What is the Environmental Impact of Christmas?

Imagine this: you cut into your turkey, having already torn into your cards and presents (checking inside the cards for...

Imagine this: you cut into your turkey, having already torn into your cards and presents (checking inside the cards for any paper money) before reaching for that extra glass of fizz. Most of us aren’t thinking about the environmental impact of Christmas as we celebrate. Why would we? The season demands it. It's the one time of the year when eating, drinking, and merry-making are state-sanctioned. But you might be surprised by just how environmentally unsustainable the festive period is.  

But what is the environmental impact of Christmas, and what can we do to reduce our contribution to it? 


What is the Most Wasteful Part of Christmas?

It's hard to say precisely which part of Christmas is the most wasteful. It hits all the major pain points: vast amounts of food waste, unwanted gifts and household items, paper and plastic wrapping, etc.  

According to Biffa, more than 100 million rubbish bags are sent to landfills over the Christmas period. And globally, the excess waste from packaging, wrapping paper, cards and food increases by 25 to 30% during the holiday season. 

How Much Food is Wasted at Christmas?

We waste around £64 million worth of food at Christmas, that's 7 million tonnes.  GWP Group breaks this down further, reporting that the UK throws away 2 million turkeys, 5 million Christmas puddings, and as many as 74 million mince pies, and how recycling this waste into energy could power an average UK home for around 57 years! The problem of food waste doesn't only exist at Christmas. The more we eat, the more potential waste gets created, Still, it's clear that the festive period negatively contributes to an already dire situation. Food waste contributes more to the climate crisis than single-use plastic. 

Food waste isn't only about the end product. Throwing something away means you’re also throwing out that item’s growing and production process. For example, suppose you throw out an uneaten turkey. It's not just the meat itself going into the bin, but everything that went into getting it into your fridge: the breeding, feeding, medicating, slaughtering, packing, distributing, and cold storing of the animal. Then there’s the fossil fuels used to bring that turkey into your house, to refrigerate and cook it. And then there's what happens once you've thrown that food away. When food decomposes inside rubbish bags in a landfill, it releases methane as it rots away. Methane is a greenhouse gas 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. 

Imagine that for all the food waste your friends and family will generate this Christmas. Now imagine all the food waste generated by your friends, family, neighbours and everyone else choosing to celebrate.


Female in camel colour sweater wrapping a box in red and white striped paper

What's the Environmental Impact of Wrapping Paper and Packaging at Christmas?

Gift-giving and receiving are integral parts of the Christmas period, which means wrapping paper and packaging are, too. Ten thousand tonnes of plastic packaging is thrown away each year over the Christmas period. 


And each year in the UK, we use 227,000 miles of wrapping paper (the equivalent of 50,000 trees), most of which goes to landfill. Wrapping paper isn't always recyclable, either. Metallic or glittery paper isn't. If the sticky tape is attached to the paper, then it's unlikely to be accepted for recycling. 


What's the Environmental Impact of Christmas Cards?

The printing, packaging, posting and disposal of Christmas cards also has an environmental impact. Envirotech reports that around 33% of Christmas cards aren't recycled. Business Waste's Mark Hall explains that whilst most people think they're recyclable, it's not always the case. "People chuck their cards into the recycling bin, which causes havoc at recycling centres, causing whole loads of paper to be dumped because it's contaminated with glitter." 


Unwanted Xmas Gifts Going to Landfill

We've all received unwanted Christmas presents. Around 1 in 5 gifts will be unwanted this year, ending in landfills. One article suggests that up to 84% of people in the UK find gift buying difficult, meaning that most of us are likely to choose inappropriate and unwanted presents, especially for people we don’t know very well. Similarly to the issue of Christmas food waste, we must also consider the entire cycle of the product: the manufacturing process, packaging, and shipping. 

The Real vs Fake Christmas Tree Environmental Impact

Artificial Christmas trees are plastic, non-recyclable, manufactured and shipped from China. The Soil Association suggests that real trees are better for the environment as they take between 10 and 12 years to grow and, while maturing, provide a habitat for wildlife and capture carbon from the atmosphere. 

