We’re almost at the end of 2018 and, all through the year, one message has been heard loud and clear – single-use plastic is bad, bad, bad.
Ever since Blue Planet II aired over a year ago, we’ve been increasingly conscious of the vast islands of plastic floating in the ocean. Heartbreaking images of dying polar bears and whales with plastic spilling out of their stomachs have circulated on the internet, sparking a national debate. And no one wants to see animals harmed – especially at Christmas.
It wasn’t too long ago that many of us didn’t even think twice about this stuff. During Christmases past we’d pick up a coffee in a limited-edition red paper cup on our way into work, get a festive sandwich for lunch in plastic wrapping and, at the end of the day, pick up some last-minute presents – carried home in a plastic bag.
And don’t get us started on all the packaging we go through when shopping for Christmas dinner…
Then we’d just throw all of that plastic away. Sometimes it would go in the recycling bin and we felt smug thinking we’d done our bit. Little did we know that not all of it would be recycled, instead getting dumped in landfills overseas.
But now we know the harm single-use plastics can do, many of us are looking for ways to use less of it – and maybe even go totally plastic-free as a pre-Christmas resolution (yes, we’re making this a thing). But it can, at times, feel like mission impossible.
We’ve picked the brains of some eco–experts, whose advice covers everything from what you eat to what to wrap your presents in. Here are their top tips:
Don’t use loads of fancy wrapping paper
Yeah yeah, we can see you screaming “BAH HUMBUG” at the screen – but we’re not being intentionally Scroogey.
While wrapping paper looks pretty and can add an air of mystery to those presents under the tree, it’s not so great for the environment. Wrapping paper often actually contains plastic pieces, and is laminated in plastic to give it that glossy look.
Plus, in order to wrap those presents, you need to use sticky tape – which is also made of plastic.
Because of this, many recycling plants won’t take wrapping paper and, according to one study, about 108 million rolls get thrown away.
But as plastic-free blogger Claudi Williams suggests, you can get around this by being a bit creative.
“As is so often the case, there are hidden plastics in items that don’t look like plastic,” she tells BBC Three. “Wrapping paper, ribbons, glitter and gift tags contain plastic and are mostly packaged in plastic film when you buy them.
“Wrapping paper isn’t recyclable so it’s just better to do without it or make your own – brown packing paper, for example, can look really smart with a colourful cotton ribbon, raffia or string. Another funky way to wrap presents is using newspaper, second hand sheet music, tissue paper or fabric.”
So maybe try wrapping your presents in plain brown paper, a la that bit in that song from The Sound of Music?
Ditch the tinsel
This once popular decoration has officially lost its sparkle. Turns out that it’s totally non-recyclable. So at the end of the festive season it all ends up in landfill anyway.
Same goes for plastic baubles, particularly the ones covered in glitter. We are not fans.
Do without them. Instead, give your home a festive feel with natural decorations – like sprigs of holly and mistletoe, or branches of pine and fir.
For your tree, try making edible decorations out of biscuit instead. That way, when it’s time to take your decorations down, you can console yourself by stuffing your face with gingerbread.
Resist the lure of the Christmas coffee cup
OK, so maybe you’ve got a reusable tumbler that you carry filter coffee around in and it’s all good. But then – suddenly – OMG THE CUPS, IT’S OFFICIALLY CHRISTMAS, I’VE GOT TO HAVE AN OAT MILK GINGERBREAD LATTE WITH EXTRA SYRUP AND LOTS OF CREEEEAM AND, AND…
And it’s just not the same if it’s not in one of those limited-edition festive cups, right?
Wrong! Believe it or not, it’s the same drink.
Christmassy or not, most disposable coffee cups have a hidden plastic lining which makes them particularly hard to recycle. For the moment, there are only a small number of specialist plants in the UK that are able to process them – which is why only one in 400 cups ends up actually being recycled.
Pawan Saunya, who set up an online plastic-free grocery shop, tells BBC Three that despite lots of high-profile marketing campaigns, if you want to save money then you don’t actually need to spend loads on a tumbler or reusable glass.
“You can just use an old jam or peanut butter jar you have at home,” he suggests. “Just take that into a cafe and they’ll fill it up for you.”
Although we should warn you that you need to look up the kind of glass your jam jar is made of, just to make sure it’s suitable for boiling water. Plus, you should get a rubber cover or something to protect your hands from the burning heat – maybe choose a red or green one so you still feel festive?
