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 common 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. There is nothing to be gained by simply buying ‘sustainable’ stuff. 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. The difficulty is that cotton is pretty harsh on the environment. Cotton production has an enormous water footprint and is also very polluting. (And organic cotton still takes a lot of resources to produce). 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 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 options could be reusing gift wrap, wrapping presents in paper from old magazines and newspapers, recycled wrapping paper, or even giving presents in a 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. But this focus on just one stage of the product 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 this doesn’t take into consideration the environmental destruction caused by most food production. In the UK, we need to be reducing sugar consumption
as much as milk in order limit global warming, while popular edible gifts often include things like palm oil
, which cause deforestation, as well as being heavily processed and packaged.
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 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 because something is eaten up, or because it can be sourced plastic-free, this makes it eco-friendly. Globally, food production is the single biggest driver of environmental degradation.
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. But this year, given urgency
of the crisis, I just can’t. I won’t be giving sweet things as gifts (or any food and drink), apart from to support brands that recycle food
that would otherwise go to waste.