Dreaming of a green Christmas? Here's how to make it come true

Our extravagance is prodigious, and alternatives are not easy, but here are some useful ideas

Are you dreaming of a green Christmas? Households and individuals across the UK are turning their backs on the vulgarity of Christmas consumerism and waste by cutting back on obvious and most visible areas of excess such as unwanted gifts, plastic trees and decorations and unrecyclable wrapping paper.

But the scale of our extravagance remains shocking. The Bank of England has calculated that the average UK household will splurge £800 extra in December on food and drink as well as gifts. Included in this is an average of 17 gifts bought per individual, according to online retailer Amazon.

And according to a recent study by waste management company Biffa, the UK creates 30% more waste than usual over Christmas. This includes an estimated 227,000 miles of wrapping paper and 1bn cards that end up in the bin. An estimated 20% of gifts – some 120m items – will be headed for landfill on Boxing Day, according to the UK Gift Card & Voucher Association.

To make the most of the festive season without costing the earth, there are numerous other steps consumers can take to reduce their mountain of food waste, opt for the most carbon-efficient cooking, lighting and heating and even trim tedious miles spent on the motorway. The charity Oxfam helped blaze a trail with its range of poverty-busting ethical gifts including the “virtual goat”. Today, there is greater recognition the value of swapping physical gifts for more meaningful and useful experiences, and even investing time in volunteering.

Goat with green Oxfam tag hanging from neck
Oxfam’s “virtual” goat Photograph: Oxfam

Which is more eco-friendly – a real or an artificial tree?

Fresh trees are the more eco-friendly choice, as long as they are from a sustainable source. There are now well over 400 Christmas tree growers across the UK registered with the British Christmas Tree Growers’ Association, where trees are grown to guidelines governing sustainable cultivation. Look also for the FSC certification logo or Soil Association organic certification which means that no pesticides have been used during growing. You could also choose a tree with roots so that it can be replanted and enjoyed year after year.

Artificial, plastic trees need to be used for up to nine years in order to have less environmental impact than natural alternatives, depending on how they are disposed of. However local charity shops may accept them for resale if they are in good condition.

A 2-metre (6.5ft) artificial tree has a carbon footprint equivalent to about 40kg of greenhouse gas emissions – which is more than twice that of a real tree that ends its life in landfill and more than 10 times that of a real tree that is burned.

Many consumers are also now opting to rent trees – complete with lights and decorations. Check your local garden centres or plant nursery, which will usually also deliver and collect the tree to save you the hassle.

Not fir sale

Among alternatives, Waitrose is selling a 30cm-high “edible” rosemary tree, shaped like its traditional counterpart, which can be used as a decoration or a Christmas table centrepiece. Friends of the Earth suggests that in smaller spaces indoor plants such as yucca or palm trees could be perked up with decorations.

An estimated 8m trees decorated homes and offices across Britain last year, of which only 10% were recycled. The rest went into landfill, a wasted opportunity to create biomass that would have provided nutrients for depleted soil. Many local authorities and garden centres will be recycling Christmas trees in January.

What alternative gifts would be better for the planet?

Buy less and buy local. Each Christmas, a staggering 4,000 tonnes of products arrive in the UK by container from China. Presents bought locally means you will be supporting small suppliers and makers, while minimising your carbon footprint. Initiatives such as Small Business Saturday help, but support local retailers at other times too. Through its #AirWeShare campaign the environmental charity Hubbub urges shoppers to consider more environmentally friendly options for online shopping, including switching to a click and collect service to reduce the amount of city centre deliveries.

The Carbon Trust says gifts that don’t consume electricity, such as toys and books, tend to have a lower carbon footprint than those that do. Buying good quality toys means they can be passed on to friends, family and charity shops, giving them a second or even a third life.

And think whether you have to buy physical gifts? Could you buy an “experience” instead? Try gift tokens, cinema tickets, museum membership and so on. Sponsor an animal, buy some rainforest to protect, or even have a stab at making your own, including foodie gifts such as chutneys and cookies.

Emi Murphy, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Christmas presents don’t need to cost the earth. By shopping around a little you can find unique gifts that support the fight against the climate crisis, keep plastic out of our oceans and boost tree cover.”

Deck the halls with boughs of … anything eco-friendly?

Choose decorations wisely and keep them to use again. As tinsel can’t be recycled, try to limit how much you buy, and keep what you have to use year on year. Most tinsel sold in the UK is made in China (and of dubious quality), although John Lewis’s is made in a factory in Wales (which churns out 12,000km a year, enough if laid end to end to get from the UK to South Africa).

Studio shot of gift wrapped in newspaper on sparkled background

Wrapping paper is one of the most wasted materials at Christmas. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that last year’s wasted paper would be enough to wrap up Guernsey. If we all recycled just half the 8,000 tonnes produced we’d save 25,000 trees.

