After Christmas, an estimated 1 billion cards end up in the bin, 124 thousand tonnes of plastic packaging will be thrown out, 83 square kilometres of wrapping paper is binned, 6 million trees are discarded, and £42 million of unwanted presents are thrown away. The environmental cost of this waste is astronomical yet much of it can be avoided if we’re willing to alter our habits.
Christmas is traditionally a time of overindulgence and over-consumption, but it doesn’t have to be that way. And being a little bit more conscious during the festive season won’t turn you in to the Grinch. So here’s our ultimate guide to having a zero waste Christmas and still having a jolly old time of it. (Advanced warning, you may want to get a cup of tea, it’s a long one – well we did say “The ultimate guide”.
There’s a big debate over whether a real tree is more sustainable than a fake tree, and I’m of the opinion that a real tree is more sustainable IF they’re composted at the end of their lives. This is because Christmas tree farms grow trees all year round which absorb carbon throughout the year, then composting them turns them back into a nutrient rich soil.
If your only option is to dump your tree at the landfill, then consider opting for a fake Christmas tree or an alternative tree, like the examples below, as just one real tree that ends up as landfill produces 16kg of Co2. Of course, if like us you already have a fake Christmas tree then use it as long as possible. We’ve had ours almost 30 years, and now I’m using it with my children. There’s no need to throw it out in lieu of a real one.
A Real Tree in a Pot: a real tree in a pot can (in theory*) be used again and again each Christmas. For the most sustainable option, don’t restrict yourself to the “standard” pine Christmas tree, look at what is suitable for growing in pots, and remember different pine trees will suit different conditions. (*we tried this a few years ago an unfortunately our tree got “shock” when we put it back outside so it didn’t last very long, this is something to be mindful of)
Rent a Tree: I recently saw a feature on Rental Claus on the news and it is a brilliant idea. The premise being you rent a true pot grown, living Christmas Tree for the month of December and after Christmas they are returned to the fields and cared for, watered and fed until its time to go out again. And you can rent a tree then have the exact tree again the following year!
Driftwood / Pallet Tree: if you’re creative, you can make a tree out of driftwood or other materials. For a slightly less labour-intensive approach, paint a tree onto a surface (e.g. a wooden pallet). Pinterest has loads of ideas.
As pretty as it all looks, the glitter that you’re still hoovering out of the carpets in May, the cheap plastic baubles that break easily when the tree is attacked by your cat, your toddler or a wobbly & overly refreshed relative, and the environmentally damaging tinsel can all be swapped out for more eco friendly options without losing any of that Christmas magic.
Christmas Cards: if you receive Christmas cards, hang them over string and use these as a bunting-style decoration. After Christmas, cut out the images and use to make decorations or gift tags for the following year. This is something my Mum has done as long as I can remember. I recall sitting on her bed as a child, helping her wrap the Christmas presents and sorting through all of last years cards labels to pick one that best suited each person or matched the wrapping paper.
Solar Lights: if you want to light the place up, solar lights might be an option. Candles (soy rather than paraffin) also add a Christmassy glow to things and are a more natural alternative.
Make your Own: If you want to give crafting a go then why not try salt dough or home made Airdry Clay decorations, popcorn garlands, paper decorations or make your own festive bunting. These are all brilliant activities to get you in the festive mood and great ways to involve the children, as well as saving money. Check out our blog post on making your own salt dough decorations.
Natural Decorations: sticks, flowers, cones and leaves are plastic-free and biodegradable, and the more local the better. If you can forage your own, excellent; alternatively go to a florist and find out what is in season. Decorate candles with cinnamon sticks, string together dried oranges or decorate them with cloves and hang them up. Add ribbons to pinecones to make baubles or create your own stick wreath.
An incredible 270,000 tons of food will be wasted over Christmas in the UK this year and more worryingly, Love Food Hate Waste says that we waste an astonishing 1 million tonnes of festive roast dinners worldwide. That equates to an incredible 4.2 million Christmas dinners getting binned! To put it another way, that’s enough to feed everyone in The counties of Essex, Devon and Surrey, or the entire population of Croatia!
