Dreaming of a green Christmas: the waste we leave behind each year


Maddy Bange (she/her) reflects on the wastefulness of the festive season and offers tips for a more climate-conscious Christmas. 

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Image by Allan Harris Photography

By Maddy Bange

Wrapped up in all the excitement and magic of Christmas (usually with our second or third glass of fizz in-hand), the mountains of waste we are producing won’t be crossing many people’s minds.

Christmas traditions vary from place-to-place, and from family-to-family. Yet the common factor seems to be one of high consumption and enormous waste production. The time for giving and receiving has become one of taking; taking unsustainable levels of natural resources and giving back only our rubbish, which takes a toll on the planet as well as our pockets.

It is difficult to say which part of Christmas is the most wasteful because the unfortunate reality is, it hits all the areas: significant food waste, unwanted gifts, wrapping paper and packaging.

Arguably, the most quintessential feature of Christmas is the tree. While some enjoy the authenticity of a real tree (usually an Evergreen Conifer), many are attracted to the variety of artificial trees, a key selling point including its lack of maintenance. Despite the common belief that cutting down these trees has the greater negative environmental impact, thus pushing people towards artificial ones, it is actually the fake trees that cause more environmental damage due to the manufacturing process, shipping, and their life-cycle. The Soil Association explains that because a real tree takes around 11 years to grow they are, environmentally, a better option. Most real trees sold in the UK are also grown here, whereas most artificial trees are produced overseas and then shipped off around the world, with a shocking 10 million exported to the USA on average every year. According to the Carbon Trust, a 2 metre fake tree has a carbon footprint of 40kg, needing to be used at least 10 times to equal the footprint of a real tree (which, if disposed of properly and not sent to landfill, is around 3.5kg), yet most are only used 4 times before being discarded, still in prime condition. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, due to the materials artificial trees are composed of (plastic, PVC and metals), they can not be recycled. So instead of being used for decoration in our homes for years to come, 250 tonnes of artificial trees decorate landfills across the UK every January.

In this season of gift giving, it seems the latest holiday tradition is that of excessive Black Friday spending and competitive consumerism. While it's great to treat ourselves and our loved ones, the sustainable limit of this spending has far been exceeded. It is not necessarily the buying of the presents that is the issue here, it's the amount of waste generated in the events that follow. Each year, the UK spends around £700 million on unwanted gifts, £42 million of which is thrown away and quickly finds itself in a landfill along with the trees.

What good is a present without the packaging and wrapping? The UK uses approximately 227,000 miles of wrapping paper each year, with residents sending around 114,000 tonnes of plastic to landfill sites. And if you think about how many presents are given each year, imagine the number of cards being sent.

Not only are they given to family and friends, but also to distant relatives you’ve not actually spoken to for over ten years! There’s no denying the joy of opening a lovely card with a gorgeous winter landscape on the front, but less joyful is the 300,000 trees cut down to produce these cards. The destruction of countless habitats and release of stored carbon dioxide into our already damaged atmosphere is surely not worth it for a card that will be on display for a month at the most.

Once bought and written, the cards have to be posted. The sheer volume of emissions produced by all the vehicles involved in the delivery of these cards is worrying, and only adds to the ever growing impact on the environment that Christmas as a whole has. A study conducted by the University of Exeter found 140 grams of carbon dioxide is produced from sending one card. Whilst some can be recycled, many can not  due to being detailed with glitter or other plastic components. These ones end up in landfill sites - which by now, as you might be becoming aware, are a popular destination for Christmas products.

Finally, the main event of the big day: Christmas Dinner. This part of the celebration also encourages indulgence and overconsumption, often with a feeling that we can never eat again! However, this often leads to excessive amounts of food waste. From the supplies for the main meal, to all the snacks and nibbles, we often buy enough to last through January. We are convinced, through persuasive advertising, that we need items like Prosecco-flavoured crisps and Christmas-pudding Martinis and the plethora of supermarket deals entice buyers to purchase three packs instead of two. Gone are the days when a simple mince pie and glass of mulled wine was enough to satisfy us!

The combination of over-shopping, over-cooking and not efficiently using the leftovers leads us as a nation to throw out 2.3 million tonnes of food over this festive season. To put that into Christmas context, that’s the same as 2 million turkeys or 74 million mince pies!

So, what can be done? Well, the good news is that a festive Christmas can also be a sustainable one!

Like the Nine Lessons of Christmas, here are my nine top tips to ensure that your Christmas is climate-friendly:

  1. Support local growers by purchasing a real tree
  2. If you do buy an artificial tree, keep it for at least ten years. They can be for life, not just for Christmas
  3. Quality over quantity for presents
  4. Use recycled wrapping paper or old gift bags
  5. Send E-Cards instead of paper ones
  6. Avoid any products with glitter - try alternatives like sand glitter or salt glitter
  7. Plan the meals so you only buy the food you need
  8. Save leftovers
  9. Spend time with your close ones, and spend time in nature!

We must be sure to remain vigilant of climate issues and sustainability over the festive season in order to keep Christmas the most wonderful - not most wasteful - time of the year.