Many of us trying to live a greener lifestyle come unstuck during the festive season, a time when our diets go out the window and our wallets take a hit.
So much so, it’s estimated Britons will spend £25.6 billion on presents alone this Christmas.
The consequences of our generosity? A mountain of binbags, overflowing recycling bins, and a huge increase in our carbon footprint.
Fixing a hole
All is not lost. Researchers and innovators are working on solutions to the pressing environmental challenges made even more acute over Christmas and the New Year.
Here we highlight some of their work and offer some ideas on celebrating a greener (and less costly) festive season without spoiling the yuletide experience.
Where to begin but one of the essential ingredients of the Christmas season, plastics, and crunch some of the extraordinary numbers behind the world’s favourite packaging material.
A look at the stats
According to a report compiled by UKRI-supported researchers at the University of Hull, UK consumption of plastic items such as packaging and plastic products increases by 30% over the Christmas holidays.
Much of this ends up in landfill, or the oceans, even if we think it might be on its way to be recycled.
Here are some of the key stats from the report and tips it offers for reducing our carbon footprint:
The equivalent of 108 million rolls of wrapping paper
Unfortunately, much of this paper contains glitter and plastic films which makes it non-recyclable.
You can test if your wrapping paper can be recycled by using the scrunch test.
If the paper has no glitter on it, and it scrunches up, you can recycle it
One billion Christmas cards
Cards are often embellished with plastic and glitter, which makes them non-recyclable.
Try tearing off the plastic part and popping the remainder in the recycling bin.
150 million crackers
Most crackers contain tiny plastic gifts with a lifespan of just hours before beginning their likely journey to the world’s oceans.
If your local shops don’t stock plastic-free crackers, try shopping for affordable ones online, where you can also find kits to make your own sustainable versions.
62 million single-use plastic mince pie trays
If you have time and resources, try making your own pies.
Artificial Christmas trees
If you do buy a plastic tree, make sure it is reused at least 10 times.
Better still, if space and budget allow, try investing in a living re-pottable Christmas tree.
Stay card sharp
UKRI research partner, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), reports that a staggering 300,000 tonnes of cardboard are used in our homes during the festive season.
That’s enough to wrap Big Ben almost 260,000 times.
WRAP suggests flattening all boxes out before binning them. If the box springs back when you’re fighting with it, it contains plastic and can’t be recycled.
So, what of the big meal itself? Well, we all dream of big things at Christmas, but you may still be surprised by the whopping amount of food and drink we gobble during Christmas dinner alone.
According to UK packaging firm GPW Group, during Christmas dinner this year we will tuck in to:
- 10 million turkeys
- 750 million individual Brussels sprouts (the majority sold in single-use plastic bags)
- 25 million Christmas puddings (most sold in some form of plastic and cardboard packaging).
Which is a lot. But that’s nothing when you consider what we will throw away, which includes:
- 9 million carrots
- 3 million roast potatoes
- 2 million kilos of cheese
- 740,000 portions of Christmas pudding
- 74 million mince pies.
What’s more, experts from UKRI’s Global Food Security (GFS) programme report that, every year, of the 230,000 tonnes of Christmas food we throw away, half of this is still edible at the time.
The cost of our collective crime against Christmas comestibles? £1 billion.
To find out more about the annual carbon footprint of the UK’s food system, why not download this compelling, evidence-based report from the GFS team (PDF, 6.9MB)?
Counting our Christmas carbon
So how does our overall Christmas carbon count stack up?
For a general indication, we can look back to 2007. Scientists from The University of Manchester, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), used their newly-designed CCaLC Carbon Calculator to measure the carbon footprint of Christmas dinner in the UK.
They found the total equivalent emissions to be 51,000 tonnes, or 148 million miles travelled in a car.
CCaLC went on to win a host of awards. Today, it is used by organisations around the world to enable quick and easy estimations of the lifecycle of greenhouse gas emissions along the whole supply chain.