Don’t serve fish for Christmas
Maybe you’re feeling guilty about all those turkeys sent to slaughter, and are thinking of serving fish on Christmas Day instead? Or you reckon a fish appetiser would get people in the mood for a carby, meaty main course?
Well, we’re sorry to say that this contributes to plastic pollution in a big way, too. All because of (drum roll please)…fishing nets.
According to recent surveys of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean, plastic fishing nets and other discarded fishing paraphernalia made up 46% of the waste pile.
Forty. Six. Percent. That is a hell of a lot of fishing stuff.
This is why Claudi says that she doesn’t eat fish at all.
“Things like straws aren’t as important to me,” she tells BBC Three. “Plastic straws only represent 0.3% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – while fishing nets are actually 46%. So if you really want to make a difference, stop eating fish, or maybe do some campaigning to change the fishing industry.”
But not everyone can easily give up fish at Christmas – for many cultures across Europe, for example, a little fishy is the Christmas dishy.
If this is you, don’t sweat it, but sadly it may be difficult to avoid eating something that came from a fishing net. Instead, aim to buy fish that’s been sustainably caught for your Christmas celebrations and try to cut down the rest of the year.
Make your own Christmas sandwiches…
…And take them to work in a reuseable box, if you’re unlucky enough to be working in that bit between Christmas and NYE (or, dare we say it… on Christmas Day). Sob.
You can save so much plastic by doing something as simple as preparing a packed lunch in your own lunchbox. Take your own portable cutlery and avoid using cling film too for extra eco-points.
Make your turkey or soya sandwiches the night before if you’re not a morning person – and to really jazz them up with a bit of festive flair, add some cranberry sauce, soft cheese (or cashew cheese, holla vegans!) and pine nuts.
Pawan adds that you don’t need to buy fancy metal tiffin boxes: “Just take in an old ice cream tub or take-away box, if you have one.”
Or invest in that Rudolph-covered lunchbox you’ve always wanted but your parents refused to buy you.
See, going plastic-free can be fun.
Do your Christmas shopping at plastic-free supermarkets
Basically, plastic-free supermarkets do exactly what they say: the stuff you need to buy isn’t wrapped in plastic, or handed to you in plastic bags. They’re not super common but they do exist.
Instead, you take your own cloth bag and grocery containers and fill them up with whatever you want – chestnuts, parsnips, sprouts… And usually, these are then charged by weight.
Although for now there are only a small number of physical plastic-free shops in the UK, there are plenty of plastic-free online shops – so get researching.
Have a cracker-free Christmas
No, we don’t mean you shouldn’t have biscuits with your Wensleydale and cranberry (we’re not monsters, guys). We’re talking about the cardboard things you pull apart, and get toys and crowns inside.
And those toys are almost always made of plastic. Does anyone actually keep all those little fake moustaches? We thought not.
Claudi writes on her blog that for their first plastic-free Christmas, her son made paper crowns for the whole family, complete with “hilarious name badges”.
Maybe do the same thing, and even make them together as a family? It’s way more fun, and eco-friendly of course.
Make your own soaps to give away as gifts
We’re aware this one seems a bit hardcore – but it does make sense.
In fact, making your own toiletries generally is a good way of avoiding unnecessary plastic.
Claudi started by making her own toothpaste: “Once I found a recipe I just tried it out, and it worked straight away. The homemade stuff is made from some of the same ingredients as many commercial toothpastes – bicarbonate of soda, vegetable glycerine and peppermint oil.”
Obviously, if you live a busy life, it can seem a bit of a pain to sit down and make your own soap or toothpaste from scratch – but Claudi insists it’s actually really quick.
“Really, it only takes a minute to make a batch that lasts you and your family a week,” she says.
She applies the same principle to other toiletries, too. If it comes in a plastic tube or bottle, she either finds a plastic-free alternative or makes it herself.
And last but, clearly, not least…
Always carry a canvas bag
Yeah yeah, we know, you’ve heard this one a million times before – but it’s such an obvious tip that we couldn’t not include it.
It’s hard to believe that each person in England once got through 140 single-use plastic carrier bags in a year. Since the government introduced a 5p charge on the bags in October 2015, that figure is closer to about 25 bags each – a reduction of more than six billion bags. Well done humans.
So this seems like the best place to start, if you haven’t already. If you’re planning on using plastic carrier bags when you go to do your Christmas shopping, start taking your own reusable cloth bags instead.
You don’t need to buy specially-made bags for life or anything like that, either. Just take an old rucksack or something with you to the shop.
So, there you go – if you’ve read all the way to bottom of this, then there really is no excuse for you not to start your plastic-free life immediately.