Festive tips for a sustainable Christmas

Festive tips for a sustainable Christmas

Tips for a sustainable Christmas

Karen O'Grady


Karen O'Grady



Christmas can be one of the most wonderful times of the year. A moment when a lot of us get together with loved ones and friends, and spend quality time in our homes. At this stage, you have already probably caught the festive bug if Christmas is your time of year.

 Unusually for me, I put the Christmas tree up earlier as the boys were getting excited and were asking to put it up. So on December 1, off we went to battle the boxes down the stairs and into the hallway.

Anyway, this brings me to this week’s ‘Tribune Living’ topic that I found of interest on ten tips for a sustainable Christmas that came across my desk during the week. Academics at the University College Cork (UCC) Environmental Research Institute (ERI) have come together to dream up a green Christmas after it’s estimated that Ireland will generate 90,000 tonnes of packaging waste this Christmas.

  The first thing they advise is to buy a real tree! Now, I will be honest, we have a plastic tree and getting a real tree is something I consider doing each year but for the moment, I will keep re-using our current one and yes, I am sadly aware that the tree will probably eventually end up in landfill.

However, going back to the UCC academics, they point out it might first sound counter-intuitive as a sustainability measure to have a real tree. After all, you could re-use a fake tree year after year, sparing a tree every year. But that would be the wrong way of looking at it, these experts outline. Because your plastic tree will eventually end up in landfill, whereas if demand for real trees continues then they will keep being replanted.  (Dr Markus Eichhorn, School of Biological, Ecological, Earth and Environmental Sciences)

  Give a gift of a plant, they say. Now is a good time of year to take cuttings from your house plants and pot them up as gifts for your nearest and dearest. It’s easy to take cuttings from the many succulents, spider plants or Christmas Cactus and pop them into some peat free compost in a recycled or re-usable plant pot. Alternatively, mid-winter is a good time to plant a deciduous tree outside in Ireland as it will need the full spring season to develop a decent root-system for the drier months. (Dr Eoin Lettice, Plant Scientist at the School ofBiological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES) and the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) at UCC)

I can’t say that I have done this myself but my mother-in-law has given us many beautiful clippings over the years for our garden, garden and our house plants. . So, maybe it’s one for me try myself in 2020.

Did you know that 15 million crackers will be pulled in Ireland over Christmas, contributing to further unnecessary plastic waste. Maybe consider making your own home-made Christmas crackers with recyclable materials (and better jokes) says Dr Tom Reed, Senior Lecturer in Zoology, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES), UCC.

The jokes being better, I would definitely agree with as I have distinct memories of my dad in particular reading out some awful ones from the Christmas crackers over the years. Perhaps, I could give making the crackers a go with the boys. They would enjoy it and it would certainly make for interesting reading for a ‘Tribune Living’ at a later date, perhaps.

 The next tip, provided by the UCC academics is perhaps, one for the long term planning of heating your home rather then in the short- term. “If you're burning coal, peat or wood in your living room fire, then you have been very naughty indeed, these academics point out.

Domestic solid fuel burning is one of the largest sources of air pollution in Ireland. Your fire is not only harmful to you in your own house, but also to your neighbours, because 90% of the smoke and chemical fumes end up next door.  Burning coal, wood and peat is especially harmful to asthmatics, the young, the old, people with existing heart conditions and the pregnant.  And just think what it does to poor old Santa when he tries to deliver your fantastic presents down the chimney. We can only hope that he has good medical insurance! To keep Santa (and us) healthy, wherever you live in Ireland, then put some solar panels on your roof, insulate your homes better and install a heat pump. (John Sodeau, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, UCC).”

  Next up is the amount of food we buy for the festive period. Having worked in a shop for many years, I know only too well the amount of food people purchase over the Christmas and I am certainly guilty of buying enough food to feed an army.

According the UCC academics, however, we should resist this urge as much as possible because it will probably end up as waste. Instead, they recommend, to try a ‘refuse, reuse, rot’ approach to your food shopping.  “Refuse to overbuy, reuse all leftovers and rot or compost what’s left. Planning ahead by ordering your fruit and vegetables through a local box scheme, enjoy some social festivities and visit your local farmers market, or buy in bulk (plastic-free, of course!) and batch cook so that you’ve more time to enjoy family traditions. (Dr Claire O’Neill and Professor Mary McCarthy, UCC CUBS).”

Don’t fight at the dinner table! The Christmas family get together is famed for its fights and fall-outs - all that food, mulled wine, and being cooped up for one day with your nearest and dearest can prove too much. “We are always advised to avoid talking about religion and politics at the dinner table.  Likewise, if climate change is an issue that raises some hackles at the Christmas dinner table, and one that you feel strongly about, we would recommend that you listen as much as you talk, avoid reciting too many climate change facts, and connect the issue to everyday life such as that local cycle path that could be extended to the community school. Of course, try to avoid gloom and doom and focus on the positive benefits of climate action - it is Christmas after all! (Dr Paul Bolger, Manager of the Environmental Research Institute, UCC).”

Leave the door open for Santa! An open fireplace with a chimney is very handy for Santa but he can also choose to come in the door if you decide to install an efficient stove or upgrade your heating system. 

Burning a fuel like coal in your fireplace over the winter produces about 1 tonne of carbon dioxide (a heat-trapping gas). This is similar to a person taking a return flight to New York.  Heat-trapping gasses are causing our climate to change in ways that are not good so trying to reduce our emissions is the perfect gift for the planet!  (Dr Paul Deane, Energy Policy and Modelling Group, MaREI Centre).

On a personal note, this year is the first year that Santa will be able to come down the chimney in our new home as he always came through the letterbox in our other home because we didn't have a real fireplace!

The next one tip is most definitely out of my price range but if you are in a position to consider it, this is what the UCC experts had to say on it. Think electric – Christmas can be when we mull buying a new car for next year. So look at the electric options, you can now choose from battery-electric vehicles (BEV) to plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEV) to hybrid-electric vehicles (HEV). BEVs have a motor tax of €120. A HEV, such as the Toyota Corolla, costs about 7c/km and comes with a motor tax of €170.

We have all become more conscious of our plastic use and there's some good advice here on avoiding plastic this Christmas. Earlier this year UCC researchers found plastic 2,100m under the sea off Co Kerry coast. When buying presents look at their plastic wrapping, try to avoid toys or other gifts that would increase the amount of plastic waste you generate. Why not replace the glossy, non-recycled paper wrapping with recycled paper? Whenever possible try to buy your gifts and food from local sources and in family-owned shops, to promote local communities and also reduce the carbon footprint of transporting things all over the world.

Nowadays we all enjoy internet shopping, but one should take this time of the year to reflect on the environmental and social costs of big online retailers, writes Dr Rossana Henriques, Senior Lecturer in Plant Genetics at the School of BEES, UCC.

Finally, think of the birds! UCC research earlier this year outlined how climate change is occurring so fast that common birds such as magpies cannot adapt and are at the risk of extinction. This Christmas leave the gift of water and the correct food out for our feathered friends.

So as we prepare for Christmas, I hope that this week's 'Tribune Living' has given you some food for thought about trying to have a more sustainable Christmas.

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