The real environmental impact of Christmas

Updated July 11, 2018

The carbon footprint of Christmas-time equates to 5.5 percent of the UK’s annual carbon dioxide emissions. For one day, this is a hefty price for the planet to pay. You as an individual, on average, will produce 650kg of carbon dioxide emissions per person. This is just under half of an average UK households’ electricity-related emissions over the course of a year, according to’s Carbon Calculator. Christmas is a time for excess in the eyes of many, but the level of waste can significantly impact the environment.

We can all tread more lightly on the earth this Christmas by eating, drinking and giving gifts in moderation, and by giving gifts with a low environmental cost, such as vouchers for services, tickets to entertainment, memberships to gyms, museums or sports clubs, and donations to charities.

Don Henry, Executive Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Why would Christmas impact the environment?

There are numerous aspects of Christmas which have an impact on our planet. One of the most obvious is the abundant lighting plastered around homes all over the country, and is sometimes left on overnight. The advent of LED lighting has dramatically reduced this amount (cutting emissions by 95 percent when compared to traditional lighting), but there are still many wasteful decorations being put up around the country. Just over a third of the average person’s emissions come from lighting displays.

The goods you buy also carry a high environmental price-tag. The manufacturing, packing and distribution of the presents you buy accounts for almost half of your personal emissions during the Christmas period. The plastic packaging from the products themselves amounts to 125,000 tons of landfill waste, equivalent to more than one million John Prescotts. Out of all of the good commonly purchased, electrical devices are the worst for the planet according to the Industrial Design Consultancy.

The widespread use of artificial Christmas trees could at first appear to be a green solution. Instead of uprooting a real tree for a single use, PVC trees can last for several years. However, as Vanessa Pine – head of the Carbon Trust’s footprinting team – points out, “Yes, you can re-use them, but you would have to reuse it for ten Christmases for it to be better than a real Christmas tree.” They end up on landfills, and also produce emissions in their production. The problem is that after being used, stored away and dragged out for successive Christmases, they’re often thrown away long before the tenth year. Research from 2006 showed that six million trees (enough to stretch from London to the North Pole) would be incinerated or dumped on landfill sites that year.

Christmas cards and wrapping paper also contribute to the issue. You could gift-wrap the island of Jersey with the amount of wrapping paper thrown away each Christmas. As for cards, it’s estimated that every man, woman and child in the UK could throw away up to 17 cards, making up to one billion wasted cards over the Christmas period. If you laid these cards out end to end, they’d wrap around the planet five times.

Researchers from the University of Manchester calculated the carbon footprint of a single Christmas dinner to be around 20kg. This means that the country as a whole will produce around 51,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions from food alone. The study’s head researcher, Professor Adisa Azapagic, explained that “food production and processing are responsible for three quarters of the total carbon footprint, with the largest proportion - 60 per cent - being related to the life cycle of the turkey.” Plus, wasted food ends up in a landfill and when it decomposes produces methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the short-term.

Is the damage significant?

The problem with carbon dioxide emissions as a measure of damage to the environment is that they’re hard to understand in general terms. For example, a six foot tall artificial Christmas tree produces 40kg of emissions if it’s thrown on a landfill, and a comparable real tree only creates 3.5k of emissions if it’s chipped or incinerated. The difference between the two shows that real trees are much more environmentally-friendly, but it can be hard to understand in context.

The best way to understand the true extent of the environmental damage is to place it in the context of something like driving. Using an artificial tree is equivalent to driving an average-sized car 120 miles. This might not seem like a lot, but when you consider that every household in the country is essentially making this pointless journey it mounts up exponentially. In 2009, Tesco alone was reported to be on course to sell 300,000 artificial trees.

It’s evident that the environmental damage caused by Christmas is significant, but some excess is to be expected. Although it’s important to look after the planet, there is no reason your Christmas celebrations have to suffer. Taking steps to reduce the impact of Christmas on the earth allows you to keep the tradition alive without creating unnecessary waste.

Having a green Christmas

If you want to enjoy the festive season without the guilt about the fate of the planet, it’s pretty easy to reduce your waste without unleashing masses of CO2 into the atmosphere. The most obvious way you can help is to recycle everything you can. The mountains of cans and bottles from days of overindulgence, the plentiful cards and the mess of wrapping paper all don’t have to be wasted.

Eating your leftovers is another very easy precaution to take. Make turkey sandwiches on Boxing Day, and try not to go too overboard with your spread.

Buying LED Christmas lights is also extremely helpful – not only do they last longer, they also consume considerably less energy. Switch them off at night too, no one appreciates lights when they’re sleeping!

Make sure you buy a live tree. Shedding needles might not be ideal, but trees are a sustainable resource. You can have the tree chipped and turned into garden mulch, or even re-plant it and use it again next year!

Cite this Article A tool to create a citation to reference this article Cite this Article

About the Author

Lee Johnson has written for various publications and websites since 2005, covering science, music and a wide range of topics. He studies physics at the Open University, with a particular interest in quantum physics and cosmology. He's based in the UK and drinks too much tea.