Here’s some ideas to reduce your food waste at Christmas, cut back on the plastic and reduce the carbon footprint of your festive food:
Buy from Bulk Stores: if bulk stores, refill shops or zero waste stores are an option for you, embrace them! We are lucky to have several near to us and they are a brilliant way to cut your plastic consumption. As well as general groceries, bulk stores usually sell plenty of snack foods, nuts, chocolate, dried fruit etc, that usually come overpackaged in plastic. Bring glass jars or old Tupperware, and fill up, packaging free.
Make It Yourself: foods made from scratch don’t come in plastic. Plenty of food can be made in advance so there’s no need to end up overwhelmed and panicked with no food ready on The Big Day. Christmas cakes and puddings can be made a good month in advance, and some foods (pastries and even veg dishes like braised cabbage) can be made in advance and frozen. Several types of veg can be pre chopped and kept in the fridge for several days to ease the culinary burden. Decide what kinds of foods you’d like to have, then take some time to look up how easy they are to make, and decide what will work with your timeframe, ability and energy levels.
Give Vegan a Go: though it might be a controversial topic to broach around the dinner table, experts have said that the single-biggest positive impact an individual can have on the environment is by cutting out meat from their diet, or at least cutting down considerably. Researchers at the University of Oxford found that not eating meat and dairy products can reduce a person’s carbon footprint by up to 73%. Granted this may not be something everyone wants to try, but even just swapping one item for a vegan alternative still makes a difference and would not only help the planet but also the animals, and maybe your health too (though not if you’re swapping in chocolate filled puddings with salted caramel ice cream and covered in whipped cream – yes you can get vegan versions of all of these!). Win, Win, Win!
There are an increasing number of tasty vegan alternatives for Christmas dinner available at mainstream supermarkets now, or you could try making your own seitan roast or a mushroom wellington centrepiece or how about getting some vegan dairy and egg alternatives in to do your own baking. And what could taste better than knowing you’re helping fight climate change?
Reusable Containers: if you’re going to be cooking up a storm on Christmas day, or you will be pre-preparing lots of food so you can avoid cooking for the rest of the week, reusable containers are a must. Most things keep better (and last longer) in sealed containers. Make sure you’ve got plenty of glass jars, Pyrex, Tupperware or wax wraps. We have a great choice of designs on our vegan wax wraps.
Forgo Traditional Food: 17.2 million Brussels sprouts are chucked every Christmas, which is no surprise, considering up to half of us can’t stand them.
The carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of the 172 tonnes of wasted sprouts could power a home for three years.
refood.co.uk(Europe’s leading specialist food waste recycling service provider)
If you don’t like them, you will not be haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past or in trouble with the Christmas Police if you decide to serve a different vegetable instead, but if the fear of not conforming (or of what Auntie Maureen will say) has you in too tight a hold, it may be your cooking method that need changing up, so have a look around for recipes with alternative ways to serve the traditional fayre.
Conscious Buying: reducing Christmas food waste starts in rethinking the way we shop for it. A bunker mentality seems to take over in the run up to Christmas. People panic-buy in droves, as if in preparation for a Christmas apocalypse. Considering that the shops only really close for just one or two days, and no one will die if you run out of Brazil nuts, it’s worth adjusting your perspective. You might have bought enough to feed an entire infantry division for a week, but who’s going to want to eat parsnips for three days straight, and you may still be eating chestnuts come Burns’ Night.
Use Leftovers: have a plan for your leftovers. Think of meals that could use up excess (e.g. bubble & squeak for your potatoes and cabbage). Ensure you use up the stuff that will go off first, and then use up the things that can wait in the fridge for a few more days.
Freeze Leftovers: lots more things can be frozen than people realise. Dips, roasted veggies and cake can all be frozen. Freeze what you can and eat up what cannot be frozen first.
Avoid Individually Wrapped Foods: if you do decide to go down the packaged route, try to choose items with less packaging and avoid things that are individually wrapped or completely overpackaged. They will cost you more and fill your bin with waste! You’re mainly paying for plastic wrapping really.
Excess Food: if you did go mad and bought too much food that would otherwise go to waste, download Olio and share food that’s going spare with your local community or donate to the Food Bank.
