Green Christmas Giving

From the Guardian Unlimited

I’m dreaming of a green Christmas …

From eating and drinking to giving and receiving, it is the time of year when you do things to excess. So can you still have a good Christmas – and be kind to the planet? Yes, says Aida Edemariam, you just need to be a little more creative

Christmas travelling

You could go nowhere. “Advances in modern communications technology make it possible to see and hear your kith and kin via the internet, and investing in a simple webcam set-up can bring you closer, if not physically,” suggests The Green Guide for Christmas 2006. If that doesn’t appeal, you could cycle – which might be a bit parky, especially if in the end it’s a white Christmas rather than green. Failing that – and most of us will – take public transport. Christmas train and bus schedules generally do not make this option easy, but try to plan ahead. As for flying – well, that’s the big sin, isn’t it. Cross the Atlantic and you produce as much CO2 as a family car does in a year. The trouble is, if you’re flying for Christmas it’s usually because you haven’t seen your family for a while, and the trip is less likely to be negotiable. You could deny yourself air travel for the rest of the year, or make the rest of your Christmas so green that you offset your evil ways.

Christmas cards
Yes, yes, you don’t send any already – hooray, there’s finally an excuse. But for those who do, one option is to send virtual cards. E-cards are currently the refuge of those who weren’t organised enough to commemorate Christmas, a birthday or their own wedding anniversary in time, but with a joke or two, and a little note to say why you’re doing it, you should be able to get away with it. Friends of the Earth notes that in 2004 we sent around 744 million Christmas cards. If all these were recycled instead of thrown away, it would save the equivalent of 248,000 trees, not to mention all that postage. Many charity stores sell gummed labels to stick over previous missives and addresses. “Last year,” says the Green Guide, “82 million cards were collected and recycled. That amounts to 1,630 tonnes of rubbish diverted from landfill.”

Christmas trees

More than seven million Christmas trees are grown and sold in the UK each year, most ending up as landfill. In 2001, according to Defra, 7.5 million Christmas trees were bought and only 1.2 million were recycled. The other 6 million or so created enough waste to fill the Albert Hall three times over. The obvious answer is not to have one. But if that’s too bah humbug, too depressing, make your own. Vicki Hird, senior food campaigner at Friends of the Earth, cuts one out of cardboard and gets her children to paint it green. She concedes that that’s not for everyone, “but it’s quite fun for the children”.

I once spent an interesting afternoon helping a friend spray-paint fallen branches from the local park silver. It’s not a tree-option I’m going to repeat in a hurry, so for those like me, who love the smell of pine needles, here are a couple of solutions: buy British – so they don’t have so far to go; or get a tree with roots still on, and plant it in your garden after Epiphany. And if you don’t have a garden – recycle. Most councils will compost or shred trees. And if they don’t, they should.Christmas dinner

The centre of festivities, apart from the presents of course. Oh, and God, glad tidings and goodwill to all men. According to the Environment Agency, a typical Christmas dinner made from imported ingredients travels more than 24,000 miles – that’s once round the globe. A similar dinner made from UK farmers market produce travels 376 miles. So find a local turkey farmer, or at least buy free-range, and use local instead of imported berries for pudding. Treat it as a challenge, says Hird. “You can discover new shops, new markets, even get people at dinner to guess where it all came from.” Moreover, the Green Guide reminds us that “over 24 million glass jars of mincemeat, pickles and cranberry sauce will be consumed over the festive period and if these jars were recycled, it would save enough energy to boil water for 60 million cups of tea.”


Eschew those twinkly batons of coloured paper you’ve tripped over 20 times already in the aisles of Boots or Woolworths. This Christmas, more than 8,000 tonnes of the stuff will be used, the equivalent of 50,000 trees. In fact, we use enough, estimates Defra, to gift-wrap the island of Guernsey. Defra also estimates that last year 83 sq km of wrapping paper ended up in UK rubbish bins. Wrap those ethically thoughtful presents in old newspaper and string. You can, I promise, make that look knowing and fun. Or use brown paper (undyed with toxins) and alternate these more downbeat colours with sparkly tin foil as wrapping paper, which, when everything has been unwrapped, can be used in the kitchen.

Tree decorations

You may, year after year, be using family heirlooms of blown glass and gold, but for those who aren’t and plan to refresh their stock this season, stop and think a minute. Many are made out of non-biodegradable substances, often in distant countries with questionable working practices. Look for baubles made of natural substances, and if possible under fair trade. Recycle old and tatty decorations, or make edible ones – strings of cranberries and popcorn, decorated biscuits in fun shapes (children’s cookbooks are a good source for this, notes Hird). Then you can eat them or put them out for the squirrels and birds.

“When I was a kid we made paper chains,” says Gavin Markham, who edits the Green Guide. “Nowadays you go out to the nearest Woolies, buy the cheapest tat there is, then throw it away. Kids like making stuff, getting involved. It’s getting back to what Christmas should be about.” Use that foil again – attached to cardboard backing, it can make very presentable stars. It is even possible, for those with Martha Stewart tendencies, to make your own Christmas crackers.


Christmas may not be as cold as it used to be, but, says Markham, “it’s meant to be cold”. Try not to use quite so much central heating. Put a nice, Christmassy woolly jumper on (think Mark Darcy) and turn the heating down a notch. Use slightly fewer fairy lights, and try not to leave them on all day. Don’t leave mobile phone chargers plugged in all the time (they lose 90% of their energy when not plugged into a phone, apparently), or TVs on. “Get people into the habit of thinking greener at Christmas and maybe they’ll extend it through the year,” says Markham.


A vast and rich source of greenery. When Markham began editing the Green Guide, he found it difficult to find ecologically sound gifts; now we’re drowning in things that are good, beautiful and fun. I won’t rehearse all the many, many possibilities but they include everything from giving a goat to organic underwear to recycled glass objects. According to the Green Guide, “gifts such as DVD players and coffee-makers generated 780,000 tonnes of greenhouse pollution last year, even before they were unwrapped and used. A third was due to fuel consumption during production.” Give antiques or experiences instead, suggest Friends of the Earth – opera tickets, spa weekends, membership of a gallery, which has the added bonus of cutting down on waste. The Institute of Environmental Assessment and Management predicts that this Christmas will create three million extra tonnes of rubbish, enough to fill 400,000 double-decker buses, of which we will recycle just 12%.

Consume less

And finally, consider not giving much at all. If all the world consumed as much as the west did, we’d need three planets to live on; as it is, the developing world will soon – indeed, already is – picking up the tab for our profligacy. “We feel compelled to go out and buy and buy, spend and spend and give and give,” says Markham – but is it absolutely necessary? Christmas is a period of sanctioned excess, but does it have to be? Would it not be less stressful if – taking, God forbid, the lead from Chelsea’s footballers – we put a low cap on what we spent per person, and within that tried to be as ethical and inventive as we could be? We could spend more time on what matters – friends and family – and give a gift to our planet at the same time. “It doesn’t mean you have to have less fun,” says Markham, “just be pickier. And that might be the greenest thing you can do”.



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