For many it’s a jolly time to spend with loved ones, eating heaps of food and exchanging gifts — but some green groups are saying humbug! to Christmas, calling it the “world’s greatest annual environmental disaster.”
Christmas is celebrated across the Continent in many different forms: In Sweden celebrations kick off on December 13 with Santa Lucia while in Spain Christmas starts with the El Gordo (the big one) lottery craze.
Regardless of how it’s celebrated, Christmas is more often than not about consumption.
The average household in eight surveyed European countries splurged €445 in 2017 on food and drinks as well as gifts — with the U.K. topping the list with €639, while the Dutch spent the least at €341.
Here are five ways in which the holiday is ruining the planet.
1. Mountains of waste
Every Christmas, the amount of waste produced in the U.K. increases 30 percent, according to a study by waste management company Biffa. That includes an estimated 365,000 kilometers of unrecyclable wrapping paper — enough to wrap around the equator nine times — and 1 billion cards that end up in the bin.
Environmental group Hubbub warned that an estimated 12 million Christmas sweaters were set to be snapped up this year by Britons — despite 65 million already hanging in U.K. wardrobes.
“The Christmas jumper is one of the worst examples of fast fashion, with two out of five jumpers only being worn once over the festive period,” said Sarah Divall, project coordinator at the charity.
Besides adding to huge levels of waste, the research by Hubbub also highlighted that most new sweaters contain plastic. Its analysis of 108 garments on sale this year from 11 retailers found that 95 percent of the jumpers were made wholly or partly of plastic materials.
2. Controversial Christmas trees
Real or fake is an evergreen dilemma.
According to Carbon Trust, a real Christmas tree has a “significantly lower” carbon footprint than an artificial tree, especially if it is disposed of properly. The organization calculated that a natural 2-meter-tall Christmas tree that is disposed of into a landfill has a footprint of around 16 kilograms of CO2, thanks to methane emissions as it rots. A tree that is disposed of by burning, replanting or chipping it has a footprint of around 3.5kg of CO2.
A 2-meter Christmas tree made from plastic, on the other hand, has a carbon footprint of around 40kg of CO2 due to the energy-intensive production processes, while a real pine or fir tree naturally absorbs CO2 and releases oxygen before it’s chopped down. This means that owners of an artificial tree need to use it for at least a decade in order for its environmental impact to equal that of responsibly disposed natural trees.
3. Dangerous gifts
Most of the toys children will be playing with under the Christmas tree are made in China.
In 2017, the EU imported almost €7.4 billion of toys, while exporting only about €1.4 billion. According to Eurostat, 86 percent of these toys came from China.
However, some of these products can contain unsafe levels of banned chemicals. National officials have blocked 248 types of toys from sale in the EU this year (amounting to tens of millions of units) after tests found illegal levels of toxic chemicals.
Most of these problem items (88 percent) were shipped from China, according to an assessment of data from the EU’s Rapex alert system published by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an NGO. Fifty-one percent of the products contained phthalates, a plastic additive that’s classified as an endocrine disrupting chemical.
Last year, the Swedish Chemicals Agency tested 106 products from non-EU online retailers and found prohibited substances, such as lead, phthalates and cadmium, in 40 of them. In a similar study conducted in 2016, the agency found that 2 percent of the 44 surveyed sex toys imported to Sweden contained banned chemicals.
EEB chemical policy manager Tatiana Santos said that government officials are facing a “flood” of dangerously contaminated Chinese toys. “Where inspectors get the resources they need, they do a great job. But we wonder how many go undetected,” she said.
4. Turkey dinner
The biggest environmental impact of Christmas dinner comes from meat, according to Christian Reynolds, who researches the environmental impact of roast dinners at the University of Sheffield.
The choice of meat, however, can account for as much as 70 percent of the environmental impact of an entire meal — with turkey having a lower carbon footprint than beef or lamb (and vegetarian options even lower than that).
For example, a kilogram of beef or lamb protein can generate from 643 kilograms to 749 kilograms of carbon dioxide — resulting in more greenhouse gas emissions than a passenger flying from London to New York. A Manchester University study found that an average turkey Christmas dinner has a carbon footprint of 20kg of CO2.
Maybe it’s time to go Polish? The main dish on Polish tables for Christmas Eve is carp, and a U.N. study finds that those mud-dwelling fish have a carbon footprint of less than 2kg of CO2 per kilogram of flesh.
There’s also the issue of food waste.
Approximately 2 million turkeys, 74 million mince pies and 17.2 million Brussels sprouts are thrown away in the U.K. every Christmas, according to a study from Biffa.
5. Flying home for Christmas
Over 250 million Europeans will be criss-crossing the Continent over the holidays to visit family and friends, according to research by MasterCard. The average European will travel 516 kilometers, around the distance from Paris to Amsterdam, with nearly a quarter taking to the sky.
Those kilometers will further add to Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions and congestion.
Aviation’s carbon footprint has grown by 20 percent in Europe since 2005, and continues to increase at an average of 4 percent annually. It currently accounts for about 2.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If it were a country, aviation would be the sixth-largest carbon polluter in the world, eclipsing Germany.
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