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Christmas Aftermath: the holiday season carbon footprint

C arbon emissions around Christmas are devastatingly high in the months leading up to it as well as the months after. This increase in emissions has been a common trend over the course of previous Christmas periods and will likely continue this season, with 650kg of carbon emissions per person and, over the three days of Christmas celebrations, could make up 5.5% of the nation’s annual carbon footprint, according to the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). Consumerism is the primary source for this shift in carbon emissions, with increased advertising, enticing Christmas lights, mass product manufacturing, as well as gift wrapping, purchasing and transportation. How can we reduce holiday carbon emissions in an increasingly consumerist society?

Consumerism is the primary source for this shift in carbon emissions

Around Christmas, light usage increases in private settings, such as in homes and public settings on high streets. These lights, such as the ones around Christmas trees in high street decorations and the increased prominence of electronic advertisements, are attractive to shoppers, evoking a Christmas spirit and encouraging customers to buy and participate in festivities. This issue can be mitigated if we are able to leave Christmas lighting on a battery-operated timer switch that keeps the lights operating only during certain times of the day. Project Solar estimate that 13.5kgs of carbon emissions are emitted through Christmas lights. Forbes, to accompany that estimate, note that in the US, it takes 3.5 billion kWh of energy to power all Christmas lights. This is enough energy to sustain 4 million light bulbs annually. It is also what a 500-megawatt coal power plant produces in a whole year.

Travel in pursuit of consumerism is also a significant contributor to the carbon footprint, especially for those driving, and the footfalls during Christmas increase significantly during this period. Individuals are looking to travel to busy high streets and areas of general consumerism as well as travelling to visit family during this period as many have been denied celebration alongside family for some time because of the pandemic. Trains and other public transportation are markedly excellent as alternatives to automobile transportation, and increased use of trains reduces congestion emissions. Along with this, it can be a far more efficient mode of transport.

One other way to help reduce carbon emissions is by sourcing your gifts from local gift makers with companies that rely little on outsourced labour. Assuring that materials for products are ethically extracted and can be reused or recycled, lengthening the life cycle of products too often discarded at the end of their life is a step away from unethical business practices relying on mass production, consumerist needs and prioritising primarily high profitability.

In the US, it takes 3.5 billion kWh of energy to power all Christmas lights

Packaging and wrapping that is not recycled often ends up left in landfills. As a result, similarly to travelling, the act of purchasing becomes an act of mass consumerism. The purchasing of products packaged with lots of plastics becomes the leading cause for 114,000 tonnes of plastic wrapping that ends up in landfills during Christmas, followed by estimates of 688,000 tonnes in food waste, plastic, cardboard, and aluminium which in fact is 148,000 tonnes more waste in a singular month than the entire plastic waste generated in Norway for an entire year, with landfills producing large quantities of greenhouse gases, including 11% of all methane generated. To combat this, the use of biodegradable packaging or environmentally friendly packaging such as biodegradable paper is more beneficial than wrapping it with materials containing unrecyclable plastics. The materials used in the production process also weigh heavily on the environment. For example, oils are explicitly required to produce products made with plastics. While these products will generally have a longer life span, those products made with plastics are not biodegradable, and the product life cycle for plastics often leads to them ending up in landfills.

Packaging and wrapping that is not recycled often ends up left in landfills.

Furthermore, carbon footprints continue to grow due to the increased use of online shopping. Instead of travelling to busy town centres, many look for bargains online. This method of shopping allows consumerism to persist with fewer constraints on the consumer. An example of this would be online retailers such as Amazon, which, according to MarTech, accounted for over 42% of all Christmas gift shopping globally during the period in 2019. Online shopping has become an increasingly popular tool due to its convenience, competitive pricing and time efficiency. However, while it often outweighs the benefits of going into stores, the increased mass production required to sustain it has led to pressing environmental issues. These issues come about due to exponential demand, leading to the overuse of resources that can harm soils, destroy the biodiversity and natural ecosystems. This overuse of land significantly threatens the habitats of indigenous peoples, such as those living in the Amazon rainforest.

The manufacturing process and global production networks could be seen as a metaphorical conveyor belt with the extraction of materials for production, which then causes devastating environmental costs in developing nations. In these nations, there are high environmental costs due to a shift in industrial responsibility and manufacturing. This cost occurs because developing nations within the contemporary world are more centred around developing industrial economies to fit the global supply chain. And then, finally, the growing global middle class of the West acts as the demand for the supply and determines the speed and efficiency to which these other economies run in the global capitalist hierarchy of global production. Overall, this structure has a devastating impact on the environment and is the primary process through which people receive their products today. Therefore we must look at these manufacturers and practices and understand that they are not sustainable. We need to acknowledge how an almost ritualistic substandard of a holiday can be changed, that is, in its origin, a religious holiday that has been reforged and repackaged as one for vapid shows of wealth and excessive gift-giving with little care for the damage this can have for the environment.

We need to acknowledge how an almost ritualistic substandard of a holiday can be changed

Here I have outlined many practices that can make a change, but it will take significant cultural shifts in how we navigate our celebrations carefully around the environment. How long this will take to take a global initiative depends on how legitimate the threat seems to individuals. Whether the realisation comes soon enough or too late to save environments and restore the planet’s health remains to be seen whether the globe becomes preserved for future generations.


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