Environmental impact of Christmas

December 12, 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Martina Rowley

’Tis the season again. Christmas is near and every week more festive lights and decorations pop up, Yuletide tunes play on the radio and in stores, and soppy love movies fill daily television, courtesy of the Hallmark channel. 

Christmas brings many good things, though by the time Santa and his reindeer leave their footprints in the snow, Canadians will leave behind an even larger environmental footprint. 

I do love Christmas; the festive side of it – the decorations, the traditions, Christmas carols, the scent of a real tree and hot mulled wine. What bothers me is the ridiculous amount of consumerism and waste for just one or two days. What was originally meant to celebrate the birth of one special baby, Jesus, has become laser-focused on giving everyone in the family and beyond a mountain of presents, and festive meals turn into gluttonous events. 

It must have been a creeping increase, starting in the 1950s, when after World War II household wealth started growing and the availability and range of hobby, entertainment goods and personal electronics exploded. In most recent decades, though, household spending for Christmas really has been taking the proverbial cake (or the biscuit, where I come from). Sadly, most of what is purchased adds to, and even ends up as waste itself.

A CBC news item in 2018 showed that Canadian households spend on average $1,563 on Christmas. Of that, $720 is for travel, $625 for gifts and almost $200 for entertainment. Canadian men are the bigger spenders with an average $1,752 and women $1,485. Does anyone else think that is a ridiculously large amount to spend? As a friend of mine put it last year, after witnessing the mountain of toys and ‘stuff’ given to her young grandchild from the combined families, “it’s sickening”. 

Something must have got to us, probably clever marketing, peer pressure and the promise of Black Friday with its massive discounts. The amount of packaging waste that results is a Christmas nightmare. Most goods come in substantial cardboard and plastic packaging, which end up joining reams of wrapping paper, sticky tape and adhesive ribbons and labels stuffed into garbage or recycling, where they either do or don’t belong. According to Zero Waste Canada, Canadians throw out 540,000 tonnes of wrapping paper and gift bags every Christmas, which is 5% more than the rest of the year. It includes 3,000 tonnes of wrapping foil, 2.6 billion Christmas cards and 6 million rolls of sticky tape.

There are eco-friendly alternatives: Wrap gifts in a nice new tea-towel that will be an additional small gift or in a small piece of nice fabric. You can get cheap cloth remnants from a fabric store or buy vintage scarves from a second-hand clothes shop. Paper wrap can be cut out from glossy magazine pages or old road maps, gift bags can be reused again and again, and there is nothing wrong with carefully unwrapped gift paper being folded and kept for next year. 

To reduce the gift-mountain, suggest to your family to do a Secret Santa, where each person anonymously buys just one gift for someone on a list, or if you are handy, make or bake gifts or agree to no gifting at all. Instead, remind yourself and your loved ones what the season is about by spending quality time together. Most towns have free festivities, so take yourself and loved ones to enjoy Christmas lights in the park, go skating, listen to carollers, watch a traditional Christmas play or visit an outdoor Christmas market. Make tree or window decorations together and on the 24th read the Christmas story. 

Another joy is the food, and I love it! To limit food waste, make a precise shopping list for your recipes and be realistic about portion sizes and how much you truly need. Offer your guests leftovers to take home and look up recipes for creative meals at Buy your cooking and baking ingredients from a bulk store and take your own containers to fill and donate leftover foods if your local shelter or soup kitchen will take them.

Another area of impact is Christmas travel, and this is one aspect where I struggle to suggest traveling less. The holiday is about families and friends getting together and I cannot bring myself to write that anyone should avoid this, despite the huge increase of traffic on roads and in the air. Who would encourage others not to see their family, no matter how far-flung? So, let’s leave this one alone. 

There are many ways to remember what Christmas should be about – and a ton of ‘stuff’ and bling isn’t it. Maybe this year, you will create meaningful Christmas memories instead of a mountain of waste and debt.

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