Unlike artificial trees, the UK produces a lot of real trees. Growing a natural tree makes for a smaller carbon footprint. The Woodland Trust makes the point that growers often re-plant up to 10 trees for each one cut down. Woodchipping or mulching a Christmas tree after the holiday period is key to making the whole process as sustainable as possible. This significantly reduces the methane released during decomposition at a landfill.  

If you use a fake tree, the key is to keep using it year after year. According to the Carbon Trust, a 2-metre artificial tree has a carbon footprint of around 40kg. You must use it ten times to equal the smaller carbon footprint of a real tree. Unfortunately, most artificial Christmas trees are only used four times on average before being thrown away. 


Landfill with yellow digger and city in the background

What are the Ways to Reduce Waste at Christmas?

Christmas is so steeped in tradition that choosing the sustainable option can be challenging, especially given the increase in the cost of living. Fortunately, we can all do things to reduce the impact of Christmas on the environment. 

  • Use 100% recyclable or biodegradable wrapping paper and avoid metallic or shiny paper. There are many types of wrapping paper, and picking one that you can recycle is key. Traditionally, people wrapped presents in fabric. Try this using old material and make gift-giving feel more luxurious. Re-using quality paper or gift bags is an option, too. And, of course, remove any Sellotape before putting the paper into the recycling. It's the same for Christmas cards: ensure they're recyclable and biodegradable and avoid cards with glitter. You could also like to make a charitable donation instead of sending a slew of Christmas cards this year.

  • Supermarkets will be back open on the 27th. You don’t have to save up and buy in bulk as people did many years ago. Buy enough for Christmas Day and the 26th, then make do with whatever you already have. Write out a meal plan to shop more effectively and use up the food you already have. Make use of the freezer too. Supermarkets and brands will go all-out to get your attention and ensure you're putting their products in your basket, so make it harder for them. Most of us are guilty of overestimating the amount of food we need over Christmas and food waste is harmful to the environment and a waste of money.

  • Choose a locally grown Christmas tree and then have it mulched or chipped afterwards. Forestry England recommends buying a potted Christmas tree – these will look great over Christmas and, even though smaller, can be put into the garden, making a cute patio feature. Of course, if a real tree isn't possible, buying a good quality fake tree that you intend to use year after year is better than a cheaper one that will need to be replaced. Once you've finished using it, could you pass it on to someone else? Try using freecycle sites or offering it to charity shops or welfare charities. A Christmas tree is a real luxury for some people, and struggling families will be grateful for it.

  • Giving gifts to friends and family can be expensive and stressful. Make a list and brainstorm ideas for people, keeping an eye out for ideas. The more time you’ve got to choose something the more likely you’ll pick something thoughtful or practical. If you’d rather opt out of gift-giving, make this clear well before Christmas so everyone knows. You never know; the other person may be equally as relieved. Secret Santa can be good for large family groups, friend circles or work colleagues. Set a budget and stick to it.

    In the Energym office, we do Secret Santa, and this year, we used a website that draws names anonymously. It lets each person list their hobbies and interests and a wish list of gifts they’d like to receive within the budget. It can save the person buying a lot of stress while ensuring the gift will be well received.

    This means the Secret Santa isn’t wasting their money on something the recipient doesn’t want and that the recipient gets something they will use. Give people the opportunity to decline present swapping, too. You don’t know someone’s financial situation.  

    If you end up with an unwanted present, re-gift it to someone else, return it or sell it. There’s always the option of donating it to a charity shop or food bank, depending on the item. The important thing is to try your best to keep it out of landfill.

  • Avoid falling into the 'novelty Christmas crap' trap: avoid crackers containing useless single-use plastic gifts. They're tacky and wasteful. If you enjoy crackers, find ones without the gift or make your own crackers with an eco-friendlier and thoughtful gift inside.

It can be hard deviating from traditions at the best of times, but Christmas comes with so many anticipated norms that are so often nostalgic and seemingly vital to the ‘Christmas spirit’. And if there's one thing we're all aware of now, we don't have many Christmas's left to avert the climate disaster we're heading towards.  

We can't wait for Christmas, but we're also really excited about welcoming 2024. It's when we launch some big electricity-generating products, including the electricity-generating RE:GEN for the home (pre-order your bike now).  

And the RE:GEN Studio for gyms.  

And the ECO:POD for offices and business spaces 

You can also watch the Energym Christmas video, which we had a lot of fun making.


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