The Gift Wrap
Wrapping paper is used for such a short period of time. And so much of it cannot be recycled because it has glitter on it or is foil based. Defra estimates that enough paper is used each year to gift wrap the island of Guernsey. There are so many alternatives including furoshiki, reusable gift bags, vintage tins, tea towels and scarves:
Last Year’s Gift Bags / Paper: if you can’t recycle then reuse, so if you had the foresight to save last year’s gift bags and paper, use these this year. It’s also worth pulling all the Christmas stuff out of the cupboards and seeing exactly what is there before going to buy new so you don’t buy anything you already have. If you use a lot of wrapping consider trying to salvage the best of this year’s packaging for use next year.
Tie with Ribbon/String or use Paper/Washi tape: to avoid unrecyclable sticky tape, tie parcels with ribbon or string (both of which can be reused by the recipient). Washi tape is a paper-based sticky tape alternative if you prefer or like me aren’t the neatest of gift wrappers.
Decorate with Nature: to spruce up brown paper or newspaper parcels, use nature. Holly or pine cones work if these are seasonal where you are, cinnamon sticks look Christmassy and are easy to find at bulk stores, and rosemary is an easy find that looks (and smells) good. Pinterest will have some inspiration for you.
Newspaper/Brown craft Paper: if you receive a newspaper at home or at work then make use of this to wrap presents. And brown craft paper is a glitter-free, embellishment-free wrapping option that is much easier to recycle than many types of wrapping paper, and it can also be reused if unstuck carefully.
Furushiki: the Japanese art of wrapping items in cloth. The cloth can be scrap fabric, a scarf, or whatever you have available. There are lots of great tutorials online. You could also make it part of the gift if it is a nice scarf or tea towel.
Finder tell us that over 21 million people receive at least one unwanted gift each Christmas. And worse still, around 5% of those will be thrown away, they won’t even be regifted, sold or given to charity!
Food Items (Purchased or Homemade):everyone eats, so food is a pretty safe bet for gifts. At its simplest, filling a jar of treats from the bulk store is a good gift, you can add a ribbon and a homemade label to add a festive feeling. If cooking or baking is your thing, Christmas is a great time to get creative.
Books: books are great gifts for people who love to read. It is often possible to find second-hand books in great condition.
Second-Hand: second-hand is a much more zero waste option than buying new, and second-hand doesn’t have to mean old, tired or worn out. Whether it’s antique furniture, vintage jewellery, preloved clothing, refurbished electronics or simply something great you found in the charity shop, gifts do not need to be straight out of the factory and smothered in the plastic wrappings that entails, buying second hand stops those items that someone else didn’t want from ending up in landfill and gives them a new life with someone who will get use or joy from them.
Plants: plants are another great gift idea, whether it is house plants, seedlings, a potted herb for their window sill or a tree to plant out in their garden.
Eco-friendly Gifts: this is gifts that encourage eco-friendly living. Maybe your mum might use less cling film if you gave her some wax wraps for her leftovers. Maybe your flat mate would eschew the takeaway cups if she had a stylish reusable coffee cup to use. Looking for more inspiration? Take a look at our shop.
Experiences, Workshops and Memberships: I’m a big believer in experiences over stuff. Tickets to an event, a workshop, a show, or membership to an attraction, a sky diving experience, or vouchers to a favourite restaurant make great no-waste gifts.
Charity Gift Cards and Donating to Charity: Charity gift cards are gifts that typically go to people in less economically developed countries, help fund charity projects, or look after animals, via the person you “gift” them to. You sponsor a tiger in Asia or donate to a school fund for girls in Africa, and your gift recipient receives a card telling them this is what you’ve done.
If you want to do away with the cards altogether, you can make a donation to charity in lieu of gifts, and tell everyone that is what you’ve done. And if you have a charity close you your own heart you could ask everyone to donate to them instead of getting presents for you.
Secret Santa for Family Gifts: If the prospect of every family member getting a gift for every single other family member overwhelms you (and you can’t bear the thought of all the excess and waste), a Secret Santa can reduce the burden. Names are put into a hat, and each person gets one name – the person they buy the present for. The upside of this (aside from the reduced financial strain) is that if there is only one present to buy, it is much easier to put thought into it, and find something that is suitable and appreciated.