How to cut your environmental footprint this Christmas
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Our exclusive survey into Brits’ Christmas spending habits recently revealed that 34.1% of Brits do not worry about the environmental impact of Christmas consumerism.
This article will address how, as a nation, we can celebrate a more environmentally friendly Christmas. With eye-opening statistics and data, we present the impact our Christmas festivities are having on our planet.
Original and exclusive comment from environmental and animal rights charities emphasises the need for us to start thinking of the small changes we can make to our Christmas spending habits, which have such a huge environmental impact.
Use our guides to see how you can take steps to cut your own Christmas carbon footprint.
How to have a greener Christmas
We recently published an article on the true cost of a Great British Christmas. Through our exclusive survey we discovered many revealing attitudes Brits have towards the environmental impact of their Christmas spending.
Our survey findings got us thinking about the nation’s environmental impact at Christmas, and what we can do to reduce it. To support this effort, we’ve put together some actionable guides on how to have a more environmentally friendly Christmas and reduce your footprint.
With just a few small changes you could celebrate a Christmas which is both kind to the environment, sustainable and festive.
“Christmas is meant to be a time of plenty, but all too often it tips over into being a time of waste. And there are considerable financial and environmental costs associated with piles of single use wrapping paper, plates full of unwanted food and heaps of unwanted gifts. Waste tends to increase by about a third over the festive season – including nearly 300,000 miles of wrapping paper, and the equivalent of two million turkeys, five million Christmas puddings and 74 million mince pies. All this contributes a significant amount to the yearly bill for wasted food – the average family throws away £700 a year worth of food that could have been eaten. ”
Libby Peake, Senior Policy Adviser at Green Alliance
Is a natural tree more environmentally friendly than an artificial Christmas tree?
Britain buys between 6-8 million Christmas trees each year, with the natural tree market being worth £384 million annually. Natural trees are the more traditional choice and are chosen by around 50% of Britons, with the other half of Christmas trees sold each year being artificial.
There are a number of environmental and financial factors to consider when choosing between a natural or artificial Christmas tree, for instance the energy that goes into producing artificial trees, the potential waste produced when natural trees are not properly disposed of and the initial cost of the tree.
Advantages and disadvantages of natural trees
There are environmental advantages and disadvantages to choosing a natural or artificial tree; both can be damaging to the environment and the cheaper and ‘best’ option is not always immediately clear.
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Did you know?
Britain’s abandoned Christmas trees emit approximately 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases when they go to landfill
“Buying a potted Christmas tree with roots lets you grow it outside and use it year after year, reducing its environmental impact and costing you less. Any living tree will help absorb carbon emissions and provide habitat for animals, but imagine if everyone in the UK embraced some alternative tree options? “That would mean a whole new forest – more biodiversity, and food and shelter for wildlife. Potted trees like apple, holly or yew are good options and can be placed on a small balcony or outdoor space, but chat to your local garden centre so you can choose the best one for you.”
Emi Murphy, campaigner at Friends of the Earth
By burning your Christmas tree, planting it in your garden or chipping it you reduce its carbon footprint disposal by around 80%.
Advantages and disadvantages of artificial trees
Artificial trees are inherently bad for the environment because they’re made of plastic; this however doesn’t mean they need to languish in a landfill. They can be reused, resold or the plastic elements of the tree can be repurposed. Artificial trees are a popular choice for those on a tight budget, as they can be cheaper than natural trees.
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Did you know?
If you have an artificial tree at home, you would need to reuse it for at least 10 Christmases to ensure its environmental impact is lower than that of a real tree
How to save money and choose the most eco-friendly Christmas lights
Twinkling fairy lights, fluorescent Santas and sparkling snowflakes are all part of the special Christmas atmosphere. But, as a nation should we pause to consider the massive energy consumption that is generated by our festive displays?
The answer appears to be a resounding yes. As a study by the Energy Savings Trust showed, Britain’s Christmas lights consume 22.8 days of regular electric use in just a 5-day period during Christmas.
Did you know?
In 2017 London’s Oxford Street Christmas lights display was made from 750,000 LED light bulbs
From our survey, we know Londoners as well as the inhabitants of other UK regions are searching for ways to reduce their environmental footprint in Christmas in 2019, so here are some practical tips on reducing the energy consumption of your Christmas lights.
