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How to decorate for Christmas sustainably

Transforming our homes into a magical Christmas wonderland every year can come at an unsustainable cost for the environment, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Below are some fantastic ideas to create more environmentally friendly traditions that don’t cost the earth or even a lot of money! 

Future friendly Christmas trees 

Christmas trees can be one of the most environmentally damaging accessories. To read more about their climate impact, check out this article from Live Kindly. Below are our ideas for lowering the carbon emissions of your Christmas tree. Of course, using what you already own is usually the most sustainable option. So if you own an artificial tree, make sure you use it for as long as possible! 

  • Make your own tree. You can find several ideas online for DIY trees made out of ladders, books, cardboard, logs, scrap pieces of wood or cloth and so on – and it’s even better if you use materials you already own. You can create something unique that fits the space you have and, even better, you can use this tree again and again!
  • Use a living tree. You can buy a small Christmas tree in a pot that can later be planted in your garden, or rent a living tree for the Christmas period that can be returned to the grower to be cared for until next Christmas. Alternatively, choose a slow-growing bushy evergreen that can be kept in a pot in the garden during the year and brought in and decorated each Christmas. For more information on how to care for your Christmas tree, visit the Royal Horticultural Society website at www.RHS.co.uk and search for ‘christmas trees’.
  • Buy a sustainable artificial tree. You can find trees online made of plywood or recycled cardboard, for example. These may not be as cheap as an ordinary artificial tree, but could last longer and are more likely to be recyclable.
  • Think carefully about buying a chopped tree. Cutting down trees is harmful to our environment, and the land would be put to much better use hosting a permanent, mixed species forest, which we need to expand massively to help combat global warming. If you do end up buying a tree, the following steps will help minimise the damage: 
  1. Choose an FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) approved Christmas tree, to make sure that the growing conditions were as environmentally friendly as possible. 
  2. Choose your tree from a local grower to reduce your tree’s transport-related carbon emissions.
  3. Recycle your tree rather than burning it or sending it to landfill. Many local authorities now offer a collection service for real trees which they shred and use on gardens and parks – the greenest way to dispose of your real tree.
  • Be responsible about your artificial tree. If you do decide to buy an artificial tree, then why not start by looking for a second-hand tree in a charity shop or online, on sites such as eBay and Gumtree? At this time of year, all of the weird and wonderful Christmas trees that have been donated are put out on display, ranging from brand new ones barely used to some fantastic retro trees. You can pick up a real bargain, and you’ll also be helping to support a local charity. No space to store your artificial tree? Donate it back to the charity shop for someone else to find next year!
  • Something else to consider is disposing of your tree at the end of its life – can you find a home for it elsewhere? Or perhaps some parts of it, such as metal poles, can be recycled.

Future-friendly Christmas lights

The colourful glow of Christmas lights is a well-loved contributor to the magical Christmas atmosphere. Unfortunately, they also have a significant climate impact, because of the amount of electricity used to power them. Not only this, many Christmas tree light sets are notoriously breakable and non-repairable. Below are some ideas for retaining the magic but lessening the carbon impact of your Christmas lighting. 

  • Less can be more. In recent years, we have become more extravagant with our Christmas lighting, with ambitious competitive outdoor displays and permanently flashing lights all around the house. However, a simple display can actually create a more subtle and warm atmosphere. To save electricity, you could put the lights on a timer to make sure they are switched off in daylight or while you are asleep. You could also make sure the lights are only switched on when you are in the room.
  • Try an alternative light source. Burning candles can create a special and natural feeling without consuming plastic or wasting too much energy. Candles made from non-paraffin sources such as beeswax or soy wax are kinder to the environment. 
  • Buy lights with the lowest carbon impact. If you do decide to buy Christmas lights, look for ways to reduce the carbon impact. For example, LED lights use up to 80% less energy and are longer lasting and more reliable than traditional lights.You could also buy lights that are guaranteed to last or are repairable, or buy outdoor lights that are solar-powered.  

