What is the Environmental Impact of Christmas?

When we're cutting into our turkey, tearing open our gifts and reaching for that extra glass of fizz, most of...

When we're cutting into our turkey, tearing open our gifts and reaching for that extra glass of fizz, most of us aren't thinking about the environmental impact of Christmas. Why would we? The season demands overindulgence. It's the one time of the year when eating, drinking, and merry-making are state-sanctioned. But you might be surprised at just how environmentally unsustainable the festive period is. 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. The reality is it hits all the major pain points. Christmas waste usually includes huge 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.

Food waste at christmas bin bags piled up in the street

How Much Food is Wasted at Christmas?

We waste around £64 million 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. The article says that recycling this waste into energy could power an average UK home for around 57 years!

The problem of food waste is something that doesn't just exist at Christmas. The more we eat, the more potential waste gets created, but 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. When something is thrown away, you also throw away its 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 its manufacture: the breeding, feeding, medicating, slaughtering, packing, distributing and cold storing of the animal. It'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 the meat away. When food decomposes inside rubbish bags in a landfill, it releases methane as it rots away, a greenhouse gas 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.


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 it 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, it's unlikely to be accepted for recycling, so even when you put it in to be recycled, it won't.

What's the Environmental Impact of Christmas Cards?

Christmas cards also have an environmental impact. Everything from printing and packaging to posting and disposal. 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 the case. He explains, "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 up 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. Similarly to the issue of Christmas food waste, the entire cycle of the product must be considered: the manufacturing process, packaging, shipping, and logistics. 

The Real vs Fake Christmas Tree Environmental Impact

Fake Christmas trees are plastic and non-recyclable. They're made mainly in China and are then shipped overseas. The Soil Association suggests that real trees are better for the environment because they take between 10 and 12 years to grow. As the tree grows, it provides a habitat for any wildlife while capturing carbon from the atmosphere.

Unlike artificial trees, most real trees are grown in the UK, so their carbon footprint should be smaller, too. 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 holidays is key to making the whole process as sustainable as possible. This will significantly reduce 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 have to use it 10 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.

What are the Ways to Reduce Waste at Christmas?

Because Christmas is so steeped in tradition, choosing the more sustainable option can be challenging. 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. Traditionally, people would wrap presents in fabric. You could try this and make gift-giving feel more luxurious. Re-using quality paper or gift bags is always an option, too. And, of course, where possible, remove any Sellotape before 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.

Food shops will open again on the 26th and 27th of December. You don't have to bulk-buy as people did years ago. Instead, buy enough for Christmas Day and Boxing Day and make do with whatever else you have in the cupboard or do a smaller top-up shop after. Completing a meal plan will also help you shop more effectively. Supermarkets and brands are going all-out to get your attention and to 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. Food waste is not only harmful to the environment but also 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 fab over Christmas and, even though they're smaller, can be put into the garden, making a fab 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 replacing. 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 families will be grateful for it.

Gift-giving can be stressful for some people, so suggest Secret Santa if you're buying for a large family or workgroup. Give people the opportunity to decline present-swapping; this can be incredibly satisfying if you have a large extended family. You may find that others will be as grateful as you are to reduce their shopping list.

Try to re-gift, return or sell those Christmas presents you don't like or need so they don't end up in a 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 with a more eco-friendly present and crown inside.

It can be hard deviating from some hard-set holiday norms, but it's clear that the environmental impact of Christmas is massive. We all need to do what we can to help reduce the amount of waste going to landfills. And the more of us that start making those changes, the more manufacturers will hopefully begin to listen and create more sustainable production and packaging decisions. 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're launching 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


Five people standing around a RE:GEN in a green-lit studio




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