Have Yourself a Conscious Little Christmas

If there was one thing I used to dread about Christmas, it was the thought of trying to find gifts for people who have everything, and of receiving gifts I either don’t like or don’t need and won’t use. But thankfully now it is much simpler, mainly because we just give less, which means less shopping, less plastic and less waste. As well as gift-giving, there are many ways we can simplify our festive season to not only save time and money, but reduce the plastic we use and the waste we generate. And when we simplify Christmas, whether it’s gifts, decorations or table settings, and use more natural and better quality items, they also tend to look WAY nicer than a bunch of cheap, disposable plastic!

In recent years in our family we tend to give much less ‘stuff’ as gifts, partly because we don’t want to end up with stuff we don’t really need/want or won’t use, and partly because we pretty much have everything we need. Actually, more than we need. We are trying to DE-clutter our home, not accumulate more possessions. Leading up to Christmas we share our wishlists, so we know we’re giving someone something they really want, otherwise we give vouchers so people can get something they really want. Any ‘stuff’ I give as gifts now has to meet strict criteria of usefulness and eco-friendliness. Also, a great alternative to giving ‘stuff’ is to give experiences, which could be anything from a massage to some surfing lessons.

Another HUGELY wasteful part of gift-giving is the wrapping. I wince whenever I see people tearing the wrapping off gifts and stuffing it in the garbage bin. Yes the paper is recyclable (not sure how much of it actually gets recycled!) but most of it still came from forests (i.e. not recycled) and all the bits of plastic tape might seem insignificant but they add up, and they are NOT recyclable. For the gifts you do give this Christmas, here are some easy ways to avoid plastic and over-packaging:

  1. Use a brown paper bag (recycled if possible). That way you don’t need tape — you can just tie a gift tag around the handles.
  2. Use recycled gift wrap like this and secure with jute or hemp twine or raffia ribbon (both reusable and biodegradable). If string won’t work and you need tape then use paper tape or masking tape.
  3. Avoid giving Christmas cards and just use a gift tag instead which is much smaller and doesn’t have an envelope.
  4. Unwrap gifts carefully so you can reuse the wrapping next year. Also, if you write on gift tags in lead pencil they can be reused too.
Recycled paper gift wrapping, recycled paper gift tags and raffia ribbon (available in silver, gold and many more colours)

When it comes to Christmas decorations, less is more. Here are some thoughts and ideas for decorating your front yard/door/tree in a way that is more simple, more attractive and more eco-friendly than the (sadly) more common plastic-dominated, multi-coloured decorations:

The front yard:

Being out in many residential neighbourhoods of an evening during the festive season is actually more painful than enjoyable these days, as so many houses have crammed their front yards with garish lights in every colour of the rainbow. It feels more like Las Vegas than Christmas. What happened to festive colours like red and green? And whatever happened to subtlety? Over-the-top, trashy Christmas decorations have totally ruined the ambience Christmas used to have (and they really screw with local wildlife who think it’s daytime 24/7). And apart from taking up loads of space in your home the other 11 months of the year, many Christmas decorations end up in landfill after just a few years of use.

When it comes to choosing decorations, stick with festive colours like red and green and avoid pink and blue. The less colours you use the nicer it looks, e.g. red stands out more against a green or white background than if it has to compete with pink, blue and purple. All we have in the way of Christmas decorations is a wreath (I bought a plain one and decorated it myself) and a simple set of white lights with replaceable bulbs. Avoid blow-up Santas and other plastic crap.

The tree:

Plastic trees and decorations are usually made with toxic plastics like PVC and polycarbonate so they are best avoided. Many people still buy real trees, which smell great and are more eco-friendly than plastic ones, as pine trees are a fast-growing plantation crop (just make sure you ‘recycle’ it in your City’s green waste collection afterwards). An even more eco-friendly option is to use a potted plant, get a reusable tree made from plastic-free materials like wood or metal, or what we have which is just a dead tree branch we found in our local park.

