Stuffing ourselves?

11th December 2013


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Laura Bartle

Peter Brown investigates the main environmental impacts of traditional Christmas celebrations

As an annual festival of overconsumption, Christmas is attracting increased attention for the waste and emissions it produces. The figures are startling; according to a report published by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) unit at the University of York, if Christmas consumption patterns in the UK continued throughout the year, the annual carbon footprint per person would rise from around 12 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) to 79 tonnes.

At Christmas, we tend to eat more, buy more, travel more and waste more. Christmas is a time when people are very aware of how much they are consuming, so it’s also a useful opportunity to promote the carbon reduction message. “You can have a huge positive impact if you bring up a discussion about carbon footprints or if you change some of your own habits at Christmas,” says Dr Paul Swift, analyst at the Carbon Trust.

Mike Berners-Lee, author of carbon footprinting handbook How bad are bananas?, agrees. “There’s loads going on at Christmas that doesn’t actually help us have a good time,” he argues. “If we recognise that, if we change a few social norms and agree to celebrate Christmas a bit differently, we can have a far better time and help the planet too.”

Waste is a major contributor to the Christmas period’s high carbon footprint. “The excess around Christmas is the edible and non-edible stuff that people buy and don’t use,” says Berners-Lee. Huge amounts of paper and high footprint presents are thrown away each year. Likewise, uneaten food ends up in landfill, where it decomposes and releases methane.

Calculating carbon footprints is a notoriously complex process in which both direct and indirect emissions must be taken into account. In the case of the plastic toys in a Christmas stocking, for instance, it’s a question of calculating the emissions caused not only by the manufacture, transport and packaging of the toys themselves, but also by the extraction of the oil used to make the plastic. Given these complexities, researchers emphasise that the numbers they provide are realistic estimates rather than definitive figures. So, with that in mind, just how bad is Christmas?

Eat, drink and be merry

First, some good news for those who enjoy a Christmas turkey with all the traditional trimmings; in terms of carbon footprints, you could do a lot worse. Ten million turkeys were consumed in the UK last Christmas, according to Defra, and if you are going to eat meat then it is one of the lower carbon options. Environmental Working Group, a US think tank, calculates the farm-to-plate carbon footprint per kilogram of turkey as 10.9kg CO2e, which compares favourably with the 39.2kg CO2e for lamb, 27kg CO2e for beef and 12.1kg CO2e for pork. The disparity is largely accounted for by the fact that cattle and sheep get through more energy-intensive feed and produce more methane than poultry or pigs.

Local and seasonal are the watchwords for low-carbon eating all year round, and the typical ingredients of a Christmas dinner tend to tick these boxes. Brussels sprouts, potatoes, parsnips and carrots are some of the most carbon-efficient vegetables available and are all in season in the UK in December. In a report for Booths Supermarkets, Berners-Lee’s Small World Consulting found that potatoes and root vegetables had the lowest carbon footprint of any vegetables: less than 1kg CO2e per kilogram of food, taking into account the footprint of the farming, processing and transport involved in getting the food on to shelves.

But, while turkey and root vegetables have a relatively small footprint, the same cannot be said of one ubiquitous Christmas condiment. A 2007 study by the University of Manchester estimated the total carbon footprint of a traditional Christmas dinner for eight at 20kg CO2e and more than half of that came from cranberry sauce, the majority of which is imported from the US. So, cutting back on the cranberry sauce is one way to reduce the carbon footprint of Christmas dinner. Another is to avoid meat altogether. In a 2010 update to its report The carbon cost of Christmas, the SEI estimates that diners could save 4kg CO2e by opting for a meat-free Christmas meal.

But by far the most effective way to reduce the carbon footprint of the food eaten at Christmas is to do just that: eat it. “Very often at Christmas, people make twice as much food as they actually need,” explains Swift. “If you’re throwing half that food away, that’s doubling the carbon footprint.”

According to Wrap, food waste in the UK generates 25.7 million tonnes of CO2e each year, 20 million tonnes of which could be avoided. With the typical UK household spending £150 more than usual on food over the festive period, it’s clear that cutting food waste is a big opportunity to reduce carbon footprints.

Spoiled rotten

As with food, a big factor in the carbon impact of Christmas presents is waste. A significant proportion of the gifts given each year are unwanted. SEI reports that each person in the UK spends an average of £435 on presents each Christmas, which translates into a footprint of 310kg CO2e. The researchers also found that at least 20% of gifts are unwanted. Take those poorly chosen presents out of the equation and that footprint drops to 230kg CO2e. Durable, high quality gifts are generally a better bet than plastic toys likely to end up in the bin after a few days’ vigorous use.

