Christmas has arrived and, as expected, it is the time of year that brings together millions of families, Christmas trees, lights and gifts under it, food, trips and more are part of the festivities but in the midst of all this, it is easy to forget how our actions have irreversible environmental consequences.
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For some environmentalists Christmas is one of the biggest annual environmental disasters in the world: we buy unnecessarily, we use more electricity for Christmas lighting, we generate more garbage in our gatherings when using plastic plates and cutlery, we spend more paper when wrapping gifts, tons of meals are wasted and millions of trees are cut up and then end up in the dumpster.
A study in the U.S. suggests that during the holiday season, each person produces an additional 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2). This is equivalent to about three weeks of driving or about 3.8 percent of an individual’s annual carbon footprint of 36,000 lbs.
The carbon footprint is understood as the number of emissions of greenhouse gases that humans produce when manufacturing a product or performing their daily activities, it is the footprint that leaves our passage on the planet.
Thus, each person leaves a carbon footprint, measured in tons of CO2 emitted, on the planet according to the consumption and type of habits we do every day from our diet, daily purchases, energy consumption or the means of transport we use.
The holiday season intensifies our consumption that translates into high costs not only environmental but also social and economic, however, do we know where those consumptions materialize and how they impact our carbon footprint?
The Christmas tree
Today, there are 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees sold in the U.S. every year. This represents roughly 10 percent of the over 350 million real Christmas trees growing on farms across the country, with Oregon, Washington, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin taking the lead as the top Christmas tree farm producers.
Real or artificial? Which is best for the environment? A real tree is compostable but an artificial tree might last you a decade.
First of all, it is good to know that it is a mistake to think that buying an artificial tree makes us more environmentally friendly. Yet a key product of these thousands of artificial trees is plastic.
It is the manufacture of the plastic tree, from oil, which creates most of its carbon footprint, around two thirds. Another quarter is created by the industrial emissions produced when the tree is made. They are also often shipped long distances before arriving in the shop and then to homes.
An average two-meter tall artificial tree has a carbon footprint equivalent to about 40 kg of greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than twice that of a real tree that ends its life in a landfill and more than 10 times that of a real tree that is burnt.
Energy and transportation
The energy consumption at Christmas is much higher than during the rest of the year. One of the main energy expenses at Christmas comes from lighting, starting with the streets, shops and decorative lights of the houses.
According to Energy Saving Trust, the amount of carbon dioxide generated by Christmas lights each year could power 15,500 hot air balloons. Switching to low-cost, low-energy LED lights, which cost about US$3.50 per year, can cut your energy bill by 90 percent. A standard lightbulb costs almost US$20 per year.
Planes, trains, and cars during the holidays also contribute to our carbon footprint. Last year, the American Automobile Association estimated that 112.5 million people in the U.S. took to the skies, roads, and rails to get to their holiday destinations. Most of them, roughly 100 million people, made their way by car.
All that travel, unsurprisingly, is taking a toll on the environment. According to a 2018 study published in the journal Nature, tourism counts for around eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and much of it happens during the holidays.
Waste of food
In a recent survey called 'Stop Food Waste,' from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), half of the people surveyed in the U.S. noticed more food waste over the Christmas period than at other times of the year.
It found that 70 percent of people admitted that they buy extra food ‘just in case’ when they have unexpected visitors.
The EPA advised to instead of overbuying, store food properly so it lasts longer, and use leftovers. It also pointed out the supermarkets won’t be closed for long during the festive season, so there might not be that much of a need to stock up.
“This is one of the most important climate actions we can take, and it saves money,” says the EPA of cutting down on food waste.
In the U.K. excessive eating habits during Christmas cause the same carbon footprint as a single car traveling 6,000 times around the world, according to a University of Manchester study.
The British consume 80 percent more food over the Christmas season than during the rest of the year, spending on average over US$225 per household on food for just one day. Their Christmas traditions include 10 million turkeys, 370 million mince pies and 205 million glasses of champagne consumed by U.K. households.
In the U.S. people use a staggering amount of wrapping paper each year, spending roughly US$2.6 billion on decorative papers drenched in Santas, reindeer, and snowy settings, according to one estimate. In the U.K., one report says, more than 226,800 miles of wrapping paper is tossed during the holidays, enough paper to wrap around the planet nine times.
The British also dump an average of 230,000 tons of unnecessary Christmas gifts, the equivalent to 74 million mince pies or two million turkeys.
According to some environmental studies, 41 percent of toys or gifts purchased during Christmas, by March, will have been broken or children will be bored of them, which will cause most to end up directly in garbage containers.
At the socioeconomic level, inequality is intensely marked during the holidays. Taking into account that on the one hand an obsession is generated by the purchase of gifts, on the other, thousands of workers who have made the products to be consumed are in a situation of poverty, exploitation, and will likely never be able to purchase the products they made.
Although Christmas represents one of the most important dates of the year, environmentalists recommend taking more environmentally friendly actions, taking into account that being aware of the situation on the planet does not necessarily imply a sacrifice but a reduction of the world's carbon footprint during these holiday by doing the minimum.