Popcorn tinsel on a Christmas tree

Can you have a plastic-free Christmas?

Image credit: Dreamstime

Ah, Christmas: ’tis the season to indulge. However, with great indulgence comes a whole load of rubbish, including lots of plastic. Lots and lots of plastic.

Friends of the Earth and Zero Waste Europe estimate that Europe’s demand for plastic has reached 49 million tonnes a year, with 40 per cent of it being packaging. Which? also found that 29 per cent of plastic found in UK shops is difficult or impossible to recycle, making the waste pile up.

Now, plastic was a miraculous invention at the time. Super-useful and very durable. However, I don’t think many people thought through the implications of too much plastic on the world when it was introduced by the bucketload.

Christmas is the time of year where your bins become full, lickity-split, and local councils normally have extra collection dates set up so the country doesn’t become just one big landfill. Most of us nowadays try to do our bit and recycle, so waste is minimal. Yet when we think we’re doing a good job, we probably aren’t. A lot of that is down to plastic. What was seen as something of a revolution is now a hindrance and a threat to the wellbeing of the planet and the creatures that inhabit it.

A plastic-free/plastic-reduced Christmas is what the planet needs. Here are the steps you can take to try and make that happen for your family.

Plastic-free gifts

Normally seen as the meaning of Christmas by a lot of people, much is at stake when it comes to gift giving. If you buy a rubbish present for your loved one and they give you something unforgettable, like a pony, you’re indebted to them for the next year, meaning you’ll be getting the bill at the restaurant. A lot.

I jest. For children, though, it’s the excitement that comes from the magic of gift-giving and Father Christmas coming on down and popping a much-wanted gift under the tree.

Christmas is a very meaningful time for a lot of us. For me, it’s all about the family: the gathering and the eating food that’s oh so good, but oh so bad for you; the terrible music; the lights and decorations.  

I like to sit down with some bangin’ Christmas tunes, a glass of wine and a heck of a lot of wrapping paper and ribbons and ‘God knows where I got that from’ knick-knacks.

You want to make everything look spectacular, even though it may only be that novelty pair of light-up socks that you know your dad is going to hate (sorry, Dad). So you get a massive variety of festive wrapping paper just in case. After it’s all been ripped to shreds and piled up, you stick it in the recycling bin because it’s paper, right? Wrong.

Did you know that a lot of wrapping paper has plastic elements, making it non-recyclable? An added bonus: glitter is microplastic, so it can’t be recycled. Therefore, the wrapping paper you think looks absolutely stunning and captures the yuletide spirit with its glittery reindeer is actually a ballache of gargantuan proportions.

If you didn’t have all that glitter covering your paper, it would be able to go in your paper bin - provided it wasn’t covered in plastic film - and you can buy recyclable wrapping paper from a lot of places. Granted, it doesn’t look as fancy, but the vintage, shabby-chic look is always in. To be even more thrifty and planet-saving, you can even keep your newspapers (if anyone reads newspapers any more) and use them. Swap out your bows and ribbon for raffia straw and bows for the finishing festive touch. Bam! Saving the planet.

Now let’s move on to the gifts themselves.

Children’s toys are often bright plastic. It’s inevitable, what with the heavy hands of your sweet little demons destroying everything in their path with the inability to judge their own strength. If you have stocked up on sturdy plastic gifts, take them to a charity shop or give to a friend after your kid has grown out of them.

If you’re a bit late to the buying Christmas presents party – like me – swap plastic toys for wooden ones. They’re durable and look awesome. You can even get recycled toys. You can’t tell the difference.

For waste-free gifts, buy an experience for your loved ones. Ever wanted to hang out with an alpaca, or have afternoon tea in a hot-air balloon? Get on Groupon or Virgin Experiences. They’re not as expensive as you might think.

There are some great places where you can get eco-friendly and plastic-free gifts, so you don’t feel so guilty about giving some single-use plastic to your loved ones. Some websites are dedicated to the ultimate feel-good gift giving experience, like the Amnesty Shop or the ethical superstore.

Toiletries, aka ‘I don’t know what you like so have some smellies’, can be plastic-free, too. No bottles needed. Try block soap, shampoo or conditioner. They’re generally good quality. You just lather it up, wash, condition and go. They look pretty fancy, too.

Plastic-free decorations

Tinsel: forget about it. That is plastic fantastic and we are not retro anymore, people, just go without it.

Instead, make your own decoration with popcorn, foliage and shrubbery or, if you’re feeling super creative, use wool scraps. There’s a video of how to make your own decorations online.

