Eco Tips for a Sustainable Christmas
Christmas is a time of goodwill and giving, delicious food, wonderful scents, candlelight and seasonal decorations.Christmas is also a good time to extend our goodwill to the planet and look after it by minimising the amount of waste and greenhouse gas emissions we produce. This can be done in fun and creative ways - and you definitely don't need to be a Scrooge to have a more sustainable Christmas. Apply some of these eco tips and you're well on your way to reducing your ecological footprint over the festive period. You may or may not get a white Christmas, but everyone can have a greener Christmas!
The tradition of sending Christmas cards started in the 19th century and remains a popular practice to this day in countries like the US and the UK, where hundreds of millions of cards are sent each year. Each stage of a Christmas card's life cycle has environmental impacts - trees are cut down to produce the paper for the cards; toxic substances are used for bleaching, dying and printing; transport and delivery generates emissions; and, finally, most cards end up in landfills. A better option from an environmental point of view is buying cards made from unbleached, chlorine-free, recycled or sustainably produced paper printed with vegetable-based inks. Homemade cards are another good choice and can be made from all kinds of recycled materials, such as old wall calendars and cardboard.
E-cards are probably the best alternative to traditional cards - they are not only cost-effective but also require no paper or inks, there is no waste to dispose of and the cards are sent via email instantly with no trucks or planes involved. Not everyone is going to receive e-cards though, so what can you do with the cards that you receive from others this Christmas? If you don't intend to keep them, check with the local authority whether they can be recycled along with paper waste or if they need to be taken to a recycling centre. Alternatively, save the cards for re-use in the following year - you could cut them up as gift tags, make Christmas tree decorations or create new cards.
The Christmas Tree
A beautifully decorated tree is an essential part of many people's Christmas celebrations. The type of tree you choose can also have a large impact on how environmentally friendly your celebrations are. An artificial tree has the clear advantage of being re-usable year after year. However, artificial trees are usually made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which is derived from chlorine and non-renewable petroleum in a process that generates toxic by-products. Further additives are used to make PVC less rigid, but unfortunately they also make it extremely difficult to recycle. Furthermore, an average artificial tree does not remain in use for its maximum life span and will eventually end up in a landfill, where it can remain for centuries. Majority of the artificial trees are imported from China, adding overseas transport to the list of environmental problems.
Using a real tree has several advantages over a plastic tree. While it grows, each tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, produces oxygen and is replaced with a new seedling once it's cut down. There are some environmental problems associated with using real trees as well though. One of them is the repeated use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. Using cut trees also requires an annual car trip to collect the tree. Another problem is that not everyone has access to a tree recycling service after Christmas and many real trees also end up in landfill sites.
There are several options for greener Christmas trees. If you're not particularly desperate to have a traditional tree, you could decorate a large houseplant. For alternative artificial trees, look out for 'trees' made out of wood and recycled materials - or get creative and make your own! For those who won't accept anything than a real evergreen, a brilliant option, if it's available, is to rent a potted tree over the holiday period. The trees are picked up after the festivities and looked after until the next Christmas, and once they have grown too large, they will be permanently planted. Buying a potted tree will work as well, if you have a suitable spot to plant it in afterwards. With good care, you can enjoy the tree for many years to come. If you're going for a cut tree, the ideal is to find an organic, sustainably grown tree from a local plantation, and to recycle it afterwards. If a local recycling service is not available, you could use the tree in your own garden - make mulch, use the branches to line the bottom of a new compost heap or create a bird feeder out of the trunk by drilling holes into it and filling them with suet. Finally, making a donation to an organization that plants trees is a lovely way to help offset the impact of using cut trees.
Some people enjoy using the same well-loved ornaments year after year, while others prefer to update their decorations on a regular basis. For greener alternatives when sourcing new decorations, think long-lasting, recycled and biodegradable. Natural decorations include cinnamon sticks, holly and dried citrus slices, which can all be composted after Christmas. Gingerbread and candy canes make for wonderful edible decorations. Snowflakes and other cut-outs can be created from recycled paper and little decorative 'presents' from empty matchboxes and bits of scrap material. For those who have no time for crafting, inventive festive decorations available online include those made from old CDs and circuit boards.
If you're using Christmas lights, reduce your energy consumption by switching them off at night or invest in a timer. Check out rechargeable batteries for lights that are not connected to the mains and solar powered LED lights for your outdoor light display - some are specially designed for winter conditions! Also, be sure to recycle any old lights you can't use anymore. If the weather allows it, try your hand at making ice lanterns for an atmospheric alternative to electric lights.