- Choose LED lights over halogen – they consume 75% less energy
- Store your lights carefully to avoid the need to replace broken light bulbs
- Put your lights on a timer, so you don’t leave them on for extended periods
- Use solar powered lights or other renewable energy sources
- Choose lights powered by a rechargeable battery (batteries are full of toxic chemicals, and are not recyclable, meaning they’re sent to landfill)
Can a vegetarian or vegan meal help protect the environment?
For many the Great British Christmas dinner is the part of the Christmas season they look forward to most. Your traditional dinner might include roast turkey, beef, pork, chicken or goose, with roast potatoes and all the trimmings, but is this meat-based feast causing damage to the environment?
From intensified farming to the transport of produce, the Christmas season puts strain on the environment causing carbon emissions to skyrocket. Indeed, a University of Manchester study revealed that Britain’s Christmas dinners equate to 150 million miles worth of carbon emissions – the same level expelled by a car taking 6,000 journeys around the world. That’s a high price to pay for a roast joint.
Moreover, Brits waste up £444 million of food during the Christmas period, with a traditional Christmas dinner often including excessive portions.
Vegan or vegetarian Christmas meals
Choosing a vegetarian or vegan meal can go a long way to reducing your impact on the environment, as your carbon emissions are reduced, and you’re less likely to produce the waste associated with a Christmas turkey dinner. With a Christmas roast it’s very common to have lots of meat left over after Christmas and this can lead to unnecessary waste.
Did you know?
A vegan Christmas dinner has half the carbon emissions of a traditional turkey dinner
Of course, it’s a big commitment for many to go entirely vegan or vegetarian for Christmas dinner, but there are other ways to lower the footprint of your meal.
“Not only is a plant-based, vegan diet better for animals, it is also better for the environment. Studies from institutions such as Oxford University and Harvard University have concluded that a plant-based diet requires much less land, water and resources than a meat-based diet, and produces much fewer greenhouse gases. In fact, a study from Oxford University showed that the carbon footprint of a vegan diet is as much as 60% smaller than a meat-based diet, and 24% smaller than a vegetarian one. So why not help animals and the planet, and opt for a delicious plant-based Christmas dinner this year? ”
Tod Bradbury, Campaign Manager at Animal Aid
How to lower the environmental impact of a traditional Christmas dinner
One method to make a Christmas dinner more environmentally friendly is to consider buying organic or free-range produce, including meat and vegetables. This will drive up the price of your Christmas dinner, so it’s important to weigh up your priorities and balance your budget. There are many other ways to cut your environmental impact at Christmas, read on to discover more.
Another method to have a greener Christmas meal is to choose turkey over beef or lamb. This is because turkey produces less greenhouse gas emissions than beef or lamb. Beef and lamb produce on average of over 15 kg of CO2 per kilo of livestock raised.
“The intensive meat and dairy industry is a huge source of emissions and contributes to deforestation and loss of wildlife. Go for a festive spread which puts the veg centre stage and try to make sure any meat or dairy products you’re keen to have come from farms with high environmental and animal welfare standards, like organic. When it comes to the vegetables, choose those in season that have been grown nearby so you can cut down on transport emissions and support local producers.”
Emi Murphy, Campaigner at Friends of the Earth
Environmentally friendly gift buying guide
If you want to buy environmentally friendly Christmas gifts, it’s important to be mindful when researching what to buy. Practical steps you can take include finding the time to check how and where things were made, as well as the energy which went into creating them.
It’s worth considering buying a more expensive option that is locally made or sold, rather buying gifts which need exporting from overseas.
Did you know?
22.7% of Brits people buy gifts from second-hand shops, charity shops & vintage clothing retailers
Buying second-hand gifts, from clothes to CDs and DVDs is beneficial to the planet as these items don’t require additional energy to produce.
