50 tips for a more sustainable (and cheaper) Christmas

Being more environmentally conscious can be kinder to our pockets, too

How many of us have looked around on St Stephen’s Day at the piles of unwanted presents, bins full of wrapping paper and fridges stuffed with uneaten food and made a promise to ourselves that next year, we’ll be more restrained?

Irish consumers will spend €4.65 billion on Christmas this year, according to Retail Ireland. That's an average of €2,700 for every household in the country. Scaling down our consumption, being more environmentally conscious with our choices, and supporting local producers is not only kinder on the environment, but on our pockets, too.

So let’s re-envision this period of wanton wastefulness with these 50 tips for a more sustainable Christmas.


1. Get a real Christmas tree A real tree grown and sold locally is the best option for Christmas. Plastic ones are highly energy intensive to make and are usually made in China, so have a long journey to get here. If you buy a real tree in a pot, make sure to look after it well during the festivities and then replant it – or if you go for a regular cut tree, remember to recycle it. Sorcha Hamilton


2. Say no to Christmas crackers Think about what goes into making these: the foil, the cardboard, the banger strips inside, the coloured paper hats, the plastic-lined paper jokes, the tiny plastic toy (or a papery fish) – and then there's those gigantic plastic boxes they're packaged in, too. Maybe it's a bit bah-humbug, but we reckon Christmas can survive pretty well without crackers. SH

3. Ditch the tinsel By choosing durable and meaningful ornaments made of wood, metal, wool and burlap instead of cheap plastic, tinsel and glitter, you're more likely to value them and cherish them year after year, rather than discarding them after a few seasons. You'll find plenty for sale from local makers in craft markets around the country, or support rural co-operatives in developing countries by purchasing fair-trade items from charity shops like Oxfam. Manchán Magan

4. Get creative If you really do want a new look each Christmas, then decorate with nature; gather pine cones, holly boughs, winter greenery or beach pebbles. Or you can get creative with recycled material: CDs, old pipes, keys and all sort of knick-knacks bound for the bin can be glued and painted to create unique ornaments and mini sculptural decorations. Kids will love it. MM

5. Go easy on the Christmas lights For centuries, Ireland preserved the humble tradition of having a single lit candle in every window at Christmas. Now, we not only wrap our Christmas trees with fairy lights, but string them around the house, inside and out, perhaps topped off with a waving Santa or two. Christmas tree lights left on for 10 hours a day over the 12 days of Christmas produce enough CO2 to inflate 12 balloons. If we leave them on all night too, we more than double that amount. Then if we leave the curtains open so that people can marvel at our tree, the impact through heat loss is greater still. The greatest investment you can make is a socket timer for your lights – it'll prove handy to set security lighting when you're on holidays too. MM

6. Switch to LEDs You can still enjoy a bright radiant Christmas without the guilt and financial impact by switching to LED lights, which use as little as 1 per cent of the power required by traditional Christmas lights. When used indoors they last up to 100,000 hours – which should keep you going for the next 208 Christmases. Also, if a bulb breaks the rest keep lighting, unlike traditional sets. MM

7. Go solar For outdoor mini-lights, consider investing in good quality solar lights. A string of 100 traditional exterior fairy lights consumes 200kW over Christmas, adding around €40 to your electricity bill and producing around 200kg of carbon, if generated entirely from a coal-powered power station. Alternatively, you could spend just half that on a string of solar lights with an inbuilt light sensor and rechargeable battery, which will cost you and the planet nothing for decades to come. Lights.ie has a range of solar Christmas lights starting at €9.90. MM

8. Opt for natural candles Most candles are made from paraffin wax, a petroleum byproduct of crude oil that pollutes the ground, water and atmosphere. It's also a nasty thing to be inhaling in your home; studies have shown candles made from paraffin wax can release chemicals that can be particularly harmful for people with respiratory conditions such as asthma. Opt instead for candles made from soy, beeswax or natural vegetable-based wax, which are biodegradable and smoke-free. Soy wax has the added benefit of burning for twice as long as paraffin wax. Brookfield Farm makes lovely dinner table beeswax candles that burn for nine hours (€15 per pair from irishdesignshop.com). MM


