Britons seek greener Christmas and a planet-friendly new year

Three-quarters of us aim to celebrate the festive season with less waste. Four-fifths of retailers pledge to improve energy efficiency in their stores

Geoffrey Lean,Environment Editor
Sunday 23 December 2007 01:00 GMT

Britain is embarking on its greenest Christmas, according to an astonishing series of studies.

Four separate surveys show that most people are promising to make their celebrations more environmentally friendly to reduce the impact of what are traditionally the most polluting three days of the year and to make green resolutions for the new year.

Three-quarters say that they are actively trying to reduce the amount of waste they generate over the holiday, four in five mean to dispose of their Christmas tree in an environmentally responsible way, and nine out of 10 intend to recycle their Christmas cards and wrapping paper. More than 80 per cent say they have decided to live greener lives in 2008.

The festive season has a vast impact. Research at York University estimates that the days from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day can generate a carbon footprint as great as almost three weeks of normal life.

The study, by researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute based at the university, concludes: "Our total consumption and spending on food, travel, lighting and gifts over the three days of festivities could result in as much as 650kg of emissions of carbon dioxide per person equivalent to the weight of 1,000 Christmas puddings" (see graphic).

It adds that this amounts to "5.5 per cent of the UK's average carbon footprint of 11.87 tons per person a year" equivalent to 20 days of normal consumption.

Britons send some 750 million Christmas cards a year, spend an average of 435 each on Christmas presents and encase them in enough brightly coloured paper to gift wrap the entire island of Guernsey. Eight million real trees are temporarily installed in people's homes and 10 million turkeys are consumed, along with 20 million parsnips, 30 million carrots, 105 million potatoes, 175 million mince pies and 240 million Brussels sprouts.

All this produces an extra 750,000 tons of waste or an average of five extra sackfuls a household which, the Government calculates, is the equivalent of emitting an extra 1.4 million tons of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that if everything recyclable in the rubbish was indeed recycled, this would save greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 352,000 tons of carbon dioxide "or enough energy to fly Santa in a plane around the world 64,500 times on Christmas Eve".

The surveys show that Britons want to do more than just dream of a green Christmas and at least intend to do something about what the environment minister Joan Ruddock yesterday called "the massive impact that Christmas has on our carbon footprint".

A poll of 1,000 people carried out by online market researcher Lightspeed Research found last week that 91 per cent of them intended to recycle their cards and wrapping paper and that 31 per cent were sending some electronic cards as well as paper ones.

Nearly two-fifths of respondents said that they were reducing their use of Christmas lights compared to last year, mainly because of environmental concerns. And 81 per cent planned to dispose of their tree in an environmentally responsible way, with 52 per cent either shredding or composting it themselves or taking it to the council to be shredded, and 29 per cent planting it in the garden.

Nearly two-thirds intended to buy locally produced Christmas food, with 44 per cent opting for free-range meat and 35 per cent insisting on Fairtrade products.

A second survey, of 1,922 adults, carried out by for Sainsbury's, concluded that "nearly three-quarters of people (72 per cent) say they will actively try to reduce the amount of waste and packaging they generate during Christmas".

Judith Batchelar, the supermarket chain's brand director, hails "the greenest Christmas yet, with more customers buying Fairtrade or organic items, and the greater use of reusable bags for shopping".

Both the Lightspeed survey, and a third one of 1,000 people by TNS for Deloitte report that about a half of shoppers are trying to cut down on their use of plastic bags and take reusable ones with them.

Deloitte also broadly confirmed the Lightspeed finding on ethical shopping, with four-fifths of its respondents claiming to buy more Fairtrade and environmentally friendly products.

Deloitte, in a second study, also questioned 350 retailers and found that more than four-fifths of them pledged both to improve store energy efficiency and reduce packaging.

Last night, Tony Juniper, executive director of Friends of the Earth, said: "The surveys suggest that people are up for change, and ready to do their bit. It is a seasonal reminder to the Government that it needs to do far more itself."

Is this the nation's greenest family?

Meet Merlin Matthews and Carina Westling. They, and their children, can lay claim to be Britain's greenest family. This year they will be one of a fast-growing number celebrating an eco-friendly Christmas. In their home, wooden toys and rattles are lying under a living Christmas tree; reusable ribbons decorate the walls. On Christmas day they'll be tucking into a vegan Christmas lunch. Remarkably, their three children aren't complaining.

"The kids don't pester us for tons of presents", said Carina, 42, a Swedish website editor. "They know we don't live like that. I couldn't cope with being howled at for the latest toys. If children are taught to expect less, and be responsible about the environment, they are more grateful."

Merlin's daughter, Achala, nine, Carina's daughter, Katla, seven, and their son Cai, nine months, will be given gifts wrapped in no-frills brown paper and tape made from cellulose, which can be recycled. The seasonal salvaging is just an extension of the way the family live all year round.

Merlin, 34, is the chairman of the Brighton Peace and Environment Centre, and also runs the charity, which has sent 26,000 reconditioned bikes to be reused in Africa.

"There will be a lot of pain if we don't make big changes now," said Merlin. "But I know we are trying, that my family is doing its bit."

Lizzy Colville

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