Making presents, reusing decorations and Kris Kindle: 25 ways to a greener Christmas

From tree rentals to the right wrapping paper for recycling, Helen O’Callaghan has all the tips you need for an environmentally friendly festive season
Making presents, reusing decorations and Kris Kindle: 25 ways to a greener Christmas

Here are 25 ways to get on the way to greener Christmases

With the countdown to Christmas 2021 already underway, make this the year you put the environment at the top of your list. In making greener, eco-friendly choices, you’re gifting far beyond yourself and impacting future generations.

According to Mywaste.ie, Ireland’s official guide to managing your waste, we produce 25-30% more waste over the festive period than normally. And we spend a lot of money: Central Bank data from 2020 found credit and debit card spending increased by 21% in December compared to November.

So this year, let’s extend the season of goodwill to the natural world we live in.

Making eco-conscious choices can come down to one sweeping principle, like keeping consumption to a minimum, says Elaine Butler, who runs sustainable living guide https://livinglightlyinireland.com/. “Keep an eye on levels of consumption – that runs through everything. 

If you lower consumption levels across the board, you’ll be doing a good job.” Do what you can where you are with what you have, advises Butler. “Start with one or two changes. Before you know it you’ll be having an impact. Governments and businesses watch what people do – so how we spend our money will hugely impact the type of world we’ll have in the future.” Here are 25 ways to help make this a greener Christmas.

Christmas tree:

1: The most eco-friendly tree is the one that already exists – the re-usable tree you’ve had for years and bring out every Christmas.

But unless you’re prepared to keep and use it forever, it’s not a green option – fake trees are made from difficult-to-recycle materials and have usually been transported from Asia.

2: Rent a living Christmas tree in a pot. Cork company, Christmastree.ie, is pioneering the concept this year: rent it over the festive period and return it to the company in January where it’s brought back to the farm, to be cared for all year round. You can even rent the same Christmas tree next year, knowing it’ll have spent the year absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.

Christmastree.ie delivers and collects in Cork City/surrounding suburbs – anyone outside the area can still rent but must call to collect and to return tree in January.

3: If getting a single-use real tree from a tree farm, make sure you recycle it afterwards – it can be re-used for wood chippings or mulch. Contact your local authority for details of drop-off points. Mindy O’Brien, chief executive of environmental charity VOICE, uses the lower branches of her tree to decorate her mantelpiece.

Decorations:

4: Forget new colour schemes each year that require new decorations, says Butler. “Part of the joy of Christmas is pulling out decorations that remind you of the person who gave you the item, or ones made by the kids when they were younger.” If you’re starting out in a new home, why not ask parents/relatives to gift you a Christmas decoration they no longer need – another way of creating memories while being sustainable.

5: If you really must buy, purchase one new Christmas decoration a year of good quality, advises Butler, who recommends choosing materials like metal – infinitely recyclable – and naturally-finished timber. “Make it a decoration you really love, an heirloom you can pass on to your kids.” 

6: Charity shops can be great sources for decorations. “I made a front door wreath from a wire clothes hanger and Christmas baubles bought in a charity shop, so I got a decoration out of something already existing,” says Butler.

7: Deck the halls with less, advises Mywaste.ie. “Create a festive atmosphere at home by foraging foliage and displaying natural decorations like pine cones, holly, fruits and nuts.” Look on YouTube and Pinterest for ideas on how to make Christmas table centrepieces from natural materials.

And use more energy-efficient LED lights – also invest in a timer to ensure lights are off when you’re sleeping/out of the house.

Wrapping paper:

8: Does it pass the crinkle or tear test? If you can tear it easily, it’s recyclable. Plastic-coated wrapping paper (shiny/metallic/glittery) can’t be recycled. “If you crinkle it, it bounces back – it doesn’t stay crinkled like paper would,” says Butler.

On glitter, Butler says it’s “just tiny bits of plastic that get into the environment and waterways – animals consume it and so do we”. A 2019 study by environmental charity World Wide Fund for Nature found on average people could be ingesting about 5g of plastic a week, the equivalent weight of a credit card.

Jiminy.ie has recycled and recyclable wrapping paper – made from 100% recycled unbleached paper and card and environmentally-friendly vegetable-based inks.

9: Use eco-friendly wrapping materials, e.g. scarves that can be re-used and that can be part of the present, or check out YouTube for how to gift-wrap using newspaper. “Unwrap presents with care, so you can use the wrapping paper again,” says O’Brien, who recommends investing in gift bags. “They can be used time and again.” 

Gifting:

10: According to Mywaste.ie, over 50% of gifts received at Christmas are considered useless. Butler recommends experiences over stuff. “The most precious gift we can give is our time because we have so little of it. And Christmas should be about re-connecting. Arrange to go away for a weekend with a friend or visit an exhibition together.” Or – even if you’re not going to participate in the experience yourself – give a gift of dinner for two, ice-skating or theatre tickets.

11: Decide as a family to do Kris Kindle. Instead of everyone buying a dozen smaller gifts to cover each family member, agree a budget and pick names out of a hat so each person buys a more expensive gift for just one other person. “As we get older, it’s harder to buy items someone really values or needs for €20. Whereas you could get something very worthwhile for €100 – a great way of reducing consumption while still giving a gift,” says Butler, who recommends each person make a list – for the person buying for them – of items they’d like/need.

12: O’Brien recommends making your own gifts. “Every year, I make bread or jam for neighbours. It’s much more personal.” Butler also suggests buying consumables as gifts, e.g. wine or chocolate you know the person would love but wouldn’t buy for themselves. “Choose something high-end or that they couldn’t get easily. You’re buying something that will get used but won’t create too much waste in the world.” 