9. Drive less If you're heading off shopping for the day, consider leaving the car behind or at a park and ride. Likewise, if you're going to visit relatives over the Christmas period, think about taking public transport if you can. A long car ride, and all its emissions, will very quickly offset any of your other green intentions. SH

10. Don't forget reusable bags We've all become pretty good at bringing reusable bags to do our weekly food shopping, but when it comes to buying gifts there's no reason why we shouldn't do the same. If you're going out for a day's gift shopping, stuff your bag with reusable ones so you don't come home with loads of massive paper ones – and a huge stack of recycling. SH

11. Do Kris Kindle Our first priority should be to consume less, to stop the frenzy of spending on things that our loved ones don't need, or – if we're honest – might not want at all. Kris Kindle (or Secret Santa) is the ideal activity to limit gift-giving between adults: everyone's name goes into a hat, and you buy a present only for the person whose name you pick. For bonus green points, put a price limit on the gift, stipulate that it must be sustainable, or do both. MM

12. Yankee Swap This is a wilder alternative to Kris Kindle, in which each person brings a wrapped gift of predetermined maximum value. These presents are then put into a bag and each person gets to randomly choose one, or to "steal" a gift that someone else has already chosen and opened. If your gift is stolen, you get to choose again, or to steal, but you cannot steal the same present back, and each gift can only be stolen three times. MM

13. White Elephant Giving All gifts must be things that the giver finds around their home, underused or underappreciated. Alternatively, specify that all gifts must be bought from charity shops, or homemade. MM

14. Regift Regifting an unwanted present should have no shame attached to it, provided you are giving it to someone who will truly value the item, rather than just lazily passing it on because you can't be bothered to choose a present for them yourself. MM

15. Buy locally made gifts Buying things from halfway around the world makes no sense, especially when craft fairs and artisan shops allow you buy things directly from the maker with zero transportation costs. Buying locally helps to build communities and introduces you to the often reticent makers beavering away in your locality, embroidering, painting, beekeeping, whittling wood, weaving willow, or growing and producing food. Support your entrepreneurial neighbours this Christmas over buying plastic mass-produced goods from far away. MM

16. Buy Irish, and sustainable Look out for quality Irish brands when you're out gift shopping. Dalkey Handmade Soaps, for example, make all their products from natural ingredients; check out their Green Shampoo Bar and Manly Shaving Soap. Bogman Beanie in Donegal does great colourful woollen hats, while the Upcycle Movement makes cool coin pouches, tote bags, pencil cases and more from upcycled wetsuits. See dalkeyhandmadesoaps.ie, bogmanbeanie.com and theupcyclemovement.com. SH

17. Give a tree Planting trees is essential to secure a greener and more sustainable future – so why not give one as a present this year? Irish company Grown will plant a certified, indigenous Irish tree in Co Clare for a loved one, and it comes with a beautiful, embossed gift card with a reference number with information about when and where the tree will be planted. Trees start at €12 at grown.ie. SH

18. Experiential gifts The most impactful presents are often a gift of time – a promise to walk someone's dog, mind their kids, bring them on a picnic, spring clean their garage, spend an afternoon making crafts with them, cleaning their car, fixing their PC or cooking their favourite meal. You can print off free blank gift cheques to make the promise more official here. MM


19. Sustainable stocking fillers Little toys for Christmas stockings are often plastic – and imported – so why not check out some of the lovely wooden alternatives at Irish company Planet Sustie, who aim to be both Éarth and budget friendly. There's little Christmas spinning tops, wooden animal yo-yos, cheery owl notebook holders, the loveliest penguin matryoshka dolls – and much more. planetsustie.ie. SH

