Don’t just make the tree green but have a sustainable Christmas

2021. december 14.

Artificial tree or real pine? Should it be an expensive gadget underneath the tree or something you made? And what should we wrap it in?


As Christmas approaches, people tend to make shopping expeditions to buy all kinds of gifts, food, decorations, either deliberately or as an impulse purchase. After the holidays, these things end up in the closet, or, even worse, in the rubbish bin - so it's a good idea to start preparing for the holiday in a more planned and thoughtful way. Here are a few tips, from the Christmas meals through the tree to the gifts.


Real pine or artificial tree?

At first, it may seem like a strange dilemma, after all, plastic isn’t exactly sustainable, so why would you even consider it when buying a Christmas tree? However, there is an advantage to not cutting down live, healthy, oxygen-producing trees. Moreover, artificial trees stay with us forever, we just need to look them out of the garage in December, brush off the cobwebs, and we can start to decorate our home. What if we buy a live pine? And then we plant it outdoors? That’s a win-win situation, isn’t it?

Well, CNN says it’s one of the most-searched-for topics on Google around Christmas, so they asked Gregory Keoleian, a professor with the University of Michigan's School for Environment and Sustainability, who clarified some points: the best choice for inside the house is to have cut pine purchased from a plantation, as these trees are cultivated, cut down, and, most importantly, replaced on land specially designated for this purpose.

And seedlings, while growing, sequester a lot of carbon dioxide, helping the fight against climate change. Moreover, pine growing provides a livelihood for farmers - we help them by buying from them.

A live, potted pine can also be a good solution, although this requires an area where the trees can be replanted – within a few years you may have created your own small pine forest this way, but not everyone may have this option.

However, if there is nowhere to put the tree, it will end up in the rubbish, even if it is potted. Like all waste, a discarded Christmas tree decomposes over time. According to Carbon Trust, a two-metre pine tree emits an average of 16 kilograms of carbon dioxide when it is decomposing.

This is because methane is produced in the process, which is a greenhouse gas twenty-five times stronger than carbon dioxide. All this can be prevented by using the pine tree as firewood: in this case, the carbon dioxide that the wood has already absorbed is released into the air, so emissions are not increased - this means an average of 3.5 kilos of carbon dioxide. If you have a garden, you can also compost the needles.

But what about artificial trees? If you already have one, use it! Although most of the artificial trees are made of PVC, which is not recyclable, it can even have a positive emissions balance after five to ten years of use, so it depends on the owner’s consciousness. A two-metre-tall artificial tree emits an average of 40 kilograms of carbon dioxide in its decomposition, over several centuries. In addition, artificial trees are usually imported so shipping them from further away increases the ecological footprint of the product.

What not to do in any case: don't cut down wild trees!


What kind of present?

This is far from a sustainability consideration during Christmas time, but it should be. Sure, the new phone looks good under the tree, but e-waste has already reached insane levels because people often buy new devices when they don’t really need them. Mass-produced clothes from fast fashion brands also do a lot of damage to nature. But what should we give as gifts then?

If you want to give something sustainable, homemade baked gingerbread, a wooden bird feeder, some flower seeds for next spring, a paper bag of herbal tea or a National Blue Trail completion brochure can be a great gift. Wooden toys are experiencing a renaissance, as is retro in general, so you can even buy used things as gifts. And if we would like to surprise our loved ones with something really special, you could “adopt” a tiger, a panda, a bear, or a lynx through WWF.

Instead of objects, it is worth gifting experiences anyway: tickets for the theatre, cinema or a concert - or a walk on a study trail. During the pandemic, of course, they can be more difficult to arrange, but these are more meaningful and sustainable gifts than socks or mugs with funny slogans.

Also, a gift that promotes a sustainable lifestyle can be a compost bin that can be used in an apartment or a set of rubbish bins for separate waste collection (some selective bins are made of paper, by the way). A mobile case made of recycled waste can also be a good gift, and you can even buy and pass on gifts that are not wanted by others. It’s not a joke: according to The Independent gifts worth £ 42 million a year end up in landfills.


What shall we wrap the presents in?

No matter what the gift is, it's worth thinking about wrapping! Wrapping paper made from recycled paper is a pretty good start, but keep in mind that this also ends up in the rubbish bin – and of course, the paper can be recycled almost infinitely, though it's a shame to burden the recycling plants, they have enough to do already.

It’s a better idea to wrap presents in old, used cardboard boxes, which we can even ask to have back. It’s not a shame; if they would just throw it away anyway, ask for it back and you can wrap presents in it again next year! Or they can also use it to wrap gifs in, thus extending the life of the box. But perhaps the best solution is to avoid packaging; in this case, we can avoid the possibility of producing waste.

The same applies to postcards and disposable decorative bags: they are beautiful, but in most cases, they are soon thrown away, and if kept, they only convey a short (usually meaningless) message.


Table decoration

The same Christmas decorations should be reused for a long time, and it is worth buying paper or glass decorations instead of plastics. Yes, this is all well and good, but the real highlight of the holiday, the decorated table full of delicacies, is harder to make sustainable.

Obviously, no one can be expected not to bake or cook special dishes at Christmas, but we should avoid buying raw materials that originate in remote areas and also processed food, which is not sustainable either.

Food that travels less is always the best option, so it is worth buying from local, or at least from Hungarian producers. Fish is a traditional dish at Christmas here, but it should be a freshwater species that can be easily farmed in Hungary, rather than some exotic dish.


Cover: Getty Images