Since 2008, product development firm IDC has conducted an annual analysis of the carbon footprint of the most popular Christmas presents. In 2012, top sellers included Tefal’s Actifry fat fryer (134kg CO2), the video game Just dance 4 (52kg CO2) and the Kindle Fire e-reader (46kg CO2). The IDC calculation takes into account every stage of the product’s lifecycle, from the materials used in manufacture to transport and energy consumption. IDC’s analysis also reveals that the overall footprint of the top Christmas gifts decreased by 15% between 2008 and 2012, attributing the change to a combination of manufacturers’ efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and consumers favouring more environmentally friendly products.

Electronic gadgets are perennial big sellers, however, and the computing gaming consoles Playstation 4 and Xbox One are expected to be top of the charts this year. The Carbon Trust estimates the footprint of a games console to be around 80kg CO2e and, although these machines tend to be getting more energy efficient with each generation, that is offset by the fact that we’re buying them in ever greater numbers. If you do intend to buy a console, Swift’s advice is to avoid leaving it on standby and run games from the hard drive rather than the discs to save energy.

Alongside presents, of course, wrapping paper and Christmas cards add to festive carbon footprints. Wrapping paper is a major source of waste over Christmas. UK government figures from 2011 revealed that more than 226,800 miles of paper is thrown out each year. The Carbon Trust recommends buying recycled wrapping paper, reusing last year’s, or making and decorating your own from scrap paper to help cut carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, a Royal Mail survey in 2012 revealed that people in the UK expected to send, on average, 20 Christmas cards. According to the analysis by the SEI, that translates to a carbon footprint of 5kg CO2e per person, with most of that figure due not to the paper involved, but the delivery van. Recycling cards and envelopes is an obvious way to keep this footprint as low as possible.

Deck the halls

A full-on, extravagant light display that covers your entire house with animated reindeer and snowmen could have a carbon footprint of more than 270kg CO2, according to the Energy Saving Trust. Most of us will opt for something more modest, but all those little blinking lights still add up: 160 standard fairy light bulbs can generate 40kg CO2 over the festive period.

The best option is to switch to LED bulbs, which for an equivalent 160 light display have a footprint of just 5kg CO2. LED bulbs consume around 10% of the energy used by incandescent bulbs and have a lifespan of 20,000 hours – more than enough for Christmases well into the future. The Energy Saving Trust estimates that if all 26 million UK homes switched from standard to LED fairy lights over the 12 days of Christmas, more than 26,000 tonnes of CO2 could be saved – assuming we remember to turn them off at night of course. Swift recommends extension cords with foot switches, making it easy to turn off the fairy lights and all other nearby appliances at once.

At the centre of the celebrations is, of course, the Christmas tree, but should you plump for a real tree or an artificial one? Setting aside the question of which looks and smells nicer, the type of Christmas tree we choose and, importantly, how we dispose of it, also has a significant impact on our overall Christmas carbon footprint.

The Carbon Trust estimates the footprint of a 2m artificial tree to be 40kg CO2e, with most of those emissions generated in the production of the PVC film used to make the trees. By contrast, the footprint of a real tree is just 3.5kg CO2e, as long as it’s replanted, burnt, or chipped and spread on the garden. You would need to reuse an artificial tree for at least 11 years to achieve a comparably low impact.

However, if your real tree ends up in landfill, its footprint jumps to 16kg CO2e due to the methane released as it decomposes. Careful disposal is the key. If your council offers kerbside collection, ask them what they do with the trees. Alternatively, many Christmas tree growers will now collect and replant your tree, ready to be used again next year.

Going the extra mile

Christmas is an opportunity for families to get together and for many that invariably means long car journeys. Unsurprisingly, the additional travel miles racked up over the festive period are a major contributor to our overall carbon footprint.

The SEI estimates that over the three main days of Christmas, the average person in the UK will drive 363 miles visiting family and friends – five times further than they would travel normally – resulting in an additional footprint of 96kg CO2e. That scenario changes dramatically if cars are taken out of the picture. If those same miles are covered by train instead, the footprint drops to 36kg CO2e. Alternatively, if everyone stayed at home and simply phoned each other, the carbon footprint of Christmas travel drops to zero!

With a little forethought, it is possible for most of us to reduce our carbon footprint this Christmas without too much hardship. As Berners-Lee points out, the easiest way to do this is simply to buy less, which has other benefits. “You’ve got hard-up households getting further into debt because they feel they need to buy expensive stuff,” he says. “Everyone would be happier if we didn’t feel that pressure.”

Swift agrees that reducing our Christmas footprint doesn’t have to make the festive season less enjoyable. Many of the high-carbon activities associated with Christmas, such as overspending and waste, add nothing to anyone’s good cheer, he says. “People talk about decoupling growth from carbon. In this context, it’s about decoupling carbon from fun.”

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