Ah, Christmas. A time of good cheer, presents, parties and some of that legendary Irish hospitality. Unfortunately, these days a lot of that cheer comes wrapped in – or made of – plastic. In fact, at 61kg per person, we are currently the top producer of plastic waste in Europe. Enough to fill 25 baths per person each year, says Mindy O’Brien, co-ordinator of the Sick of Plastic campaign.
With that in mind, here are some tips for reducing your plastic footprint this Christmas.
1 Choose a real tree, not an artificial one. “Buy real. Buy local,” says Mindy O’Brien. Artificial trees are forever trees in more than one way. Made from metal, non-recyclable plastic and petroleum-based products, many are also shipped all the way from China. Their average lifespan is five to seven years in the home, followed by centuries spent lying in landfill. The real thing, on the other hand, absorbs plenty of carbon dioxide as it grows, and produces lots of oxygen (an acre of Christmas trees produces enough oxygen for 16 people). Afterwards, it can be recycled into wood chip, mulch or compost by your local council.
Or, buy a potted tree that can live outside for the other 11 months of the year and is ideal for apartments or small spaces. Or grow your own – though you might be a bit late for this year. From about €25; try limerickchristmastrees.com or johnstowngardencentre.ie
2 Or try a DIY tree alternative A chalk-drawn tree on a blackboard wall, a cardboard tree, or this year’s hippest choice – a mini-tree composed of succulents.
3 Garland your tree with strings of wooden beads or pompoms instead of tinsel, and resist the lure of plastic baubles. Go for crafted glass or wood decorations instead.
4 Use real candles instead of plastic lights German-born Karin Dubsky of Coastwatch Europe says, “We use beeswax candles. It makes a very magical light.” Monitor children, pets, and draughts and never put a lighted candle near a Christmas tree.
5 Prune your gift list It’s easy to panic buy presents for everyone from your postman to your children’s teacher. Often these gifts – plastic or not – just end up in landfill. “The first thing to do is make your list,” says Jennie Jacques de Cisneros, of online store Minimal Waste Grocery. “Then ask, ‘Who can I take off it? I’m only giving this gift because I feel I have to.’ A lot of people don’t really want the stuff you’re giving to them. For example, teachers don’t want a mug (or candles made from petroleum residue or beauty products full of plastic microbeads). They’ve got 72,000 at home. I know. I used to be a teacher. I used to prefer when a student would give me a nice note or card that means much more than a present that I don’t really want anyway.”
6 Give an experience instead “Time is the new money,” says Jenny. “Presents like a workshop or cinema tickets, or even a promise to have a lovely ladies day, to go to a nice cafe and have afternoon tea. Then as well as something lovely on the day, it is a nice thing to look forward to because January and February are so bleak.”
7 Seek out plastic-free presents. There are wonderful zero-waste and plastic-free gifts now available. For starters, check out organic beauty goodies at minimalwastegrocery.com; Elvis & Kresse’s smart rescued leather, decommissioned firehose and parachute bags at protecttheplanet.co.uk; soy wax Christmas candles at earthmother.ie; plastic-free stationery at ecoland.com; upcycled goods and Christmas cards at rediscoverycentre.ie; or give a gardener a shiitake mushroom plug starter kit, thegardenshop.ie.
8 Ask yourself – who are you buying for? Keep Cups or jazzed-up water canteens, for example, are top of many Christmas lists, as they cut down on single-use plastic. But, warns Jenny: “A Keep Cup mightn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. You might be zero waste but you can’t force it on people so just ask yourself, ‘does the present match the person?'” Beware the tendency for zero waste to become consumerism dressed up as environmentalism.
9 Steer clear of non-recyclable wrapping paper. “A lot of wrapping paper out now is gorgeous, but it’s not really paper. It’s plastic, so you can’t recycle it,” says Jenny. “If it’s shiny, it has any foil or any film on it, you can’t recycle it.” There are plenty of other possibilities though – brown paper looks cool and natural and can be personalised with ink prints or handed to the kids for decoration. Or you can use newsprint, old maps, music scores, tissue paper… all can be prettied up with recyclable raffia, wool pom-poms or ribbon or garden twine and some sprigs of rosemary, Christmas tree branches, holly or ivy. Avoid sellotape by using brown-paper tape, available from ecoland.ie
10 Wrap with fabric instead of paper and embrace the Japanese trend of Furoshiki. The wrapping becomes part of the gift, says Karin Dubsky of Coastwatch Europe, which works to keep our shorelines clean of plastic. “I wrap babies’ presents in muslin cloth. They can be used straightaway and look lovely tied with ribbon. Or squares of fabric picked up cheaply in Hickeys or other fabric shops.” Cute dishcloths, scarves or cotton bags work well too. Check out knot techniques on YouTube.
11 Shop smart when it comes to food Don’t over-do it. We generate 1m tons of food waste every year, about €700-worth on average for each household. During Christmas, we throw away an extra 20pc more waste, and food is a major part of that. Make a list, so you’re less likely to go off-piste. Then, leave your plastic food packaging at the supermarket or dip into zero waste shopping by decanting your buys into jars, containers or bags at the store. Shop at one of the many zero-waste markets springing up, such as at the Dublin Food Coop (dublinfood.coop) or order a plastic-free delivery from minimalwastegrocery.com.
12 Keep Christmas leftovers fresh There are plenty of alternatives to non-recyclable clingfilm, freezer bags, or plastic containers that can leach nasty oestrogen-mimicking hormones into food. Try glass jars, silicone can lids, or beeswax reusable food wraps, such as Abeego’s. There are even vegan versions; see littlegreenshop.ie.
13 Friendly fire? Assuming Santa is not using the chimney, and you want a blazing fire – then where do you find firelighters that are not petroleum-based and wrapped in plastic? Snowflake firelighters, £9.99stg, come in packs of six, and are made from 100pc soy wax with a spicy blend of cinnamon, clove, orange and lime and include a kindle cone for extra Christmas crackle; protecttheplanet.co.uk.
14 Lay a sustainable Christmas table Use metal or recyclable straws, invest in real napkins, and deck out the table with a hand from nature. The folks at The Crate, a florist specialising in wildflower and natural arrangements, suggest: “For festive dining at home, you can add a simple place setting of a sprig of greenery with holly or a dried flower, tied in string or ribbon for each guest, adding beautiful decoration to the table.”
15 Recycle. Recycle. Recycle. Bewildered by what can and can’t go in the green bin? Check recyclinglistireland.ie for a list of the plastics that are recyclable.