When wrapping steer clear of anything shiny, plastic-lined or decorated with glitter, which are not recyclable. Try the “scrunch” test – anything that doesn’t hold its shape when scrunched into a ball is not recyclable. Use salvageable materials like newspaper, brown paper, textiles, string, raffia (made from bark which regenerates) and vintage ribbon. Wrapping in newspaper (try the distinctive Eyewitness photo double page spread in the middle of the Guardian which my family has been doing for years) looks better than it sounds. Increasingly popular and Instagrammable is wrapping with brightly coloured fabric – based on the traditional Japanese art of furoshiki.

Ditch the commercial Christmas crackers which are typically dusted with glitter (containing microplastics) and contain ghastly plastic toys that nobody wants anyway. Make your own (Lakeland and Hobbycraft do handy packs of “fill your own”) and invite your guests to make their own hats.

What’s the best thing to do for homeless people this Christmas?

Homelessness has reached epidemic proportions in the UK, where half of the homeless people are in London. Official figures show that at least 726 homeless people died in England and Wales in 2018 – a 22% increase on the previous year and the largest rise since records began in 2013.

Homelessness charities say you can best help by donating directly to them in order to maximise resources. St Mungo’s, for example, says £25 would pay for a health check, £50 could fund a counselling session or £100 could buy resources for the charity’s Recovery College.

Petra Salva, director of rough sleeper services at St Mungo’s, said: “Rough sleeping is harmful and dangerous at any time, [but is] increased when temperatures drop dramatically over times such as Christmas. I would encourage people to contact StreetLink to help connect someone with their local service as soon as possible. Giving money and food is a personal choice; we would encourage people to contact charities like St Mungo’s to see how they can help people in the long term.”

Where can I volunteer?

Check out whether local charities, old people’s homes, homeless shelters and food banks could do with a spare pair of hands. The Trussell Trust welcomes volunteers over Christmas for its 1,200-strong network of food banks across the UK, to help hand out a record number of emergency food parcels.

The national food redistribution charity FareShare seeks volunteers at its depots across the UK to help sort food donated by supermarkets and to drive it to recipients such as charities and community projects serving up meals.

You can also help FareShare by choosing a green token through its Community Matters “green token” scheme on Waitrose.com over Christmas. A similar scheme is FoodCycle, which welcomes volunteers for its 34 projects across the UK.

Loneliness is always an issue at Christmas. You can volunteer or donate to Age UK, which says there are 1.4 million “chronically lonely” older people in England alone.

What can I do to reduce my carbon footprint in the kitchen?

Roast turkey with trimmings on white platter.

If you are stuck when choosing what to cook, the Carbon Trust points out that turkey has a lower carbon footprint than beef, while vegetarian and vegan options are even lower than that. If you can’t steer clear of red meat make sure it’s British. Don’t overdo the cheeseboard, which has a high carbon footprint. Don’t preheat the oven for too long, or leave it on after the meal is prepared to keep food heated.

And eat up those leftovers.

What about plastics?

It’s hard but not impossible to have a plastics-free Christmas. Food packaging is tricky, but supermarket chain Iceland is offering customers the choice of a plastic-free or reduced plastic packaging Christmas dinner this year. It is selling 18 Christmas products that are completely free from plastic packaging, including stuffing balls and black forest layered pavlova. Selfridges is removing plastic packaging from its own brand range of Christmas food, switching to home compostable alternatives for 90,000 mince pies and 3,000 Christmas cakes.

Waste potatoes

Dispense with plastic cling film by using reusable beeswax-covered cotton cloths, available from Waitrose and Lakeland. And make you sure you recycle aluminium – popular as mince pie wrappers – correctly. A new campaign from the Co-op chain aims to stop tonnes of aluminium – including mince pie wrappers, from being dumped into landfill. Its research shows that more than one in five (22%) of UK adults do not recycle household aluminium and that more than 3,000 tonnes could end up in the general household waste.

How can I reduce my travel?

Hundreds of thousands of people will be criss-crossing the UK over the holiday, driving significant distances to visit family and friends – what some environmentalists refer to as “love miles” adding to greenhouse gases and congestion. Avoid air travel if at all possible.

Where a large number of people are travelling, the Carbon Trust advises people to check to see whether they can share a car or take public transport (though the railways are not for the faint-hearted at this time of year). Use car sharing websites and apps such as Liftshare and GoCarShare – sharing a journey means a lower carbon footprint for each passenger, less traffic on the roads, splitting fuel costs and hopefully enjoying some company. It urges people to consider a Skype chat rather than a visit.

Can I offset my Christmas?

Everything seems to be carbon-offsettable these days (you can even offset fake news now by paying to support its antidote – Guardian journalism). Offsetting Christmas is slightly harder (despite what companies offering opportunities to do so might say). With tree planting all the range now, you could forgo the palaver of getting a Christmas fir and dedicate a tree to a loved one – it’ll offset some carbon emissions, too.

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Rebecca Smithers Consumer affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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