How Green is Your Christmas?

Christmas. Some of us love it, some of us detest it. Some people treat it like a religious thing, others use it as a jolly good excuse to party. But unless you ignore it completely and go live on a desert island for a couple of weeks, there's bound to be some environmental fall-out.

We thought it'd be cool to examine Xmas from an environmental perspective. How Green is your Christmas?

How much food do you waste at Christmas?

Sadly Xmas is notorious for creating vast amounts of waste. Food waste is a scandal in Britain at any time of year, but the festive season ramps things up even more. According to a 2015 report by The Independent, last year a shameful 4.2 million Christmas dinners were wasted, a figure arrived at thanks to research by Unilever. It adds up to:

  • 263,000 turkeys wasted
  • 7.5 million mince pies uneaten
  • 740,000 chunks of Christmas pudding discarded
  • 17.2 million Brussels sprouts consigned to the bin
  • 11.9 million carrots thrown away
  • 11.3 million roast potatoes chucked out

The cost of all this waste? In 2015 they reckon we threw away an obscene £64 million worth of perfectly good food over Xmas. But the worst thing is the turkeys.

So we raise more than a quarter of a million living birds, treat most of them very badly indeed while they're alive, then kill them and effectively throw them away? That's madness in anyone's book, especially with people in places like Yemen and Syria starving right now.

live turkey bird

The only thing you can do, as an individual consumer, to make a difference, is buy the right amount of food. Buy as much as you know for sure you can eat, and at least you'll minimise your own personal level of food waste.

Have you ever had Bubble and Squeak? It's just one recipe for using up uneaten food, and it's totally delicious. Find yourself a recipe book for leftovers and use up that food. Jamie Oliver has lots of great ideas, here. Or, at the very least leave the scraps out for the birds and other animals rather than binning it. Then your conscience will be clear.

It's the child's imagination that matters, not complex toys

Experts say it's more important to give children toys that they can use to fire up their imaginations than complex toys that effectively do all the creative work for them. That's probably why so many of us fondly remember our favourite ever Christmas gift as something surprisingly simple.

My brother and I once got a cardboard geodesic dome den for a gift, which we self-assembled indoors out of a bunch of interlocking corrugated card hexagons. It was absolutely brilliant. We played in and around in it until it literally fell apart, and neither of us ever forgot it despite years of expensive toys that didn't fire up our interest or spark that essential creative play.

According to research by Esure insurance, one in seven new toys are binned before Christmas Day ends, and more than 10% of parents throw away a new toy on Christmas Day. 14% of Xmas toys are broken or damaged then chucked out, costing the nation's parents £1.1million. Apparently dolls and action figures are the most likely to be binned in record time, and one in five parents say high tech stuff like games consoles end up broken by the end of the big day.

It isn't just money that's being wasted. It's a CO2 emissions thing, too. The toy manufacturing process and all the energy it eats up. The plastics made from fossil fuels. The transport costs, another source of energy-use. All those nasty emissions for nothing.

My mum tells me her Christmas stocking during the war years consisted of a set of coloured pencils, some nuts and an orange. Perhaps we could all learn a lesson from that - less is more, especially in today's crazy consumer-fuelled economy.

Green, environmentally responsible and Fair Trade gifts

This year there are more Green, environmentally responsible and Fair Trade gifts around than ever before. They're a great way to cut the impact your festivities have on our planet, as well as being a whole lot more interesting, unusual and fun than most of the ordinary high street stuff. Buying Fair Trade has a positive effect on people's lives, here and abroad, which fits right into the traditional Christmas spirit of generosity and kindness.


The great wrapping paper scandal

Back in 2011 The Telegraph reported on how Britain bins an awesome 227,000 miles of Christmas paper every festive season, enough to wrap around the planet nine times. But there's more. We also chuck out 125,000 tons of plastic wrapping and 10 million pieces of packaging from turkeys alone, plus a hefty 25 million Christmas pudding packages.

As you can imagine it costs a bomb to dispose of all this waste, but retailers and producers seem unable or unwilling to make changes. Sweden does a much better job of it than the UK. They let people return used packaging to the shops where they bought the goods, which no doubt encourages those shops to cut down on the amount of packaging they use in the first place.

In a world where every tonne of landfill costs us £56 in tax, you can help cut the festive waste by choosing to buy stuff that isn't so heavily and pointlessly packaged. You could buy loose fruit, veg and meat, for example.

Choose an alternative Christmas tree

Real Xmas trees are pretty. But it's incredibly sad that all these little trees are grown just to be cut down, have a miserable time drying out in an overheated house, die a nasty death then get thrown away.

How about buying a live tree that you can plant outside after the celebrations? At the very least, make sure your real tree gets properly recycled. Otherwise, buy a faux tree that'll last for years if not decades. You could even pick up a used one from Freecycle or Gumtree and cut your Xmas impact even more.

Transport matters, so if you buy a real tree make sure it's grown on our shores, not abroad. Buy from a retailer who is registered with the British Christmas Tree Growers Association or, if you're determined to go organic, make sure it's approved by the Soil Association.

90% of used trees end up in landfill, so make the effort to find your local council tree recycling point. Better still, hire a tree from a Xmas tree rental place then it can be collected afterwards to be hired out again the following year.

One more idea - decorating a shrub, bush or small tree outdoors is another alternative, a living thing that isn't harmed by having baubles and tinsel strung all over it, absolutely gorgeous to look at.

Outdoor Christmas tree with decorations

Hot house, too many lights, everyone's uncomfortable

Why do we do it? We have a tendency, at Christmas, to whack up the central heating to uncomfortable levels then sit and sweat for the duration. We end up all dry and prune-like, total madness when simply cooking a Xmas dinner heats up a house nicely. Being too hot and dry isn't good for you either. Then there's the lights, endless strings of them, eating up power and heating the house even more.

It's much more comfortable and enjoyable to keep the central heating at the normal level for the time of year, cut the number of lights you put up - or make sure they're energy efficient ones - crack open a window, and treat yourself to a non-muggy, more energy-efficient festive season.

Last but not least - Alternative Xmas cards

In 2014 Brits sent an estimated 900 million Christmas cards. Last year it was more than a billion. While it's great for Royal Mail, it isn't Green. You can recycle your cards, of course, which is always a good idea. But bearing in mind that we now have Facebook to keep in touch with people, the traditional Xmas practice of touching base with otherwise long-neglected friends and family isn't necessary.

You can send ecards instead, or do it all on social media. Then donate the cash you'd spend on cards and postage to a Green charity, or the Green Party. You could also make your own, and deliver as many of them as you can by hand.

hand made Xmas cards

Forget Christmas altogether

A growing band of rebels is avoiding the whole Christmas thing altogether. Many stay home and enjoy a few extraordinarily peaceful days when there's no chance of a call from work and the streets are eerily, beautifully deserted.

Some take a picnic out into the countryside or go for a brisk seaside walk. Others head abroad, sadly as far from Green as it gets because air travel is one of the biggest emitters of CO2 around, with not much being done to curb them. As long as you don't fly abroad, avoiding Christmas is a sure fire way to cut its environmental impact. 

Have a Green one!

Whatever you're doing this festive season, we wish you a good one, in other words a Green one. The more each of us can do to cut the impact the festival has on our poor, beleaguered planet, the better. What will you be doing to keep your Christmas Green?