All I want for Christmas is…

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Christmas, for many, is a time when we flex our consumer muscles and make choices about where to use our spending power. From buying the latest gadget, making sure we have a new party outfit, and from turkeys to nut roasts (not to mention, what kind of Christmas tree to get?) it can easily become a time of significant consumption.

But with people being more aware about the climate and other environmental impacts of buying choices, they are increasingly looking to limit these impacts during the festive period.

In this blog, SPICe has selected three key elements of “Christmas purchasing” and explored what information is available for those in search of sustainable festive choices.

Gift giving in a more circular economy

In its Climate Change Plan 2018 and circular economy strategy ‘Making Things Last’, the Scottish Government aims to maximise the reuse, recycling and recovery of resources so that products and materials are kept in high value use for as long as possible.

2018 research by Recycling and Waste World (an UK service dedicated to the recycling and waste management industries) reported that in preparation for Christmas, UK households clear out 66 million bin-bags of stuff.  It highlighted that two-fifths of British households are expected to roll-up their sleeves for a pre-Christmas clear out, with a third saying this is to create space for new gifts. There are ways of ensuring that cleared-out things do not go to landfill – including donating useable items to charity or putting them on reselling and re-use platforms and apps such as eBay.

A survey by Zero Waste Scotland found a significant portion of people have bought or would buy second-hand in order to find quality items at a lower price, and to find something unique that no one else will have under the Christmas tree. Four out of five Scots would also be happy to receive a pre-loved Christmas gift, however only a quarter said they had ever gifted a second-hand item. Zero Waste Scotland also suggest giving experiential gifts as an alternative, such as tickets, subscriptions, or craft workshops.

 Christmas food – waste not want not

According to estimates by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), approximately one-third of all food produced in the world is lost or wasted. In 2019, an estimated 987,890 tonnes of food and drink in Scotland was wasted, with just over 60% of that taking place at household level. Zero Waste Scotland reports that Scottish people could save £90 million by cutting down food waste this Christmas, equivalent to £38 per household.

The Scottish Government’s Food Waste Reduction Action Plan aims to reduce the amount of food that is discarded. In May 2019 Zero Waste Scotland reported that when food waste is not collected separately and ends up in landfill it produces methane gas, a greenhouse gas covered by climate targets, that is many times more damaging to the environment, per unit, than carbon dioxide.

Their research found that, in 2016, the carbon footprint of food waste collected from Scottish households was nearly three times that of plastic waste collected from people’s homes, at roughly 1.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) compared to 0.73MtCO2e. One of the key reasons why food waste has a far greater impact on global warming is that there is much more of it, with the amount of food waste collected from Scottish households in 2016 roughly double the amount of plastic waste collected.

Zero Waste Scotland offers advice on reducing food waste, from checking what you have in the cupboard before heading to the shops (armed with a list), planning meals and freezing leftovers. There have also been increasing efforts by local projects to re-distribute food that might otherwise be wasted, such as apps that enable you to pick up food from cafes at the end of the day.

In terms of the environmental footprint of your Christmas dinner itself, the Carbon Trust advises that turkey has a lower carbon footprint than beef, and vegetarian options tend to be even lower – bearing in mind that cheese has a relatively high carbon footprint.

 Christmas tree – should you go ‘fake fir’ or ‘real fir’?

 There is a long-standing debate as to whether to opt for an artificial tree or a real tree for Christmas and which one is better for the environment. The British Christmas Tree Growers Association (BCTGA) estimate that 6-8 million real trees are sold each year in the UK and that 75% of these are grown in the UK.  A 2016 article in the Press and Journal reported that around half are harvested in Scotland.

The Carbon Trust state that a real Christmas tree “has a significantly lower carbon footprint than an artificial tree, especially if it is disposed of properly, by chipping or burning” where, according to Horticulture Week a 6ft real tree creates 3.5kg of carbon emissions.

Many artificial trees are imported, with associated transport emissions, and there are carbon and other environmental impacts associated with the materials used such as plastic and metal. They also tend to be non-recyclable. However, the balance can begin to tip in favour of an artificial tree the more times it is used – and they become less carbon intensive than a real tree if used for more than 10 years. However, Horticulture Week magazine suggests that artificial trees are normally used for four years before going to landfill.

The BCTGA report that Christmas tree production is a cycle rather than a process of deforestation, with trees cut after eight to 10 years and replaced by another seedling. If buying a real tree, the Soil Association advise sourcing FSC® accredited trees from a local supplier – meaning the management of the forestry practices has been certified against environmental and social criteria. The Woodland Trust advise consumers to buy a tree with roots, because it can be re-planted and maintained. Some garden centres also offer the option to rent a potted Christmas Tree and return it.

Recycle, reuse and disposal after Christmas

 For waste generated over the festive period, local authorities in Scotland often offer special waste collections such as tree collections or promote awareness of existing recycling or re-use services. Approaches may differ – you can check local authority recycling services at this link.

Zero Waste Scotland also has an online reuse tool.  This allows people using their post code to find local re-use organisations, such as charity shops, reuse hubs or social enterprises that will offer collections of unwanted, useable goods.

The Scottish Government launched their consultation on proposals for legislation to develop Scotland’s circular economy in November 2019. With the need to continue to reduce waste and increase resource-use efficiency across the economy, the environmental impact and opportunities of the Christmas period are likely to come around again.

Edna Stirrat


“Christmas Watercolor illustrations 2018” by Anastasiya Melnikova is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0