How to have a sustainable and wildlife-friendly Christmas

Take a look at our tips and tricks for enjoying the festive period sustainably, without costing the earth.

Have yourself a sustainable little Christmas! Alex/Getty.

Christmas is a time for celebration – giving gifts, making our houses look sparkly and festive, and eating a lot of food. But can we do all these things in a way that is better for the planet, as well as for our wallets?

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Every year at Christmas Britons create 30% more waste than usual, including an estimated 227,000 miles of wrapping paper and a whopping 114,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.

If you are anything like me you will feel a tinge of Christmas guilt alongside all the joy and cheer as you are surrounded by mounds of torn paper, and often gifts you didn’t really want in the first place! This year you may be feeling the urge to do things a bit differently.

Overwhelmed by the amount of waste Christmas produces? You are in the right place. nicoletaionescu/Getty
Overwhelmed by the amount of waste Christmas produces? © nicoletaionescu/Getty.

If so, you are not alone. According to a survey by waste management company Biffa, 68.4% of respondents said that they would consider having a ‘greener Christmas’ by buying items which use less packaging or are made from recycled materials.

87% also said that they thought retailers should take more producer responsibility for the amount of waste they are generating.

Have a read through our pointers on how you can make every aspect of Christmas ‘greener’, from the tree to the turkey, without compromising on fun and cheer.

1

The Tree

Up to 8 million of these festive conifers are sold every December in the UK. Once only available in garden centres, you can now find them sold pretty much everywhere, from supermarkets to the back of vans.

But do you know where your tree comes from, and is it sustainable?

Christmas trees are sold in many places, but what is the most sustainable way to buy? Paolo Paradiso/Getty.
Christmas trees are sold in many places, but what is the most sustainable way to buy? ©Paolo Paradiso/Getty.

Another thing to think about is – after the lights come down and the tinsel is packed away, where does your tree end up? Landfill? Composting?

There is also the endless debate of real vs artificial. So much to consider! To make it easier, we’ve looked at the different options:

Real Tree

If you do go down the real tree route (the evocative smell!) then try and get one that is locally grown.  Not only are you supporting local rural businesses, but you will cut down on the pollution associated with transport, as well as the risk of tree pests and diseases entering the UK with imported trees.

To make sure that your tree is grown in the UK you can check out the British Tree Growers Association website, which lists local retailers.

You can also look for the FSC certification on your tree, which will ensure that your tree has been grown as part of a well-managed forest, minimising the use of pesticides and protecting forest plants and animals.

Once Christmas is over you need to decide what to do with your real tree. One great option is to simply keep your tree alive in a pot and use it year after year or replant it in your garden. This is good for the environment and your wallet!

If you are unable to do this, try and make sure that you recycle your tree at least. The carbon footprint for your tree becomes much bigger if it ends up in landfill.

Many councils now have Christmas tree recycling schemes, which normally involve local drop offs or collections. These trees are generally shredded and used as mulch on plants in parks, or on woodland paths.

Make sure your Christmas tree has a fitting afterlife by recycling it. Keikona/Getty
Make sure your Christmas tree has a fitting afterlife by recycling it. © Keikona/Getty

The BBC also has a great list of alternative ways to reuse your tree, including donating it to a zoo!

Another option is to rent your tree! These rental schemes allow you to have a lovely (pot-planted) real tree in your home for the Christmas period, but then it is either collected or returned to the grower who will put it back in the ground to be used again the next year.

These schemes can also often be cheaper than buying a tree outright. You do need to make sure you keep the tree healthy however, which means it shouldn’t be kept in your home for more than three and a half weeks.

A real Christmas tree. Marina Denisenko/Getty
A real Christmas tree. © Marina Denisenko/Getty

Fake Tree

Sales of artificial trees are increasing, perhaps because consumers see them as a greener alternative. However, being made out of plastic, fake trees do have a considerable carbon footprint. This comes from the process of turning crude oil into plastic, the manufacture of the tree itself, and often the transportation from abroad.

The average artificial tree has a carbon footprint of more than twice that of a real tree that ends up in landfill, and 10 times that of one that is burnt.

This means that you would have to use your plastic tree for at least 10 Christmases for it to have a lower environmental impact than a real one.

However, if you do already own one of these, then continuing to use it certainly won’t decrease your sustainability score. And if you do need to buy one, then finding one second-hand is a much greener option than brand new.

An artificial spruce. LyubovKro/Getty.
An artificial spruce. © LyubovKro/Getty.
2

Decorations

Much of the cheap and sparkly decorations on offer in shops at this time of year are made from flimsy and un-environmentally friendly materials, meaning that they won’t last long and will need to be replaced year on year. Bad for the planet and the pocket!