Choosing environmentally friendly gifts
Finding environmentally friendly gifts is easier than many people think. Here are some things to consider when looking to buy green gifts:
- Go for ethically produced cosmetics
- Consider alternatives to plastic gifts
- Buy local
- Buy reusable items
“It can be hard to avoid getting sucked up by the shopping frenzy, with so many companies ramming their Christmas campaigns in our face! Fight back by thinking about activities and experiences your friends and families might enjoy more than a material gift. This doesn’t need to be extravagant - something as simple as a voucher for the cinema or a local restaurant is perfect. You can also think about donations on their behalf to causes close to their heart. See more at friendsoftheearth.uk/take-part/ways-to-donate.”
Emi Murphy, Campaigner at Friends of the Earth
Wrapping paper is another element of Christmas which can prove damaging to the environment. A study of 2000 Brits discovered that the average household uses 4 rolls of wrapping paper at Christmas. Most of the wrapping paper used at Christmas across the UK is thrown away; a staggering total of 108 million rolls of wrapping paper every year goes to landfill reports the Independent.
Moreover, to add to this already dire picture, a remarkable 75 million trees are cut down to be made into wrapping paper every year and most cannot be recycled due to the use of dyes and plastic laminations.
Did you know?
53% of Brits save wrapping paper and/or bags and boxes to use next year
How to tackle this environmental footprint?
- Buy eco-friendly wrapping paper
- Reuse wrapping paper from past Christmases
- Make your own wrapping paper with craft materials
"When buying presents, the best way to reduce waste is to think about the lifecycle of what you're buying. Consider where it has come from, and where it's going to end up. Opt for presents that haven't already got a big carbon footprint, will remain in good condition for years to come, and won't just be used once before going in the bin. The best minimal waste gifts are either 100% recyclable and biodegradable, have been made from recycled materials, are second hand, or are days out and experiences that can't end up in landfill. Another easy way to reduce waste over Christmas is to think about what you're using to wrap both presents and food. Swap traditional wrapping paper for recyclable brown paper or recycled fabric. Avoid clingfilm and put leftovers in a tin or cover with beeswax food wrap.”
Dan Mountain, CEO at Buyagift
“A simple way to be more environmentally friendly this Christmas is to recycle. Though the majority of us have a recycling bin, not many people actually know how recycling makes a positive effect on our environment. Put simply, recycling and reusing materials means that less waste ends up in landfill - and landfill sites are one of the biggest contributors to overall global greenhouse gas emissions each year. Instead of just throwing all rubbish from presents in a black bin bag, take a look at what you’re throwing away, and see if it can be recycled or reused. Make sure to check the back of packaging for toys, food and anything else that would otherwise end up in the bin. This might seem like hard work, but the difference it makes is surprising!”
Lloyd Atkin, Managing Director at Bio D
Green charities and campaigning groups often argue that to reduce our collective carbon footprint we need to travel less. Extinction Rebellion have been in the news for protests held at London City Airport and London Underground tube stations campaigning for immediate action on the climate crisis.
How does Christmas factor into this? With today’s globalised economy and the UK’s extensive transport links, more and more families are spread far and wide geographically. This can mean long journeys for some to visit their family during the Christmas season, and is intensified for those with large extended families.
Here are some steps you can take to tackle your carbon footprint:
- If you have extended family, consider celebrating Christmas in the same place
- Don’t travel abroad for Christmas if you can avoid it
- Buy your Christmas shopping locally
- Use public transport or car sharing services
- Offset your carbon emissions
A sustainable Christmas
The way we celebrate Christmas is not sustainable, financially or environmentally. As a nation we’re creating a dangerous precedent of debt for our planet and our personal finances. With 34.1% of Brits not worrying about the impact their Christmas is having on the environment, there’s plenty of work to be done.
A large proportion of Brits finance Christmas spending with debt, 19.7% using credit cards and 5.3% with loans. This spending, especially when consumers don’t consider its environmental impact, creates a debt for our planet which future generations will be saddled with.
With smarter financial planning including budgeting, alongside ethical consumer choices we can take the strain off our planet.
Just a few small changes in our spending habits can make a difference to the world around us, and hopefully preserve the environment for future generations to enjoy many more Christmases.
Research was commissioned by NerdWallet through independent market research agency 3GEM Research & Insights. Third-party data is based on publicly available information at the time of writing. NerdWallet does not accept, for any reason, responsibility for the content on third-party sites.
Rhiannon is a financial writer for NerdWallet, with a particular interest in personal finance and insurance guides for consumers. Read more