Candles are another item on many people's Christmas essentials list. When shopping for candles, avoid buying paraffin wax candles, if you can. Paraffin is made out of non-renewable petroleum with all its associated environmental problems. Paraffin candles contribute to indoor air pollution, too, by emitting carbon dioxide and soot when burning. Synthetic fragrances and dyes and wicks treated with additives may release additional chemicals into the air.
Soy candles are a better choice for the environment - soybeans are a renewable, biodegradable source of wax. Soy wax candles also burn cleaner and at a lower temperature than paraffin candles, thus lasting longer. Most soy wax candles on the market contain some paraffin though as well as the same problematic fragrances and dyes as regular candles. Furthermore, soy is often genetically modified and grown with the aid of pesticides. The greenest option therefore is to look for candles made from 100% sustainably and organically grown soy with natural fibre wicks and natural dyes - all wrapped in recyclable packaging, of course.
What you choose to put on your table for the Christmas feast can make up a larger part of your ecological footprint than your car use or the heating of your home during the holiday. The environmental problems associated with the festive menu comprise of food miles, unsustainable farming practices, excessive packaging and food waste. Locally produced, seasonal goods are far preferable to those transported from further afield, and much fresher as an added bonus. Produce that is also organic and minimally packaged is better still. To buy directly from producers, shop at your local farmers' market or a food co-op or sign up for a vegetable box scheme. When shopping in a supermarket, pay attention to where the food comes from and pick loose fruit and vegetables over prepackaged ones, if available. Wherever you shop, bring a reusable carrier bag to avoid plastic waste!
If you're going to eat a turkey or another type of meat-based main course, buy free range, organic meat from your local or an online butcher, if available. Alternatively, reduce your environmental impact even more by opting for a delicious vegetarian or a vegan main course for your festive feast. Growing plants requires less resources and causes less pollution than raising animals for food. The internet is a treasure trove of alternative, mouth watering recipes, so you're not limited to a nut roast. Finally, plan ahead to reduce the amount of food wasted. Avoid overbuying perishable foods, refrigerate uneaten food within two hours of serving and freeze any leftovers you won't be able to eat in a few days. Put any vegetable peelings into a compost or a wormery and recycle any cooked food waste, if there is a food waste collection in your area.
Being kind to the planet and giving Christmas presents do not need to be mutually exclusive activities. Non-material gifts are an ecologically sound option and just as exciting to receive as material objects. Give your loved ones the gift of an experience in the form of a ticket to a cinema, a theatre or a concert. Give them a voucher for a massage or a beauty treatment. Give them a membership to a museum, a zoo, a local health club or an online music or film streaming site. Give the gift of learning with a voucher for a dance or a cookery class. Give the ultimate eco-gift by adopting an endangered animal or a beehive on behalf of the recipient.
When shopping for material presents, avoid all plastic, battery-operated gadgets and toys imported from overseas. Instead, find locally produced gifts that are durable and made out of sustainable materials. If you're good at crafts like knitting or a whiz in the kitchen, consider making presents yourself. If it's the recipient rather than you who loves making stuff or cooking, give them materials for their hobby or something exciting for their kitchen, such as a mushroom log or a herb growing kit. If you're unsure what the receiver likes, gift vouchers are a great way to avoid unwanted presents.
If you're at the receiving end of gifts that you can't use yourself, donate them to a charity shop or give away through a local Freecycle group, if there is one. Same can be done to old cameras, mobile phones and other electronics, if you have received an upgrade as a present. Mobile phones, even when they are broken or locked, can generate money for charities when recycled using special charity envelopes that can be ordered online for free. Recycle other unusable electronics at your local recycling centre.
Wrapping paper has many of the same environmental problems as Christmas cards. Most wrapping paper is made from virgin rather than recycled paper and contains additives like synthetic dyes, plastic film and metal or chlorine-based foils. Because of the additives wrapping paper is usually not accepted for recycling. It should not be disposed of in the fireplace either because of the toxic and carcinogenic compounds that are released into the air when burning.
If you want the convenience of ready-made wrapping paper, buy recycled. Even simple recycled brown paper looks good when adorned with colourful natural yarn, raffia or string and natural decorations, like pine cones or bits of greenery - these can be composted afterwards unlike conventional plastic ribbons and trims. You can also get into the habit of saving wrapping paper and reusing the flawless bits in the following year. Using aluminium foil to wrap presents is also an interesting option - it has the appropriate shiny look and can be recycled afterwards. Alternatively, wrap your present in a piece of colourful fabric, decorate a cardboard box or reuse a gift bag. For a truly personal touch, have fun creating wrapping paper out of colourful pictures from magazines, comic strips from a newspaper, old maps or decorative cellophane from flower bouquets - creative gift wraps personalised for the recipient are sure to be noticed!
Christmas is a magical time and the memories that we'll cherish for a long time don't come from the things we buy and consume and throw away, but from the quality time we spend with loved ones.