Wondering about a greener Christmas

Dr Tracey Leghorn
by Dr Tracey Leghorn, Chief Business Services Officer | SUEZ recycling and recovery UK

It may be, as the cheesy Andy Williams Christmas song tells us, ‘The most wonderful time of the year’ but it is also extremely challenging for many.

To focus on business first, after Boxing Day and New Year’s Day our refuse collection crews must move mountains of materials in less time for processing at our handling and treatment centres. Front-line services also risk being disrupted by severe weather events around the turn of the year. These are problems we’re used to, and our people can plan and respond accordingly.

Turning to the communities we serve and the national sphere, the seasonal picture is more worrying. The festivities this year fall in the middle of a perfect storm, formed by the interlinked crises of the cost of living, energy crunch and the climate emergency.

This year the changing climate may spare the UK rainstorms and flooding, as has happened before. But soaring inflation and higher-than-ever fuel poverty will be ghosts at the feast in many households.

Don’t worry, I’m not trying to recycle the spirit of Scrooge here. Rather, I’m sharing the positive message that it can be possible – in these hard times – to make the most of the Christmas occasion while recognising what is good for each other, society and the planet.

In fact, a report we published last month, called The Stuff of Life, emphasises this very point. It addresses our consumption habits in a way that is not judgmental or makes the problems seem even more daunting.

The report examines our society’s relationship with consumption, and its impact on the environment: with 1% of the global population, the UK has been the fifth-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. There are recommendations for central and local government, and the corporate world, to encourage and support a wider change in our consumption culture. But we are not looking for an outright ban on what gives people joy. For individuals and consumers, our plea is that people simply pause, consider and rethink their relationships with stuff.

There are many reasons why we consume so much, beyond what is necessary for survival and simple comfort. Convenience, personal expression and fun with family and friends are important – the latter especially important after the pandemic. But there are unthinking and irrational factors too: the ritual of habit, or ‘retail therapy’; the term itself acknowledges that people sometimes spend their cash, or rack up credit, for the wrong reasons.

We recognise it takes time to change ingrained habits. But external pressures also come into play – manipulative advertising, the relentless barrage of messaging, fear of disappointing someone, what others think, etc. Whatever the reason, too many of us buy stuff that people won’t want with money we don’t have, or could use more wisely. For example, I’m not a fan of ‘the Christmas’ jumper that is used once. Don’t buy, if it’s not going to be reused. And that should go for other single-use items from plastics to (I’d suggest) Christmas crackers that aren’t of a more modern sustainable variety.

Times are changing. There are a lot more sustainable alternatives out there now, and they’re not necessarily more expensive. It is not a huge effort to take recyclability into account when choosing items. That includes wrapping paper. We’re still buying too much that is plastic-coated or laminated, and cannot be recycled; 114,000 tonnes will be thrown away in the UK at Christmas.

Another positive change is that increasingly, younger people see the bigger picture, and many are showing greater environmental awareness than their elders. Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) are emerging as the largest consumer group by number (40% of consumers). In general, they are adopting more sustainable behaviours and putting ethics above brands in their purchasing decisions.

This is just one of the reasons why we think the time has come for re-use to play a much bigger part in the emerging circular economy we urgently need to build. SUEZ recycling and recovery UK runs 27 shops for councils around the country re-selling recovered household items. We work with charities and social enterprises that refurbish, clean and safety-check goods, where necessary. It’s a model we have rolled out on a larger scale in Greater Manchester, which has a growing network of Renew outlets offering a wide range of goods at affordable prices to local communities. These outlets are served by a central Renew Hub and warehouse, where people are trained and employed to renew, repair and upcycle these pre-loved items.

In the absence of a national strategy on waste prevention and re-use, we are sharing what we have learnt with local authorities. Our guide, published earlier this month, sets out recommendations to help councils integrate re-use at their household waste recycling centres.

If replicated countrywide, the Renew approach would divert a modest but still valuable fraction of the staggering 27 million tonnes of waste UK households generate each year. If, as individual consumers, we make just one or two small changes in our buying habits, then the cumulative impact could be much greater.

Take a reusable bag when you shop. Be mindful of the carbon impact of online deliveries. Select the more sustainable option where you can. Recycle used batteries responsibly at your local household waste recycling centre or designated recycling point in a supermarket.

These are only small steps, and there are many others, we can take to make Christmas more sustainable and no less wonderful; not forgetting that sustainability isn’t just for Christmas, it’s for life!