It’s the most wasteful time of the year, but it’s possible to make every Christmas a zero waste one.
By Dawn Cowles
For millions of people, Christmas is a magical time of the year. But it’s also a time when we feel tricked into thinking we’ve got to overindulge and overconsume. And let’s not forget miles of Christmas wrapping paper, plastic decorations, unwanted gifts that languish in the back of a cupboard, and more food on the table than you could possibly consume.
If some of these fill you with dread, I’m here to tell you that it’s possible to have a zero waste Christmas, enjoy every minute of it, and not come across as a Grinch.
We’ll be looking at the following:
- The Christmas tree dilemma: Real vs. fake
- Gift ideas
- Gift wrapping
- Christmas food
But first………… If you’re not entirely convinced about a zero waste lifestyle, let’s see if some figures convince you.
Christmas Waste Figures for the UK
- 30% extra rubbish is produced and discarded throughout the festive period
- Additional waste totals around 3 million tonnes
- Over the Christmas period, 54 million platefuls of food will be wasted
- Approximately 500 tonnes of Christmas lights are thrown away every year
- 8 million Christmas trees are discarded each year
- £42 million unwanted Christmas presents end up in landfill each year
- 108 million rolls of wrapping paper are binned after Christmas
- Estimates are that the average household will throw out three and a half black bags of packaging
As consumers, we are increasingly concerned with sustainability and the impact our actions have on the environment. Christmas should be no different, and here are some ways you can avoid contributing to such staggering waste figures.
Zero Waste Decorations
Of course, the obvious zero waste decoration is to put nothing up at all, but where’s the fun in that? The next best thing is to use the decorations you already own. Get the box out of the back of the wardrobe. Brush the dust off the decorations, and use them again this year.
Here are a few more ideas:
There are many places you can look for second-hand Christmas decorations, wrapping paper, cards, string, and anything else you need to brighten up your Christmas. Wander around your local second-hand stores, look on Facebook marketplace, check out Gumtree, in your local free or swap groups, or anywhere else you find preloved items.
Use nature around you.
Go foraging for your Christmas decorations. Bring nature’s bounty indoors for the festive season. Pine cones, logs, leaves, rocks, driftwood, herbs, sand, shells, and more are just lying around waiting. Think how much better you’ll feel after a relaxing walk in nature, compared with battling your way around the town centre fighting with the crowds.
Make your decorations out of recycled or reused materials
Get your Christmas crafting head in gear and take the time to make your own decorations. Settle down with a glass of wine or turn it into a family activity. There are lots of things you’ve got lying around at home, such as old magazines, newspapers, cardboard boxes, fabric offcuts, glass jars, or tin cans. Let’s share a few ideas:
- Homemade Christmas crackers
- Cardboard or paper standing Christmas trees
- Decorated jars filled with flowers, treats, or herbs on the table
- Handmade hanging ornaments
Use eco-friendly glitter and confetti
As a mother of four and a pre-school teacher, glitter was my best friend when it came to Christmas. For weeks I would find traces of it in the most unusual places. Little did I realise the damage I was doing as it is literally just microplastic. When it gets washed off or vacuumed up at the end of each creative session, it ends up in the watercourse or sent to landfill.
I’m now recommending an eco-friendly, biodegradable alternative. Bio-glitter is made from cellulose and is produced from the wood pulp of eucalyptus trees.
If you’d prefer to buy your decorations, choose ones made from eco-friendly materials like wood, metal, glass, clay, or fabric. Avoid cheap plastic decorations and anything covered in glitter.
Look for decorations locally and buy from small businesses.
Is a Real or Fake Christmas Tree More Sustainable?
A Christmas tree is the focal point of the Christmas celebration in millions of households but is it better to have a real or a fake one? Both have their pros and cons, so let’s break it down.
Artificial Christmas trees
Fake trees are made from plastic and other chemicals that can be harmful to the planet and people. You can’t recycle a plastic Christmas tree, and many end up in landfills where they will sit for hundreds of years. Producing a plastic Christmas tree also takes vast amounts of energy, and they are often shipped to your local store from somewhere as far away as China. Such transportation only adds to the tree’s carbon footprint.
On the plus side, you can use a fake tree over and over again. If you’ve already got an artificial tree, your best option is to keep it for as long as you can.
Real Christmas trees
You have to buy your real Christmas tree every year. The land has to be reserved for growing these trees just to be cut down at Christmas. Another downside of a real tree is that it is usually grown with pesticides that are toxic to animals. Real trees also require substantial amounts of water to produce.
On a more positive note, real trees are biodegradable and can also be recycled into wood chippings or mulch. Because you are buying your tree locally, it also means you’re supporting the local economy, rather than a country thousands of miles away.
Both real and fake Christmas trees have negatives, so it’s a case of personal preference. If you’ve already got a fake tree, hang on to it as it would be wasteful to throw it out and buy a real one. If you buy a fake tree make sure it’s a quality one that you can use repeatedly.
One alternative is to use a potted tree to plant in your garden when Christmas is over. Or why not plant a tree in the garden and decorate it every year?
One final option is to buy a sustainably grown grade one standard Nordman Fir through Scotland’s Bethany Christian Trust’s Caring Christmas Trees project. The trees are grown as crops, and once they’ve been harvested, more are replanted. And for every tree you buy, you are helping a homeless person in Scotland, as funds go towards vital work to transform lives across the country.
