I'm dreaming of a green Christmas

It’s time to re-think our Yule excesses. Ellie O’Byrne explains how we can have festive fun, without Christmas costing the earth.

It’s time to pull our novelty Rudolph socks up and get real. Sorry to break it to you, but Christmas is costing the earth.

Our annual consumerist orgy requires a drastic re-think if we’re to pass on anything to the next generation apart from a global plastic scrap-heap.

If you don’t believe me, google “ocean plastic waste” and do ten minutes’ reading. 

No child writes to Santa and asks for eight million tonnes of plastic to be dumped in the oceans each year, but that’s the gift we’re really passing on and we need to change our ways.

In Ireland, 2016 saw a 110,000-tonne increase in waste going to landfill over the year before. We are choking the planet. 

Nowhere is our disposable culture more evident than at Christmas, when mountains of packaging, food waste and discarded decorations and gifts cram our bins to capacity.

I’m not a scrooge. There’s nothing nicer than cooking a delicious meal with family or getting silly over a favourite board game. 

But we need a serious re-think around our Yule excesses. By following a few simple guidelines, we can have all the enjoyment, magic and love of the festive season without destroying the planet.

Buy less: try a Secret Santa

The cornerstone for all waste reduction is to simply to cut back on consumption.

Ireland jumps aboard the Christmas spending spree with great gusto. Last year, the average additional spend in December, per adult, was €720, according to Retail Ireland.

But we know it’s crazy over-consumption: 80% of respondents to an Irish League of Credit Unions poll said we spend too much at Christmas, while 90% of parents said their kids received too many presents.

If dimming the light of fanatical, gift-wrap-tearing greed in your tots’ eyes is a bah-humbug too far, start with conversations with the adults : my family have operated a very successful Secret Santa for grown-ups for the past couple of years. 

The smallies still get their loot, while adults get one well-thought-out gift. Keep an eye on food waste too; buy in moderation, empty your freezer in the lead-up to Christmas so you can store leftovers, and shop with local suppliers to cut packaging waste.

Be a wrap star

There are loads of inventive and beautiful ecologically friendly ways to gift-wrap presents. 

First off, Repak remind the public to avoid buying shiny or laminated wrapping, which isn’t recyclable.

Try using recycled or reclaimed materials. 

I smooth out, fold and store discarded wrap for the year after, but there are more exotic options too, from vintage National Geographic recycled maps to gift-bags made from Korean newspapers. 

A simple roll of recycled brown paper can be used. Better still, learn the ancient Japanese art of Furoshiki, or fabric wrapping. 

A reusable, brightly-coloured scarf is used in place of paper; YouTube has dozens of videos teaching ornate folding techniques, and the results are stunning. Lush stores stock these.

When it comes to decorations, all that glitters is not gold

A UK chain of playschools drew the scorn of the tabloid press by banning glitter from their Christmas-card craft kits, turning to biodegradable alternatives like lentils and rice.

But it turns out glitter is a toxic microplastic that ends up in our food-chain. 

The Christmas decoration conundrum doesn’t end there: hideous plastic garlands, tree lights so flimsy they’re virtually single-use: a never-ending supply of garish plastic tat. 

This isn’t only an ecological disaster, with the chemicals and plastics used in their production, but also a horrible sweatshop secret: 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations are made in one Chinese town, Yiwu, where workers are exposed to toxic chemicals over the course of their 12-hour shifts, for which they earn around €225 per month.

Instead of supporting this nightmare at Christmas, deck the halls with boughs of actual holly: decorate your home with traditional displays of ever-greens, live plants, yule logs and lots of magical candle-light. 

There are endless creative ways to decorate with biodegradables and LED Christmas lights make an energy-saving improvement on the bulb option if stored well.

Search for crafters who produce decorations locally. 

From Seekings, a cottage market stall, sells fully biodegradable wreaths at Blackrock Village Farmer’s Market each Sunday on the outskirts of Cork, while Klaus and Hannah’s nursery stall at the Saturday Coal Quay Farmer’s market are renowned for their beautiful home-grown floral arrangements.

And for those of you who are scared Christmas will never be the same again without glue and glitter, there’s a UK company, Wild Glitter, producing a biodegradable version.

Shop local at craft fairs, 71% of Irish people planned to shop online for presents last year, according to Repak. For time-poor shoppers, it’s a godsend, but for the environment, it’s a disaster. 

Amazon came under fire from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in last year’s BBC series, War on Waste, for its excessive packaging. 

Sure, it may often be cardboard, but recycling should be a last-ditch attempt to reclaim materials, not an excuse for over-packaging.

I shop for gifts locally and bring my own re-usable bags. When you’re face-to-face with a stallholder, you are in control of how much packaging they provide. 

On top of that, the gifts are unique, the air-miles are low and you’re providing direct employment to a business in your area.

Virginie Laveau at her eco-Christmas stall at The Fair Alternative

The Fair Alternative, Cork’s weekly craft fair in The Unitarian Hall on Princes Street, opens from December 14 until Christmas Eve. 

Organiser Virginie Laveau says her 25 stallholders offer eco-friendly gifts with an emphasis on re-used and reclaimed materials. 

Due South Clothing are a Cork company making eco-friendly T-shirts from recycled plastic bottles and organic cotton. Sundried make eco-friendly recycled activewear, like this coffee Grivola t-shirt, €57 (pictured below). 

Melanie Mondini of Due South, who have designed a Fastnet Rock t-shirt made from recycled plastic bottles and organic cotton

Used coffee grounds are used as sustainable raw material and they also partner with The Low Carbon Innovation Fund and work with Water for Kids. 


Of The Wood is a Ballyvourney wood-turner’s stall that produces exquisite bowls, lamps and even smaller items like wine-stoppers, all from non-felled trees. 

Circle and Dot’s up-cycled jewellery features ingenious design for materials like recycled newspaper and DVD covers.

Also, don’t shy away from vintage shops like The Village Hall or any of the offerings on the recently-launched Cork Vintage Map.

Give an experience instead of an object

I remember my grandmother’s childlike pleasure at receiving little gifts: a new scarf, or, her favourite, a box of chocolate-coated Brazil nuts. 

An English woman, she had experienced real deprivation and war-time rationing, and every little luxury was to be treasured.

Now we live in different times, and Christmas rituals haven’t caught up. In times of scarcity, a gift was a magical and meaningful way to express love. 

Now, it’s a momentary novelty, bought in a panic and destined for the clutter mountain in the spare room.

A sure-fire way to cut down on waste is to opt for vouchers for activities over material gifts. There really is a non-material gift out there for everyone, in every budget. 

Dinner in a favourite restaurant with a handwritten “babysitting voucher” for a busy couple, concert tickets, a digital subscription to a online magazine or newspaper, or even, for the cash-strapped, Spotify playlists of songs with shared sentimental meaning: it is, after all, the thought that counts.

If material presents still seem the way to go, consider cleverly packaged consumables over one-hit-wonder novelties. 

Excellent quality handmade cosmetics, chocolates, a good bottle of wine: these gifts will be enjoyed, and won’t provide the burden of storage or disposal problems for the recipient.

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