There are however natural alternatives that are just as budget friendly. For example, instead of tinsel, which contains plastics that can’t be recycled, you could instead decorate your mantle pieces and bannisters with natural materials such as holly, ivy, and pine cones.

Use natural materials to decorate rather than tinsel and other plastics. Polka Dot Images/Getty
Use natural materials to decorate rather than tinsel and other plastics. © Polka Dot Images/Getty

Or why not make some edible Christmas decorations! Hanging biscuits, gingerbread, and sweets can make a tasty alternative to baubles, as well as being a fun and festive family activity.

For your front door, why not make you own plastic-free wreath. You can even make it wildlife friendly.

Follow this guide from BBC Gardener’s World Magazine to make a wreath that your garden birds will love, or this guide from BBC Countryfile Magazine for a fully compostable wreath.

Make your own natural Christmas wreath. Bogdan Kurylo/Getty
Make your own natural Christmas wreath. © Bogdan Kurylo/Getty

When it comes to lights, there’s a very easy way to be greener. Simply switching to LED Christmas lights will use 75% less energy than non-LED alternatives, and will last 25 times longer.

You might however want to reconsider outside decorative lights, as these sudden illuminations can cause stress and confusion for wildlife.

3

Gifts

Avoid adding needlessly to unwanted piles of 'stuff' this year and make every gift count. Liliboas/Getty.
Avoid adding needlessly to unwanted piles of ‘stuff’ this year and make every gift count. © Liliboas/Getty.

One of the best ways to make your Christmas more sustainable is to re-think the way you give gifts. Giving to loved ones brings great joy that we would not want to lose, but there are ways to capture this feeling without it costing the earth.

We are inundated with attractive offers and promotions at this time of year, but this can lead us to giving and receiving gifts that are superfluous and often end up languishing unwanted in cupboards.

One of the most sustainable changes we can make over Christmas it to avoid this urge to give as many material gifts as possible, and make sure instead to make every gift count.

Think in terms of quality rather than quantity and ask yourself “will the recipient get both joy and use out of this gift for years to come?”.

Consider supporting a wildlife charity when you buy a gift. If you don’t have a shop near you, many wildlife charities have online shops.

And of course, you could always consider giving a magazine subscription as a gift! Check out BBC Wildlife‘s subscription offers – it’s printed on FSC certified paper, and subscription copies are delivered in a paper wrapping! There’s also the option of a digital subscription.

You could perhaps forgo materialism all together and give an experience as a gift – tickets to a show, a course or activity, or a charity membership for example. Research suggests that experiences provide more lasting happiness than objects after all.

Experiences give longer lasting joy than objects, so consider gifting a course or activity, a pottery class for example. jacoblund/Getty
Experiences give longer lasting joy than objects, so consider gifting a course or activity, a pottery class for example. © jacoblund/Getty. 

Donations to a favourite charity, perhaps a wildlife charity for your nature loving friends and family, can also make a very touching and thoughtful gift that actively helps rather than harms.

You could even go down the second-hand gift route. You can find some beautiful things in charity, antique, and vintage shops and this removes the environmental cost of manufacturing a new item, as well as giving an old object new life. If you are feeling crafty you could also give up-cycling a go, to make your second-hand gift more personalised.

There are lovely gifts to be found in antique and vintage stores. SzB/Getty
There are lovely second-hand gifts to be found in antique and vintage stores. © SzB/Getty

And, if you are feeling really crafty you can give home-made presents. Making or baking something beautiful or delicious for your loved ones is sure to impress them, as well as having a low impact on the environment.

Homemade wildlife friendly-gifts for nature lovers:

Add the tubes. © Sarah Cuttle

Perhaps you could try your hand at making some foraging recipes, such as blackberry vodka or sloe port?

Why not give a handmade gift this year, perhaps using foraged fruit, such as this sloe port. Oksana Schmidt/Getty.
Why not give a handmade gift this year, perhaps using foraged fruit, such as sloe berries. © Oksana Schmidt/Getty.
4

Gift wrapping

227,000 miles of wrapping paper are used and thrown away every year in the UK. Consider trying some more sustainable options. twomeows/Getty
227,000 miles of wrapping paper are used and thrown away every year in the UK. © Consider trying some more sustainable options. twomeows/Getty

Every year we use enough wrapping paper to stretch around the planet 9 times, and as much as 83km2 of this will end up in our bins.

Making sure that you buy wrapping paper that is easily recyclable is one way to counteract this. Avoid those containing foil or glitter as these cannot currently be recycled.

Look for wrapping paper that is made from recycled paper or FSC certified paper.

More sustainable alternatives to traditional wrapping paper include newspaper, brown paper and string, old wallpaper, and posters.

