Christmas is by far one of the busiest and most celebrated holidays in the UK. It is the time when we eat the most food, spend the most money, and of course, enjoy ourselves in the company of family and friends.
But while we feast, wine and dine our way through December and into January, what toll does Christmas have on the environment?
The impact of Christmas food
It could be said that overeating is a tradition in itself, but each year we munch and guzzle our way through no less than:
- 370 million mince pies
- 250 million pints of larger and beer
- 35 million bottles of wine
- 10 million turkeys
Accumulated, this means that during the Christmas season, we eat as a nation, 80 per cent more food than during the rest of the year.
The downside to this, however, is that we are producing excess waste and pollution to the point where we are binning 230,000 tonnes of food during the Christmas period. That’s the equivalent of:
- 2 million turkeys
At the price of £275 million.
In fact, the University of Manchester recently calculated that our combined Christmas dinners produce the same carbon footprint as a single car travelling 6,000 times around the world.
Of course, there are also financial impacts, and each household is expected to spend at least £170 on festive food this year, despite 35 per cent of people admitting that they throw more food away at Christmas than at any other time of the year.
The impacts of wrapping paper and packaging
As well as food, it is also important to think about the wrapping paper and packaging that we purchase, use and discard during the Christmas period.
This year, we are expected to throw away no less than 227,000 miles of wrapping paper, enough to wrap around the Island of Jersey
Additionally, if we placed all our Christmas cards alongside one another they would stretch around the world 500 times.
We also get through 4,500 tonnes of tin foil and 125,000 tonnes of plastic packaging during the Christmas season.
Greenpeace recently found that as little as 1kg of wrapping paper emits 3.5Kg of CO2 during its production process, taking 1.3kg of coal to power its production.
This does not take into account further packaging and transportation.
But what about batteries?
Now more than ever we are showering our friends and family with electronic toys and devices of great varieties. The only issue is that some of these gifts require disposable batteries.
On average, we buy ten batteries per year for gadgets and toys. In 2009, only two out of every ten of these found their way to recycling plants.
The EU Batteries Directive has set battery recycling targets at 45 per cent for 2016.
You can now recycle used batteries in shops around the UK, as stores selling more than 32kg of batteries a day must provide instore recycling bins.
Christmas trees and decorations
It is without doubt that Christmas lights are part and parcel of most living room decorations during December and January.
Unfortunately however, Christmas tree lights tend to be switched on for an average of ten hours a day, which produces enough CO2 to fill five party balloons, if they happen to be incandescent bulbs.
But you can still enjoy Christmas tree lights while being eco-friendly.
For example, a 70 count string of 5mm Wide Angle LEDs uses only 4.8 watts, whereas a 100 count string of incandescent mini lights would run at 40 watts.
Old incandescent bulbs can use up to 80 per cent more wattage, and at the same time, use up to 90x more power than LED bulbs.
So what about Christmas trees?
Many people have short-lived debates over buying fake or real Christmas trees, but this decision has consequences for the environment.
Each year we buy 6-8 million real Christmas trees, with 5.3 million households opting for artificial trees:
- Produced in South Korea, Taiwan or China, and are shipped thousands of miles to get to your home.
- Are non-biodegradable, so are sent to landfill or are incinerated.
Real Christmas trees:
- Are grown over a period of 7 to 10 years.
- Help protect and stabilise soil.
- Are biodegradable.
- Also need to be transported, but at much shorter distances.
Is Christmas really that bad?
Waste is important and will have an important part to play in our future too, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t enjoy Christmas, or that we should feel guilty about wrapping presents for our friends and family.
With that in mind, however, here is a table of the average extra waste generated over the Christmas period each year, based on January rubbish and recycling collections:
For those who want to know more about how to prevent extra waste, DEFRA has recently launched its Waste Prevention Programme in partnership with WRAP.
The BBC also provides guidance on how to reduce Christmas waste.
Take a look at our full infographic here.
The true cost of Christmas
Harris, M. (2012) This festive waste [waste management], Engineering & Technology (17509637), 6, 12, pp. 30-33.
Pool, R. (2012) The nightmare after Christmas [food waste disposal], Engineering & Technology (17509637), 6, 12, pp. 38-41.