Just as CCaLC looks at entire supply chains, scientists from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Food Network have taken a whole lifecycle view of the impact of our Christmas dinner. It focusses on how we cook our food.
They estimate that as much as 60% of the emissions associated with food come from home-cooking methods and the appliances we use to cook our Christmas.
It turns out that the oven is the worst culprit, mostly due to the long cooking times and high-energy demands involved in roasting meat.
An alternative option
By contrast, appliances like microwave ovens and pressure cookers are generally used for less time and use less energy than ovens. Hence, the team say, their carbon footprint is smaller than conventional oven cooking.
Turning up the heat on meat
It comes as no surprise that, whichever way you cut it, red meat has the highest carbon footprint of the meat in our Christmas meal. Turkey comes somewhat lower down the naughty step.
We’ll leave Tim Lang, Emeritus Professor of Food Policy at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy, co-leader of an Economic and Social Research Council funded project which investigated the future of food, to explain why. He uses the process of making the humble hamburger to make the point.
Interviewed on a major Netflix documentary about human diet and health, he noted that:
Water has been fed into the grain that’s been fed to the cattle, the cattle’s been made into beef. One hamburger is 2,400 litres of embedded water. That’s a heck of a lot of water.
Crumbs of comfort
So, are there any crumbs of nutritional and environmental comfort to be found from the traditional Christmas dinner?
Well, yes there are, sort of.
A University of Nottingham study found that eating more white meat such as turkey and eating less red or processed meat could result in significant health benefits. The study was funded by:
- Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
- Medical Research Council (MRC)
- Innovate UK.
After just 12 weeks, participants in the trial had lowered their levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. Researchers were also surprised to see a drop in white and red cells in the blood.
The findings could be significant as we make the expected transition away from eating red meat towards healthier protein sources.
Alternatives to farmed meat
One day soon it may be commonplace for us to tuck into our Christmas turkey, beef or lamb, unaware that it originated in the lab, not the farm, or is largely plant-based.
For example, University of Reading food researchers used STFC’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source to engineer non-animal proteins into synthetic meats, complete with muscle fibres.
In December 2021, researchers at the University of Nottingham found a way to obtain stem cells from livestock that grow under chemically-defined conditions.
This paves the way for manufacturing cell-cultured meat.
Children across the UK will be heartened to learn that BBSRC-supported researchers at the University of Warwick know a thing or two about how to make Brussels sprouts and other brassicas such as cabbage and kale hardier and more productive.
For over 10 years, they have been working with industry to develop crops with long-term durable disease resistance, crop quality and yield.
They have also been working to improve the UK’s crop of another Christmas dinner staple, carrots, so they are able to withstand a changing climate as periods of flooding, drought and hot or cold spells become more and more commonplace.
There’s more good news for sprout lovers from scientists at the BBSRC-supported John Innes Centre, who are using techniques such as genome sequencing to improve the yield and resilience of brassica crops.
Despite what many of us might think about sprouts, this research is serious business.
Brassicas account for more than 10% of the world’s vegetable and vegetable oil production. Improving their resilience and breeding efficiency will be one of the keys to ensuring global food security.
One more thing about sprouts. They’re also really, really good for you, as experts at the BBSRC-supported Quadram Institute are pleased to report in an detailed study of the food science behind our Christmas dinner.
In general, there is evidence that our eating habits are changing in the UK, as more and more of us shift to more sustainable lifestyles.
Christmas dinner is playing an important part in this shift as family members gather around festive tables replete with new and different recipes. This includes vegan and meat-free dishes, and food from many different cultures. Still Christmas dinner, but with a twist.
Meanwhile, as you wrestle with turkey-cooking times, Auntie Poppy’s ghastly prawn cocktail and family seating arrangements, spare a thought for past times when there wasn’t enough to go around to waste at Christmas.
