the garden and brought into the home every Christmas. For those without the garden space, there are even companies from which you can rent a potted tree to overcome this issue.
At Christmas we buy on average 20% more food than usual. It is therefore unsurprising that there is a significant food-waste problem during the festive period. We waste approximately 7 million tonnes of food each Christmas, worth around £64 million. This includes the equivalent of 2 million turkeys, 5 million Christmas puddings, and 74 million mince pies! All of the energy and water taken to produce this food is also wasted. Such significant food wastage is detrimental to the environment, as a large proportion of wasted food ends up in landfill sites, slowly decomposing and releasing greenhouse gases.
Another environmental impact associated with the food purchased at Christmas is that this involves the purchasing of greater quantities of meat. Meat production is linked to a plethora of environmental issues, ranging from high water usage to the emission of high quantities of the potent greenhouse gas methane.
When buying food for the Christmas period, you can consider choosing fewer meat options and trying to reduce waste by taking time to contemplate how much food you need for your household. Instead of throwing it away, you can consider how to use uneaten food over the following days, for example, using leftover turkey to bake a turkey pie. If unused food is still sealed, you could consider donating it to your local food bank. (Food banks near you can be found on The Trussel Trust website.)
Christmas lights are used by many to decorate both the inside and outside of homes during the Christmas period. The environmental issue with such extensive light usage is its contribution to the prolific energy use over Christmas. In the UK the amount of electricity used by the public on Christmas Day alone is enough to light the Eiffel Tower for fifty years.
To use less energy, you can switch to LED lights, which can use up to 90% less energy than regular incandescent bulbs. Also, consider how many lights you are using, trying to reduce the amount where possible. For those lights that you do choose to keep, you can ensure they are turned off at night or when you leave the room.
In the build up to the big day, and throughout this festive period, take a moment to consider the small changes you could make to help reduce your environmental impact, while still enjoying a very merry Christmas!