You could even take inspiration from the Japanese art of furoshiki and wrap your gift in fabric. This can look beautiful, and if you use a scarf you can give two gifts in one!

If you’re feeling really crafty, you could make your own naturally dyed wrap – check out this guide by BBC Countryfile Magazine.

Furoshiki is the Japanese art of wrapping gifts in fabric. Amana Images Inc/Getty.
Furoshiki is the Japanese art of wrapping gifts in fabric. © Amana Images Inc/Getty.

Another green tip is to give new life to last-years Christmas cards and use them as gift tags.

5

Cards

Speaking of Christmas cards, in the UK we throw away an estimated 1 billion of these away after the Christmas period every year. That’s a lot of trees worth!

As well as making sure the Christmas cards you buy are both made from recycled paper and are able to be recycled (no glitter or foil), or are made from FSC certified sources, you could have a go at making your own cards, perhaps even by repurposing those sent to you last year. Or, you could avoid paper altogether and send e-cards!

Try making your own Christmas cards this year using recycled paper to avoid unnecessary waste. Westend61/Getty.
Try making your own Christmas cards this year using recycled paper to avoid unnecessary waste. © Westend61/Getty.
6

Food

Christmas is a time for indulgence, and even perhaps a bit of overindulgence, and so it should remain! However, there is no getting around the fact that food production is a major source of greenhouse gases, and a driver driver of climate change, deforestation and biodiversity loss.

According to the Soil Association “food is the single most important, everyday way for people to reduce their own environmental impact”. How can we bring this ethos into our Christmas eating without compromising too much on our fun and flavour?

Sam Edwards/Getty.
Food is the single most important, everyday way for people to reduce their own environmental impact.  ©  Sam Edwards/Getty.

Reducing your meat and dairy intake

Although some people might contest that Christmas isn’t Christmas without turkey, research has found that avoiding meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.

Thankfully, it is easier than ever to include vegan and vegetarian options, with a raft of meat and dairy substitutes out there, which can be now found in every supermarket. These alternatives have also improved, so it’s tastier than ever too!

Moreover, the rise of plant-based diets in recent years means that there are thousands of tasty festive recipes out there to choose from.

BBC Good Food Magazine has a particularly large range of delicious looking vegan and vegetarian recipes, such as parsnip, mushroom & barley wreath and beetroot & squash wellington.

However, vegan and vegetarian foods aren’t an option for everyone. Those with food allergies, intolerances or digestion issues may already be on quite restricted diets. And some people just aren’t ready to completely switch to meat-free and plant-based foods.

If it looks like you’re unable to create a completely vegan or vegetarian spread, it’s worth thinking how you can buy sustainable meat.

Reducing your meat intake this Christmas by providing more plat-based options is a good way to cut your carbon footprint. Danielle Wood/Getty.
Reducing your meat intake this Christmas by providing more plant-based options is a good way to cut your carbon footprint. © Danielle Wood/Getty.

Buy local organic meat

If you just can’t do without the traditional meat however, try to get a turkey (or whichever meat you’re opting for) that is locally bred, free-range, and organic. This supports small-scale farming and is better for the environment, as well as ensuring your turkey had a happier life before it was on your Christmas table.

Free range, organic turkeys are better for the environment, teh turkeys, and your tastebuds than industrailly farmed birds. Westend61/Getty
Free range, organic turkeys are better for the environment, the turkeys, and your tastebuds than industrially farmed birds. © Westend61/Getty. 

Cut your food waste

According to studies, not only do we consume 80% more food over the Christmas season than we do during the rest of the year, but we also throw £1 billion worth of it away.

Instead of throwing leftovers in the bin, try to make a new meal out of it to cut your food waste. BBC Good Food Magazine has a great list of Christmas leftovers recipes to choose from if you need inspiration.

Anything that you cannot freeze for another time, incorporate into a new dish, or even donate to a food bank or soup kitchen, or try to compost (check which foods you can and cannot compost – for example, cooked food will attract rodents).

7

Christmas do’s and don’t’s

Don’t put out ‘reindeer food’ that contains glitter and sequins. This is bad for garden wildlife!

Do recycle whenever possible – your tree, wrapping paper, and cards.

Don’t be enticed by promotional offers and emotive marketing. Make every gift count.

Do give experiences rather than objects.

Don’t feed turkey fat to birds. This type of fat can easily smear onto birds’ feathers and interfere with their waterproofing and insulation. Only pure fats such as lard and suet should be used to make treats for birds.

Do make a bird-friendly wreath

Don’t buy more food than you are going to eat.

Do buy local, organic, and free-range.

ArtistGNDphotography/Getty.
© ArtistGNDphotography/Getty.

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Main image: Have yourself a sustainable little Christmas. © Alex/Getty.