Home: Celebrate the festive season the sustainable way  

We add up the real climate cost of a typical Irish household Christmas And Discover how we can become greener reveller 
Home: Celebrate the festive season the sustainable way  

Trevor Roper and his family enjoy a walk in their Christmas tree plantation at Inniscarra, corkchristmastreefarm.ie.

The central heating is roaring, the house is ablaze with fairy lights, and somewhere in the snowy reaches of Lapland, Santa is wiping his brow, as he tries to keep up with our demand for bigger and better, year on year. 

Come December, we are naughty rather than nice in our sustainable behaviours.

Here are some tips from climate heroes and advocates on how to be a jolly but greener reveller this Christmas.

The tree and decorations

Trevor Roper runs Inniscarra Christmas Tree farm on the outskirts of Cork city.

Every year he invites families to relish the experience of choosing a live, natural, Irish tree. We’ve heard rumours that this year Inniscarra is inundated with mischievous elves scampering around the plantation. 

“We all know how important trees are for the environment as habitats for animals and for carbon sequestration (they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and replace it with oxygen). Christmas tree farms are no different. For every tree that is sold, another is planted to continue the cycle,” says Trevor.

“We have an abundance of wildlife on the farm, from the little red robins that greet you every morning to buzzards circling the skies, red squirrels, and plenty of precious bees and ladybirds.”

On the converse, most artificial trees are made mainly from plastic, a by-product of the fossil fuel industry, adds Trevor.

Trevor Roper tending trees at his family's Christmas tree plantation at Inniscarra.
Trevor Roper tending trees at his family's Christmas tree plantation at Inniscarra.

On top of this, they are shipped long distances all over the world. “The Carbon Trust estimates that a two-metre high artificial tree has a carbon footprint of around 40kg of CO2. When it starts to look shabby after a few years, it ends up in landfill. 

"Besides the environmental issues, the family tradition of going out together and picking a real Christmas tree to bring home and decorate is a really special experience. The amazing scent and look of a real lush green Christmas tree in the house cannot be replicated,” says Trevor.

Now, all that said, if you have a phoney tree and it’s in good order, don’t throw it out in favour of a fresh tree — unless you are putting up two. Wait until it’s truly balded out and ready for the dump (which sadly is the only place that it can go). 

We are up to our Christmas puddings in yards of the plastic bushy stuff and fluttering lametta. Decorations, especially those on the petrochemical scale like tinsel, break down generating microplastics that can be ingested in wildlife or tangled into their bodies.

If you already have synthetic bling, dispose of it gradually and responsibly — replacing this haul with collectable heritage pieces in glass, porcelain, wood and found, natural honest materials. If the resin door wreath is looking shook, perk it up with springs of garden cuttings, an LED battery strand, and a couple of candy canes. Just try to not add to the planet-bruising collection with spontaneous buys.

In the last EU figures we have for waste generation in 2019, the EU average per head for plastic waste was 33kg. Ireland came in at a horrifying 54kg — the highest in the EU. 

Decorations, especially those on the petro-chemical scale like tinsel break down generating microplastics. Picture: iStock
Decorations, especially those on the petro-chemical scale like tinsel break down generating microplastics. Picture: iStock

According to Repak, in 2021, we achieved an overall recycling rate of 66% and a recovery rate of 96%, surpassing EU targets set at 65% for recycling and 75% for recovery. Also in 2021, we funded the recycling and recovery of 1,020,580 tonnes of packaging material.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest findings shows plastics still present a serious challenge: “Only 29% of plastic packaging waste was recycled in 2020, a long way off the 2025 EU target of 50%. The majority of Ireland’s plastic packaging waste is being incinerated. 306,000t of our packaging waste is plastic (27%).” 

Go on a rewarding plastic diet. Just download the My Little Plastic Footprint app on plasticsoupfoundation.org.

Sustainable gifting

Zero Waste Alliance IEN & EP Representative, Sean Cronin, favours homemade decorations, cards and gifts for Christmas time, together with keeping an eye on food waste.