Future-friendly Christmas decorations 

Decorating the tree and living room can mark the start of the Christmas season, but we need to think carefully about the items we choose to display. Traditional decorations like tinsel, coloured  baubles and artificial snow are usually made from plastic, which is difficult to dispose of responsibly and carbon-intensive to produce. Of course, the most environmentally-friendly option is to look after the decorations you already own and keep using them as long as possible.

  • Make your own. Why not try making your own Christmas decorations from materials you already have around the house, like paper, card, ribbons or scraps of material or packaging? You can also use natural materials you can find outdoors, like holly or pine cones, or buy second hand baubles from charity shops and car boot sales then redecorate or upcycle them. You can find plenty of ideas online for these DIY Christmas decorations, and the time spent creating them can help get you and your family in the mood for Christmas. 
  • Buy second hand. You can buy second-hand decorations from charity shops, antique stores, car boot sales or online.  This can give your collection a quirky, original, mix-and-match feel, while helping to give these decorations a longer life-span, and therefore lowering their carbon footprint.
  • Buy responsibly. If you need to buy new decorations, then look for decorations that are non-plastic and made to last. You can find many alternative decorations online that are made of wood or other natural materials.  These may be a bit more expensive than plastic baubles, but if you buy a few things that are really special, they can be packed away carefully each year and brought out for the pre-Christmas decorating ritual. Buying locally-made decorations will help reduce the transport emissions.

Future-friendly Christmas cards

Cards allow us to get in touch with family and friends we may not see often and wish them a merry Christmas. They may feel like a small part of our Christmas carbon footprint, but cards can be wasteful and difficult to recycle. Here are some ideas for reducing the impact of cards this year.

  • Send fewer cards. Agree with colleagues, friends and family not to send cards at all this year. To make sure you don’t lose the chance to keep in touch, make a point of having a good ‘Christmas chat’ with the people you value, either in person or on the phone.
  • Make your own cards. For a personal touch, you can make your own cards out of recycled card and natural materials. People will appreciate the time you have put into this. You could even save cards you receive this year to reuse next year as gift tags!
  • Send e-cards.This is not a zero-carbon option, as storage of online information uses energy, but it is less carbon intensive than a physical card.
  • Buy responsible cards. There are many options available for sustainable cards made from recycled paper or environmentally friendly materials. Avoid cards with glitter or gimmicks like music or lights – these include carbon-intensive and difficult to recycle materials. Buying Christmas cards made locally or by charities will help you to feel your purchase is having a positive impact. 

Future-friendly Christmas wrapping paper

In the UK, it’s traditional to wrap presents before we give them. But Christmas wrapping paper is part of the mountain of waste thrown away at the end of the festive period. According to one report, we use 363,000 miles of wrapping paper every Christmas (enough to go around the planet about nine times), and over 83km2 of this ends up in our bins. 

Here are our ideas for more environmentally friendly ways to wrap gifts this year.

  • Don’t wrap at all! Check out our article about alternative Christmas gifts for plenty of ideas on presents you don’t need to wrap.
  • Use alternative wrapping materials. If you still like the idea of opening presents, you can wrap presents in materials you already have to hand. For example, you could use pieces of fabric or newspapers and magazines. Tie your packages with string or ribbons that can be saved and reused. Get creative! This could also be a cheaper option. 
  • Reuse gift bags. Start a new tradition of passing on the same gift bag around and around – you could even add tags every year to document its journey and contents.
  • Buy wrapping paper responsibly. If you are buying Christmas wrapping paper first hand, look carefully at what it is made of. The best options are plain brown paper, which you can decorate yourself, or pre-printed Christmas paper labelled as made from recycled paper. 
  • Choose recyclable paper. After the presents are opened, don’t forget to collect the paper.  You can either store it to re-use next year, or put it into the paper recycling bin. Not sure whether your wrapping paper is recyclable? Do the scrunch test! The scrunch test is a simple way to determine whether wrapping paper can be recycled. Simply scrunch the item in your hand – if it remains ‘scrunched’ it can be recycled; if it springs back it is probably metallised plastic film and not recyclable.

We’d love to hear your sustainable Christmas tips. Share them on social media using the hashtag #candosouthyorkshire.