At this time of year, the eco-friendly internet is full of guides on how to green your Christmas. But how much of this advice really helps to reduce your festive footprint? Here are some of the popular tips you might want to rethink.
Giving reusables as gifts
I used to know someone whose sister gave him a reusable coffee cup for Christmas, as a prompt to be more green. Not only was he mildly irritated by the gesture, but as he worked from home didn’t even have much use for it. Most days he made coffee in a mug in his kitchen while the reusable cup sat on the shelf unused.
Reusables only benefit the environment if they are used often. A reusable cup needs to save, on average, about 20-100 single use cups before it will save more resources than it took to make it. If the gift is used once or twice, then forgotten about as new years resolutions start to fade, all the materials and energy that went into making it will have been wasted. And that’s the thing with giving gifts – you can never be sure how much they will be used.
See also: zero waste gift packs, Christmas cards containing seeds that need to be planted.
The ovenmade Christmas
I recently saw a blog post that recommended making your own plastic-free Christmas decorations by roasting orange slices in the oven for an hour and a half. An hour and a half? That’s going to burn a lot of fossil fuels. If you are making your own this year, try to minimise the consumption of energy in the process.
For Christmas decorations, charity shops are full of these at this time of year. I’ve also seen Christmas things going for free on Olio, so check out that or sites like freecycle or freegle. Sometimes I like to decorate with things like ivy, holly and pine cones I find outside.
If you like the idea of unique, upcycled gifts but are not very crafty yourself, see what you can find on Etsy or at your local craft market, and support a small business.
Wrapping gifts in fabric
Another popular idea doing the rounds in seasonal sustainability guides is that you can save waste by wrapping presents in cotton bags, in the expectation that your recipient will reuse the bag at some point. But cotton production is harsh on the environment – it has an enormous water footprint and is also very polluting. (Organic cotton is even more extravagant, as it uses much more land). I was given a cotton bag as a gift myself once, but since I already have as many reusable bags as I need, it was used just one time and then sat in my cupboard for ages until I got round to donating it. So all that water, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution went into producing something which turned out to be single-use, as far as I was concerned. Less zero waste, more maximum waste.
You could wrap presents in the fanciest, sparkliest, non-recyclable wrapping paper and it would be nowhere near as extravagant as wrapping them in new fabrics. You could wrap it in single-use plastic bags and it would be kinder to the environment. Perhaps your recipient will use the bag at some point in the future, but many people already own more reusable bags than they use, so are you sure that your recipient needs any more? And if they haven’t been motivated to get themselves a reusable bag before, then what is going to change now?
Less wasteful (and more thrifty) options could be reusing gift wrap, wrapping presents in paper from old magazines and newspapers, recycled wrapping paper, or even giving presents in your own reusable bag which is returned to you.
Buying gifts made from recyclable materials
Another popular tip is the suggestion that we can reduce waste by buying things made from recyclable materials. (Of course, like the reusable cup, this will only benefit the environment if your recipient actually recycles it). But this focus on just one stage of the product’s lifecycle ignores the impacts of extracting the raw materials, manufacturing and transporting the item – in other words, most of it.
To reduce the demand for raw materials consider buying things made from recycled materials instead.
Giving edible gifts
These always seem like such a logical choice. Everyone eats and drinks, and most people like sweet things. It will all be used up in the end, leaving no waste.
But food production is the single largest driver of environmental degradation globally. It takes 1,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of chocolate, while cocoa production is notorious for driving deforestation. By now I think everyone knows about the destruction caused by palm oil.
I think we’ve all had that experience at Christmas, of eating until we feel stuffed then drifting into a sugar coma. But consuming more calories than we need can be seen as a form of food waste.
I know. I get it. I feel the same. I love chocolate, in fact I love most food, and most years I’ve given sweet things to my favourite people at Christmas. I am NOT saying that you should never eat sweet things, or that you shouldn’t enjoy your food. I AM saying that we shouldn’t assume that treats are an eco-friendly option simply because they will probably be eaten up.
For more ideas, see 9 ideas for zero waste gifting.