According to the EPA’s initiative Stop Food Waste (stopfoodwaste.ie), largely avoidable food waste costs an average household about €700 a year. “Buy nothing that cannot be re-used, recycled, re-purposed and enjoyed sustainably,” Sean advises. 

“Waste avoidance with mindful selection is the first rule when deciding what to buy. If this is difficult, try to imagine what else could you offer instead of a ‘bad eco’ choice item.

“With presents and wrapping, the trick is to avoid buying anything that will not be re-usable,” says Sean. “Drop the foil and glittery paper, and opt for a more subtle style, like the plain paper you’re probably used to sending parcels with. 

"Colour it or draw some art on it to make it personal and special. Use biodegradable paper tape, dress it with some old ribbon or some coloured yarn, and each gift will be left looking totally adorable and unique.”

Isn’t this all a bit ‘bah-humbug’? What about the shop-bought pressies in flashy, multiple non-recyclable materials? We can’t do without those surely? There was an average €832 Christmas spend per household in 2021, up 5% from 2020 according to the ‘Christmas Retail Monitor’ at Ibec.

Replace bling with natural materials and crafted, collectable objects for the tree. Picture: iStock
Replace bling with natural materials and crafted, collectable objects for the tree. Picture: iStock

Other polls are more generous, including one conducted by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission which pointed towards a figure closer to €1,000 (€1,397 for households with kiddies). Some 17% of 35- to 54-year-olds intended to let loose as much as €2,000 for a Yuletide knees-up.

Sean suggests a different approach to gifting that demonstrates climate care, genuine effort and thoughtfulness.

“Instead of buying gifts, why not try your hand at making gifts? If you’re into all things food — bake a cake, or biscuits, or even attempt your very own gingerbread house! But why not avoid physical gifts entirely and give an ‘experience’ — downloads, subscriptions, tickets, travel vouchers, holistic hits (spas or yoga classes), or educational tokens. 

"How about a voucher from yourself offering a gift of your time (a task you promise to do for the recipient)?” Check out zwai.ie.

Put aside that fear of playing Scrooge with work colleagues. Edit down your gifting; an E-card with a donation towards a charity such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul, or a handmade card fashioned from a folded piece of card stock glued with any child’s drawing will touch the heart.

Derek, Odhran and Sarah Kelly of organic Dublin retailer Nourish, nourish.ie.
Derek, Odhran and Sarah Kelly of organic Dublin retailer Nourish, nourish.ie.

Food choices

A simple foodie gift could get you in touch with the circular economy rather than the linear model of take-make-consume-dispose. Nourish Health Food Director, Odhran Kelly, champions whole foods and sustainable products from their store on Wicklow Street in Dublin.

“Christmas shouldn’t cost the Earth. A bottle of organic olive oil, some warming winter teas, a jar of sweet Irish honey or vegan-friendly treats will be enjoyed and shared around the table, rather than languishing in landfill.” See nourish.ie.

Michael Kelly, sustainable grower, educator and founder of the GIY award-winning cafe and organic garden in Waterford City, says: “A simple change that you could make this Christmas in order to live more sustainably is to ‘buy less’ especially ‘fresh’.

“Christmas can often be a time of abundance. Most likely you will purchase more than you need and items will go off, so it’s best to buy less in bulk.

Try to buy less and buy fresh, says Michael Kelly, GIY.
Try to buy less and buy fresh, says Michael Kelly, GIY.

“Hopefully, more households will be inspired to grow more of their own veggies by learning on our free online courses and for Christmas 2023 we will see more people eating their own homegrown produce.”

To give growers the best chance of success in 2023, GIY is now making its range of online courses free to anyone. Usually retailing at €35 per course, the courses take a step-by-step approach from seed to harvest in real time.

This selection of online courses will help get you from the plot (or pot) to plate and all you need to do is subscribe to the GIY newsletter to get your unique discount code at www.giy.ie.

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