Zero Waste Gift Ideas
Zero waste gift-giving is an excellent idea if you’re tired of the materialism and waste that has long accompanied Christmas celebrations. The idea is to give gifts that won’t sit in a box or end up in landfill. Zero waste gifts include handmade, homemade, secondhand, or items that help someone follow the 5 rules of zero waste living; or they can include thoughtful things that show your understanding of your loved ones’ passions, such as sustainable gifts for outdoor families.
Let’s look at some more zero waste gift ideas.
The best gift is one that the recipient is going to use. You might like the idea of an ethical reusable gift because that’s what you would like. But it might not be appreciated by friends or family. A gift that ends up in the bin or sitting unloved and unused is not eco-friendly. Put some thought into what the recipient wants, likes, and will use.
Food items (purchase, cooked, or baked)
Everyone loves to eat at Christmas, so food is a pretty safe bet. For the simplest of gifts, fill a jar of treats from the bulk store. If you’re an avid cook or baker, Christmas is the perfect time to don your apron and get creative.
Choose things that will keep for at least a week because adding extra food items to an already overflowing table might not be the best idea. Or you could tell the recipient you’ll be making a dessert as a Christmas present in advance, and then they can plan around it. Another great idea is to create a “voucher” and say what you’ll make and when—for example, a chocolate cookie cake in the first week of January.
Second-hand is a much more zero waste option than buying new. Second-hand doesn’t have to mean old, tired, or worn out either. It might be antique furniture, vintage jewellery or accessories, refurbished electronics, preloved clothing, or something interesting you found in a charity shop.
Experiences, workshops, and memberships
I like the idea of giving an experience over stuff. There are so many great things to choose from. Tickets to an event, a lesson or class, a show or performance, or a workshop all make great gifts, and there’s no waste. Tinggly is an experience company that specializes in sustainable experience gifts.
Charity gift cards and donating to charity
A digital charity gift card is a great way to donate. Choose a charity that means something to the recipient, or the cardholder is free to decide which charity they want to donate the money to.
Use Your Imagination When it Comes to Gift Wrapping
Once you’ve picked the perfect gift, the next step is to wrap it. You’ve got endless rolls of wrapping paper to choose from, so what’s the problem with that? Most wrapping paper isn’t recyclable, and after tearing through it all in the excitement of the moment, it’s not usually reusable either.
To overcome this dilemma, stick to gift wrapping that you can use over and over again. Gift bags, tissue paper, or beautiful cloth alternatives will work just as well.
Here are a few more ideas.
- Decorate with nature
Use brown paper or newspaper to wrap up your gifts and jazz it up with the help of nature. Cinnamon sticks look Christmassy and are easy to find at bulk stores. Holly and pine cones work well if you can find them. Rosemary looks and smells good if you’ve got some in your garden.
- Tie with ribbon or string
Not using sticky tape is a zero waste choice. Instead, use ribbon or string to tie parcels as both are reusable.
- Practice the Japanese Art of Furoshiki
Furoshiki is the Japanese art of wrapping items in cloth. You can use any scrap of fabric, a scarf, tea towel, whatever you’ve got lying around. There are lots of tutorials online to help you.
One final thought on the wrapping front…..Do you need to wrap the present at all?
Can Christmas Food be Zero Waste?
Something else the Christmas holidays are all about is food, preferably lots of it. Christmas means special treats, big meals, festive drinks, and party appetisers. However, such excess can lead to increased amounts of food waste, but it doesn’t have to be so. Christmas food can be zero waste, or as close as you can get to it. Let’s help you appreciate how easy it is.
Here are my top tips to avoid wasting your festive food and drink this Christmas.
- You can do some inspiring things with your festive leftovers. Keep them to one side and make some easy and quick recipes. They’ll be perfect for Boxing Day and the following week, so you don’t spend hours in the kitchen cooking.
- When you’ve had enough of your Christmas dinner meat staples, jazz them up a bit. Use them in curries, soups, and stews for a hassle-free and tasty meal. You’ll find some easy recipes for those leftovers all over the internet.
- There’s always a scrap of Christmas pudding going spare. Did you know you could whip it up into really easy and delicious ice cream? Mix custard and whipped cream, stir in the crumbled Christmas pudding, and pop it in the freezer.
- When you’ve had enough mince pies, use them as a base for another cake. Add orange, nuts, or chocolate, or use it in a trifle.
Storing and freezing
- You can save time and cash by freezing your Christmas leftovers. It’s best to freeze within two days and eat within three months if possible.
- It’s possible to freeze almost anything. Cream freezes very well if you whip it a little beforehand. Even cheeses like Stilton freeze very well.
- You can keep leftover salad or lettuce leaves a little longer by putting a piece of kitchen roll in the bottom of a container, adding the leaves, and then sealing it.
Tips for Cutting Down on Your Food Waste Next Year
If your New Year’s resolution this year is to cut down on food waste, here are some tips to help you achieve your goal.
- Always prepare a shopping list before a big food shop.
- Plan your meals in advance.
- Remember to check your cupboards before you go shopping as you may already have a lot of the ingredients you need.
- Wash, chop, bag, and freeze your veg in advance. It saves a lot of time, and the veg will retain the same nutritional value as if you prepared them from fresh.
- Buy food/food items in bulk whenever possible.
- Pay attention to packing when shopping.
- If you can’t buy in bulk, it’s still possible to reduce your food packaging waste. Use reusable produce bags. Avoid single-serve items and most convenience foods. Buy the largest packaged item as possible.
- Buy local when possible. Buying local dramatically reduces the number of miles your food travels. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions and helps support local farmers in your community.
I hope you find inspiration from some of these tips. Give them a try and enjoy your zero waste Christmas this and every year from now on.