13: Get thoughtful about stocking-fillers, urges O’Brien, who’s becoming increasingly more “anti-joke trinkets or tat – things people pick up and go ‘ha-ha’ and then throw away”. Consider whether the person will use the item – and how often. “In our Christmas stockings, my parents always gave items like shower caps, toothbrushes, edible stuff like fruit, a calendar for the year, a nice notebook – for a kid who’s into hurling, you might give a hurling glove.” 

14: Look for second-hand gifts. “My daughter wanted a treadmill. I went on Adverts.ietarget="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> and bought there,” says O’Brien, who also suggests shopping app Depoptarget="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> and online charity shop Thriftify.

15: Transform your talent into a gift. “If you’re handy at up-cycling and a friend has a chair in need of upholstering, offer to do it. Or offer to paint a room or weed their garden,” says O’Brien, who recalls a Christmas gift of wildflower seeds, harvested by a friend in her biodiversity garden.

Sharon Keilthy of jiminy.ie, with daughter Ava
Sharon Keilthy of jiminy.ie, with daughter Ava

Kids’ toys:

16: Go for quality over quantity. A University of Toledo study published in 2018 found fewer toys resulted in higher quality of play for toddlers. Living Lightly in Ireland has a long list of sustainable, ethical toys – with good explanations of their eco-credentials – along with where to get them

17: Get plastic-averse. Dublin mum Sharon Keilthy set up eco toy store jiminy.ie three years ago in a bid to change Ireland’s toy industry. “Just for toys bought in Ireland, we'd have to plant 3.6 million trees to absorb the CO2 released making them from plastic – that’s four trees for every child,” Keilthy explains.

She has sourced over 700 toys for everyone from babies through teens and while some are wooden toys, that’s not the whole story. “Most are bioplastic (an innovative climate-positive plastic made from plants), safe recycled plastic, cardboard, cotton, and paper.” 

18: If buying battery-operated toys go for rechargeable batteries rather than single-use, advises Butler. And opt for ones that don’t use too much power – check out reviews for power consumption. “The Imaginext brand has good quality, hard-wearing toys that use very little power. They’re often available second-hand because they’re so hardwearing.” 

Elaine Butler of Living Lightly in Ireland
Elaine Butler of Living Lightly in Ireland

Food:

19: Don’t over-buy. An EPA Stop Food Waste survey found 50% of respondents noticed more food waste over the Christmas period than at other times of the year – 70% admitted they buy extra food ‘just in case’ of unexpected visitors.

“Pre-Christmas, all the ads are about indulging ourselves. In January they’re all about sacrifice. We fall for it every year and overbuy,” says Butler.

She focuses Christmas food spending on whatever the main feature of Christmas dinner is – meat or meat-alternative – and does a special dessert for Christmas day. Tins of biscuits or boxes of Roses are out – instead she goes for freezeable, long-lasting options like mince pies and Christmas cake. 

“Christmas cake lasts for months. You can slice it up and it freezes easily, then defrost for a minute in the microwave. So you’re not generating waste with foods that need to be eaten quickly.” 

20: Buy locally-grown – many vegetables eaten at Christmas can be grown in Ireland, e.g. potatoes, carrots, Brussels sprouts. Buy organic if you can afford to. “If you can afford to pay more than 30c for vegetables, you should. It’s one of the best ways of supporting our farmers, the environment and our health,” says Butler.

Check out her list of fresh produce growerstarget="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> and free-range animal products.

21: Actively combat waste. O’Brien curbs over-buying by avoiding shops for three days pre- and three days post-Christmas. 

She says each kilo of food waste costs €3, encompassing price of purchase and of disposal. She recommends serving Christmas dinner ‘family style’ – in bowls, facilitating people to take only what they want. “Pre-plating everything tends to be more wasteful because you won’t use what’s left over.” 

Check out EPA booklets ’12 Days of Christmas Recipestarget="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">’ and ‘Leftovers Cookbook’.

22: Be savvy about food storage. “Don’t freeze bread – it goes stale quicker. Separate bananas from other fruit to avoid fast ripening. Onions and potatoes last longer in a cool dark place,” advises O’Brien.

Watch how you dispose of food waste – put in composting facility, not with general waste, where it’s destined for landfill and creates methane.

Parties:

23: Use ‘proper’ crockery, glassware and cutlery instead of disposables, advises Butler. “Hire some, borrow from friends/family, or ask guests to bring their own. The mix-and-match look just adds to the festive atmosphere.” And if you do opt for compostable, make sure guests know to dispose of these in the food waste, not in recycling. Also, send guests home with a doggy bag of leftover goodies.

24: Buy alcohol in cans – much more sustainable than bottles, says Butler. “Aluminium recycling works very well in Ireland. Compared to glass, there are less carbon emissions from transportation because cans are lighter – and it requires less energy to recycle aluminium than glass.” Another tip is to buy higher quality alcohol – premium gin or organic wine. “Buy less but better – buying more expensive reduces consumption,” says Butler.

And for parties, a carbonated drinks maker, e.g. Sodastream or Aarke brands can be great for reducing amount of plastic bottles generated.

Christmas extras:

25: Could this be the year you’ll bypass Christmas crackers? If you simply can’t, opt for re-usabletarget="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> – not cheap but definitely greener if you use them year after year - or make your own

Butler has collected an array of little cracker toys from previous years: tape measures, tiny boxes of playing cards. You can also buy cracker-making kits - this one has plastic-free and eco-friendly options.

Is that Christmas jumper really necessary? “Acrylic jumpers are 100% plastic. The world doesn’t need more,” says Butler, who suggests a Christmas jumper swap linked to a charity fundraiser. Alternatively buy in a charity shop – otherwise re-use the one you already have.

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