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Presents under a Christmas tree
From food to gifts, Christmas is the season of overconsumptionImage: Geoffrey Swaine/Avalon/Photoshot/bpicture alliance

5 ways to a sustainable Christmas

Jennifer Collins
December 23, 2022

The festive season is a time of goodwill, food, gifts — and a lot of waste. So, here's a short guide to having yourself a sustainable little Christmas.

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Christmas may be the most wonderful time of the year, as the song goes, but — and not to be a total Grinch about it — it's also the season of overconsumption. In the UK alone, the average household spends 700 pounds (€811, $853) more in December compared to other months on gifts, food and other Advent extras. 

With that increase in consumption, comes an increase in trash. Household waste in the US rises by about 25% over the festive period. 

If not properly disposed of, plastic packaging, for instance, can end up in rivers, lakes and the ocean where it harms animals. Wasted Christmas fare ends up in landfills where it rots and contributes to the  8-10% of yearly greenhouse gas emissions heating the planet caused by uneaten food. 

But fear not, because there are plenty of sustainable hacks to make your Yuletide green.

Gifts: From secondhand to homemade and everything in between 

Giving and receiving presents is one of the hallmarks of Christmas. But you can extract yourself from the consumer rush by gifting sustainably

Homemade Christmas cookies shot from above
Homemade cookies could make a good sustainable Christmas giftImage: C. Alvarez

Think carefully about what you purchase and look out for locally produced items made from sustainable or recycled materials. Also try to ensure gifts are durable and reusable, rather than novelty items that someone may use once and then throw away. 

Regifting or donating unwanted presents is another option. One YouGov survey found that 57% of people in the UK had received at least one unwanted present at Christmas, but most found regifting acceptable. 

According to a 2020 study in the scientific journal "Nature," stuff made by humans now outweighs all life on Earth. So instead of adding to the Anthropocene mountain of things, check out the many vintage or secondhand stores both on and offline where you can find all sorts of unique gems for the special people in your life. 

For those of us blessed with the skills of crafting or cooking, there are also plenty of online guides for making clever gifts, from photo albums to homemade preserves. And for the less artistically inclined, there are always gift certificates for local gigs, theater productions and other events. 

Cutting down on Christmas waste

If you want to stop your trash cans from overflowing this Christmas, avoid gifts with excess packaging, cut down on single-use plastics and be mindful of how gifts are wrapped. 

A blue bin packed with wrapping paper
As pretty as it is, all that excess wrapping paper mostly ends up in the trashImage: Frank Sorge/IMAGO

Some 50,000 trees are cut down annually to make the 227,000 miles (365,321 kilometers) of wrapping paper used in the UK each year. And while it may look pretty, paper decorated with bows, plastic or glitter is largely not recyclable and ends up in landfills. 

One way to test whether wrapping paper is recyclable is by simply scrunching it into a ball. If it remains crumpled, then you can pop it in the recycling bin. 

You can also avoid waste by reusing old wrapping paper or by packaging gifts in newspaper. Reusable cloth bags are a good alternative or check out this DW guide on how to wrap gifts in fabric. 

A green Christmas dinner

Some 61% of the 931 million tons of food that was wasted in 2019 came from households, and Christmas can be one of the worst times for the binning of uneaten food. 

You can help your pocket and the environment by planning how much you'll need for the number of people you're feeding. Using a portion calculator is one option. Finding good Christmas leftover recipes is another.

People drinking wine and eating Christmas dinner
Calculating portions correctly and switching to a plant-based or largely meat-free Christmas dinner is more eco-friendlyImage: lev dolgachov/Zoonar/picture alliance

Going vegetarian — or better still, vegan — is the best way to lower your Christmas dinner's carbon emissions. While poultry like chicken and turkey, does have a lower CO2 footprint than the worst carbon offenders, beef and lamb, they still far outstrip legumes, pulses and vegetables. 

There are plenty of delicious and exciting veggie recipes, just a click away. But if you can't go the whole animal-free hog, cutting down on the amount and kinds of meat and dairy you consume can help lower your emissions.

One tip for cutting down on your own transport emissions is to carshare with a nearby friend or neighbor when you go shopping. If you live close enough to your local supermarket or farmers' market, invest in the two-wheeled trolley beloved of grannies throughout the ages and which can then be used year-round.

Deck the halls with eco-friendly decorations

Where would we be without Christmas decorations and lights to brighten up the bleak midwinter

LED lights are the green alternative to old, incandescent ones. They're energy-efficient, safer, more durable and will keep your Christmas days merry and bright. 

Christmas tree branch with natural sheep ornament made from wood and wool in front of pink background
Deck the halls with natural Christmas decorationsImage: Zoonar/picture alliance

Instead of buying new Christmas decorations each year, upcycle your old ones. Or have some fun with family, friends, or by yourself, by making some with spare or recycled materials lying around your house, like origami or fabric ornaments. 

If you are buying new ones, then steer clear of plastic and look out for secondhand decorations or those made from recycled or sustainable materials. 

Fake or real? The great Christmas tree debate

And finally, to the Christmas tree. Is it better to go real or fake? Environmental organization WWF says buying a fake tree only makes sense if you're going to use it for at least 10 years. They are made from fossil-fuel byproduct plastic after all and cannot be recycled. 

But if you're going for a real one, WWF advises buying it from a sustainable, FSC-certified forest and having it turned into wood chips after Christmas. 

Regenerative Christmas trees

There are other alternatives though. Some tree-renting services have popped up in recent years. These potted Christmas trees are returned and planted once the festive season is over. Or if you want to get really creative, decorate a few spruce or pine branches or make a "tree" out of a ladder or a pile of books. Take a look at DW's alternative Christmas tree guide for more ideas. 

Edited by: Tamsin Walker

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