Etsy has some quality choices of tinsel and recycled decorations – let other people do all the hard work, so you don’t have to.

You can also opt for a cowbell garland from Traidcraft (£12). It’s a string of ethically made, recycled mini iron cowbells. The string is natural, eco-friendly, sustainably sourced jute cord for extra save-the-world points.

For baubles and bits, there are some lovely plastic-free decorations that have the extra feel-good factor, being eco-friendly and/or sustainably sourced.

Some are also incredibly sweet, like the llama tree decoration from V&A (£9.50) which has a wee scarf on and is handmade by Nepalese artisans.

The Amnesty Shop has a whole section of ethically-sourced Christmas decorations, a lot of which are recycled and eco-friendly. The Create your own Christmas Crib is a great idea for kids: it’s cute as heck, super-creative and is made using recycled cardboard and vegetable inks. When you buy one, you support the Karm Marg foundation, which provides a family home for children in India.

If you want to use plastic, invest in some good quality decorations so they last for years and the waste is minimal. Plus there are quality shatterproof baubles, which are good for families with clumsy kids. I’m sure Father Christmas will forgive you, if you reuse them for many, many, many years to come.

To be plastic-free, get some beautiful glass baubles with the ethical touch. Check out Juniper’s set of four recycled glass baubles (£12). Each one comes with a recycled fabric tie. You will have to be a little more careful, so no touchy the tree, kids!

Wooden decorations are traditional and beautiful.  You can easily make your own and they can look pretty awesome.

Also, make your own crackers, so you don’t get those shoddy pieces of plastic as prizes that you’ll just throw in the bin, like that little jumping frog or the giant paperclip. Hit up Hobbycraft for some DIY cracker kits.

Now for the tree itself - the pièce de résistance. Artificial trees, which are plastic, don’t really beat the real thing, I can tell you that much. There are plenty of local authorities that have a special chipping service for your tree. Just don’t take your kids along – they might cry because you murdered their beautiful spruce.

If you invest in an artificial tree, then it’ll last for years and no real trees will be harmed in the process. Probably. Just don’t get a shoddy one.

Natalie Denyer is founder and CEO of Zero-Living.com, a sustainable product platform which sells high-quality, environmentally friendly alternatives to everyday products. “Picking an FSC-certified tree over a synthetic one is by far the more environmentally friendly option,” she says.

“Also, reuse those old decorations! Do you really need new ones? If you really do, then think natural. We have an abundance of beautiful plants here in the UK that make wonderful decorations, from holly and mistletoe to pine cones and cinnamon sticks. And they smell great, too.”

Plastic-free food

What comes with Christmas dinner? Piles and piles of packaging. After all of the cooking and slaving over a hot stove has ended, there is always a heck of a plastic mess. What to do with it all? The Styrofoam trays, the single-use plastic? When you do actually get around to recycling it, there’s always too much for one bin.

Single-use plastic is an absolute curse this time of year. If you are going to buy products that have plastic packaging, try and get the recyclable kind. No one wants to see pictures of a turtle choking on a plastic bag because it thinks it’s a jellyfish. That is not festive, or fun, or all that is wonderful in this world. A lot of supermarkets have voluntarily pledged to cut down their use of single-use material so, hopefully, most of what you’re buying your food in is actually recyclable. Just check beforehand.

There are some nifty ways to cut plastic from your food altogether. For example, get your vegetables and fresh produce from your local greengrocers and make sure they have paper bags. You’ll feel all festive as you load up Brussels sprouts into your eco-friendly packaging.

There are even shops dedicated to having plastic-free stock. No waste, no landfill. The Plastic Free Pantry has it all in one handy place. You can also research online to find eco shops on the high street if you want to do the dirty work in person.

Looking online can also give you a detailed how-to on creating a plastic-free pantry and what packaged food is best for the environment in the long run. Just in time for the Christmas hell.

Waste disposal

Recycling initiatives

A lot of local UK councils already have waste collection initiatives in place at Christmas time, so hopefully they will be on top of your recycling madness, as long as you are.

The Isle of Wight has a lot of recycling roadshows coming up, to show you how to get the most out of your waste.

The Coca-Cola truck is now sending a recycling message.

Wales is building its recycling rep with a £50m pledge.

For all your recycling knowledge needs this Christmas, there’s a brief guide online which tells you what to do with your bits and bobs.

First Mile is an environmental company at the forefront of the waste industry. Dedicated to sustainability and the environment, they are committed to reducing waste and improving recycling rates throughout the UK. First Mile is launching ‘Cut The Wrap’ in an attempt to shed some light on the Christmas waste created by consumers every year.

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