Most baubles these days seem to be made from plastic, usually polycarbonate which is toxic (and brittle and therefore still often ends up breaking). You can still get glass ones but there are other safer plastic-free alternatives available too, like cardboard, wood, metal or felt.

Tinsel is also made from plastic and has a limited life-span. Great alternatives include felt ball garlands, wooden/metal/glass bead garlands and ribbons.

Plastic-free tree decorations: glass baubles, Kurt Adler glass icicle ornaments and wooden bead garland

If you have some spare time and are feeling a bit creative you could make your own Christmas decorations. There are also plenty of handmade, ethically-sourced decorations available like these.

The table:

Christmas crackers are one of those almost obligatory Christmas traditions, but is all that waste (especially the crappy plastic toys) really worth it for a few seconds of ‘excitement’, some lame jokes and a flimsy hat that is lucky to last an hour? If you have the time and inclination you can make your own Christmas crackers, that way you can find more useful, quality and eco-friendly alternatives to the rubbishy and pointless toys found in most crackers. Unpackaged boiled lollies are also a good zero-waste and zero-‘stuff’ alternative.

Another plastic item that has made its way onto the festive dinner table is Christmas-themed confetti/sequins. If you can find some reusable ones made of metal, great! Otherwise they are best avoided.

Our dead branch Christmas tree (it’s sustained a few losses over the years so is looking a bit sparse) with ethical/sustainable decorations (small round baubles home-made using glass marbles and fine stainless steel wire; minimal time/effort required).
Wreath and brass bells hanging on our partially renovated front door

Many festive season gatherings, from office parties, to Christmas lunches, boxing day BBQs and New Years Eve parties involve many single-use plastics like cups, straws, plates and utensils. Here are some ways you can avoid disposable plastics this festive season:

If you’re going to any Christmas or New Years Eve parties:

Make sure to BYO reusables: cup/glass, straw (if you need one), plate & utensils (if a meal is being served. If it’s just finger food I find a napkin is usually sufficient). If you don’t already have these here are some ideas:

Reusables to avoid disposable party plastic this festive season: Simple Modern insulated wine tumbler, Eco Tribe stainless steel straws, Klean Kanteen stainless steel pint cups, stainless steel plates, titanium spork

If you’re hosting a party:

Try to use reusable items if possible. If there are more people than your crockery, glassware or utensils will cater for then choose bamboo, palm leaf, paper or other biodegradable items (and preferably compost them afterwards). Or better still, consider getting some reusable crockery and utensils to cater for party guests. Bamboo is light-weight, durable and naturally anti-bacterial.

Ditch disposables when you’re entertaining this festive season: reusable bamboo cups, reusable bamboo plates, reusable bamboo forks

Avoiding food waste

Another part of Christmas that generates a lot of waste is the food itself. There always seems to be SOOOO much food at Christmas! The average family throws out around $3,500 worth of food a year and I’m guessing a lot of this happens during the festive season. Here are some tips to avoid food waste and the plastic that goes with it:

  • If you have leftovers from Christmas dinner, freeze what you won’t use within a few days so it doesn’t have to be thrown out. For help with meal planning and using leftovers to avoid food waste check out the free app Love Your Leftovers.
  • Avoid using plastic cling wrap to cover plates and bowls. Get some beeswax or silicone wraps (like the ones by Agreena), or use Pyrex dishes with lids to make trifle and other desserts so that if you have leftovers you can just put the lid on it instead of covering it in plastic wrap.
How to avoid using cling wrap for leftovers: Pyrex dishes with lids and Agreena reusable silicone wraps

I would love to see Christmas return to the simpler, more meaningful time it used to be, where the focus is more on being with family and less on consumption and ‘stuff’, where decorations are more traditional and unpretentious and our neighbourhoods have a Christmas feel, rather than a Vegas feel, and of course where there is no disposable plastic in sight! It is pretty simple to avoid plastic and waste in gifts, decorations and what we eat and drink during the festive season, we just need to be more mindful of it.

Sustainability educator & activist, founder @ Earth Ethic

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