Most of us aren't thinking about the environmental impact of Christmas when we cut into our turkey, open our gifts or chow down on yet another slab of cake. Christmas is when we let our hair down. When we celebrate, socialise and are encouraged to eat, drink and be merry. But even the most sustainably-minded of us may be surprised at how environmentally unstainable the festive period is. So, 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 that it hits all the major waste pain points. Much of our food waste and unwanted presents, old cards, and used plastic and paper wrapping end up going to landfill.
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 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 doesn't only exist at Christmas. The more we eat, the more potential waste that's created and it happens throughout the year, contributing more to the climate crisis than single-use plastic, but the festive period worsens the situation.
Food waste isn't only about the end product but the entire growing and production process. For example, suppose you're throwing a turkey away. In that case, it's not just the meat going in the bin but everything that went into the breeding, feeding, medicating, slaughtering, packing, distributing and cold storing of the animal. What's more, food decomposing in landfills – inside rubbish bags – releases methane as it rots away. Methane is 28-times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
What's the Environmental Impact of Wrapping Paper and Packaging at Christmas?
Gift-giving and receiving is an integral part of the Christmas period, and this means wrapping paper and packaging is, 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). And most of it ends up in a landfill. Wrapping paper isn’t always recyclable, either. Metallic or glittery paper isn’t. If sticky tape is attached to the paper, then it’s unlikely to be accepted for recycling.
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 Christmas cards are always recyclable, it's not the case. He explains that "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 at a landfill. The 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, ultimately, 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 then shipped overseas. The Soil Association suggests that real trees are better for the environment because they take 10- to 12 years to grow. As the tree grows, it provides a habitat for any wildlife whilst 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. The key to ensuring that choosing a real tree is as sustainable as possible is choosing to woodchip or mulch it afterwards. This significantly reduces the amount of methane reduced during decomposition at a landfill.
But if you use a fake tree, the key is to keep using it. According to the Carbon Trust, a 2-metre artificial tree has a carbon footprint of around 40kg. You have to use it 10-times for it to equal the smaller carbon footprint of a real tree. Unfortunately, most artificial Christmas trees are used four times on average.
What are the Ways to Reduce Waste at Christmas?
Because Christmas is so steeped in tradition, it can be challenging to choose the more sustainable option. 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 papers. Traditionally, people would wrap presents in fabric. You could try this and make gift-giving feel more luxurious. Re-using is an option, too. And of course, where possible, remove any Sellotape before recycling.
It's the same for Christmas cards: ensure that they're recyclable and biodegradable. Avoid cards with glitter. You could also like to make a charitable donation instead of sending Christmas cards.
Food shops will be back open again on the 26th or 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 then make do with whatever else you have in the cupboard or do a smaller top-up shop. Completing a meal plan will also help you shop more effectively. Most of us are guilty of overestimating the amount of food we think we need. Food waste is not only bad for the environment, but it's 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, pass it onto someone else.
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 that you don't like or need so that they don't end up in a landfill.
Avoid falling into the 'novelty Christmas crap' trap: avoid crackers containing useless single-use plastic gifts.
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 listen and start making more sustainable production and packaging decisions. And if there's one thing that we're all aware of now, it's that we don't have many Christmas's left to avert the climate disaster we're heading towards.
We're looking forward to Christmas, but we're also excited about 2022. It's the year the RE:GEN will be delivered to our customers and when our clean energy generating technology will be used in gyms around the world. Find out more about putting our electricity-generating indoor bike into your home or gym by visiting our RE:GEN experience page.