Although wholemeal bread and potatoes were unrationed, each person was allowed the following quantities per week:
- 110g fat
- 150g sugar
- one egg
- 110g cheese
- 450g meat and fish combined
- a quarter of a pint of milk a day.
After enduring this diet for three months, and after a gruelling phase of climbs, hikes and bicycle rides in the Lake District, the team declared that this basic diet could meet the nation’s health needs.
On Christmas Day, they ate a plum pudding made from ingredients saved from the previous week’s rations.
Robert McCance ate five large potatoes: “more than I had ever eaten in one day before”. He had, of course, just cycled 50 miles, so probably just about deserved them.
Into the New Year
Celebrating a more sustainable new year comes with a new set of challenges, such as:
- how to sustainably dispose of our Christmas waste
- what to wear at the New Year’s Eve party.
While it might be tricky to help you with the second challenge, UKRI-supported researchers, innovators and partners are developing solutions that can help us tackle our Yuletide rubbish pile.
It’s a WRAP
Back to research partner WRAP’s website, which features a host of tips about how we can reuse and recycle our Christmas waste. From bubble and squeak recipes to refashioning unloved Christmas jumpers (in time for the New Year’s party, perhaps?).
There’s also a handy portion planner, so you can nip Christmas dinner waste in the bud before adding it’s ingredients to your shopping basket.
WRAP reports encouraging signs of behaviour change in the UK, with many households logging-on to its website to find out how to recycle common Christmas items.
Going large: recycling Christmas trees and plastic debris
But how can research and innovation help reduce our Christmas carbon footprint on a wider community and national scale?
According to the British Tree Growers Association, we buy up to eight million Christmas trees every year. That’s a lot of wood, much of which will be sent to landfill.
But what if we could make use of that waste wood?
Lixea Technologies, a spin-out company formed to commercialise UKRI-supported research at Imperial College London, is one of a number of firms formed to tackle this problem.
Lixea’s BioFlex process uses unwanted waste wood/biomass to produce renewable chemicals, materials and fuels. This provides a greener, bio-derived alternative to today’s petrochemical industry while giving waste materials a new purpose.
Meanwhile, at the University of Bath, researchers at the EPSRC-supported Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies have developed a renewable plastic from a chemical called pinene found in pine needles.
The team hope the plastic could be used in a range of applications, including food packaging, plastic bags and even medical implants.
Sustainable and commercial
The Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies is also host to iCAST, an academic business collaboration launched last month to develop and translate sustainable chemical technologies into commercial products.
The Swindon-based centre is funded by a £17 million investment from Research England.
Recycling mixed plastics
iCAST partner Recycling Technologies Ltd has a long history of collaboration with, and funding from, UKRI councils. Based in Swindon and London, it has developed commercial technology that can overcome one of the knottiest of Christmas plastic recycling challenges. The industrial-scale recycling of mixed plastic waste.
Yes, that’s all kinds of plastic.
This means your plastic pine needles, Christmas wrapping paper, Jack’s witheringly expensive Build Your Own Hogwarts set, the red cabbage carton that nobody touched and your sabotaged Wizzard CD. They could all have a useful afterlife as part of a circular economy.
Dancing to Slade and Wizzard brings us back to the (socially-distanced) New Year’s party, which, it turns out, doesn’t have to be quite so unsustainable, particularly if you’re a fan of a bit of sparkle.
And, just last month, EPSRC-funded researchers at the University of Cambridge revealed they had developed a sustainable, plastic-free glitter for use in the cosmetics industry.
The material is made from the cellulose found in plants, fruits, vegetables and wood pulp.
Although the festive season may not be the best time of year for sustainability, by making informed choices we can all do our bit for the planet.
The next step will be to turn those choices into commitments, and there’s never a better time to do this than at the stroke of midnight on 31 December, when you make your resolution for a more sustainable 2022.
Top image: Credit: LUMIKK555, Getty Images