20. Long-life toys Fair play to any parent trying to bring fewer plastic toys into the house. While there are lots of lovely, sustainable wooden toys for toddlers, older kids are much more specific in their Christmas demands, which can be almost impossible to resist. So if you are buying plastic toys as gifts, try to choose ones that will last. Most plastic used in Lego or Playmobil, for example, is not recyclable, but a child might get many years of play out of them, and they can be reused by younger siblings or cousins a few years down the line. If your children have been learning about the environment in school, maybe this is the year to start a discussion about toys, consumption and their impact on the planet. SH

21. Plastic-free toys If you are determined to find a plastic-free gift for a child, head to Ireland's first plastic-free-toy store, part of the Conscious Christmas Store at 13 Fade Street, Dublin 2. Here you'll find a range of craft kits, ecofriendly toys and art supplies, as well as the new type of "mindful" adult gift epitomised by bamboo toothbrushes. It's a collaboration between The Kind! and JiminyMM

22. Toys for outdoors Bikes and scooters are great Christmas gifts that can get you all outdoors – and away from the car – over the break. A compass, magnifying glass, binoculars or bug collector sets will make a nature walk a bit more enticing for little ones. If you're going big, trampolines or swing sets are a winner (you'll find plenty of Irish-made options at sttswings.com and justfunplaytowers.ie), or there are always kites, frisbees or a good old-fashioned football. SH

23. Go battery-free Forty per cent of all battery sales in the US occur around Christmas. These non-biodegradable, toxic-chemical-containing items are notoriously difficult to recycle and pollute the soil if not properly disposed of. Instead of battery-operated items, consider giving children toys that involve constructing little generators using wind power, solar PV and weather pressure to run basic motors. The Geosafari Solar Rover (€36 from thinkingtoys.ie) runs completely on solar power, teaching kids about the power of the sun. MM

24. Preloved toys Make your money go further by shopping for toys from the likes of adverts.ie, eBay, DoneDeal or charity shops, where you'll find not only preloved items but brand new ones too. Buying second-hand will not only save you significant sums of money but also help to conserve the planet's energy and resources. Elaine Butler's Living Lightlywebsite lists links to places where you can buy replacement Lego pieces to complete sets, and the free replacement service offered by Orchard Toys for its games and jigsaws. MM

25. Donate unwanted toys Give children a sense of the power of donating gifts rather just receiving, by encouraging them to pick three toys they no longer play with, and then have them bring the items to a family homelessness agency, direct provision centre or a domestic violence shelter. It can make for an impactful and meaningful lesson about the spirit of Christmas, as well as a valuable example of reducing and reusing. MM


26. Reduce Ireland uses tens of thousands of kilometres of wrapping paper every Christmas. Some of it can be recycled (see below), but in the sequential hierarchy of waste management, reducing and reusing waste is always far better than recycling. Ask yourself, does your gift really need to be wrapped? If you are using wrapping paper, be judicious with it. Giving multiple gifts? Wrap them together. A final thing to bear in mind is to opt for presents with less packaging. MM

27. Reuse Reusing is the second best alternative after reducing use. Salvage wrapping from a previous gift, or get crafty by using old brown paper bags, maps, magazines, comics or newspapers. MM

28. Recycle (but check first if it's suitable) Wrapping paper often contains plastics, while others contain toxic dyes and laminates which make them impossible to recycle. The more glossy and metallic the less likely they are to be reincarnated as anything else. As a general rule, if the paper tears you can recycle it, but paper that needs cutting with a scissors is metallic and cannot be recycled. MM

29. Buy natural, recyclable gift wrap If you are buying wrapping paper, look for ones made with hemp fibres, or recycled newsprint, or at least that are FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified and are free of toxic Azo dyes. Try to avoid using sticky tape by binding the wrap with natural twine or raffia (made from a bark which regenerates), or fancy ribbons and bows stored from previous gifts. MM

30. Master the art of furoshiki The most elegant way of reducing wrapping paper is mastering the Japanese art of furoshiki, which refers to a type of cloth used to wrap and transport goods in Japan. A series of simple, but ingenious methods have been developed over centuries to wrap flat objects, box shapes, bottles, flowers and oddly shaped items, using basic folding and wrapping techniques. Any fragment of cloth can be used, though if it's a beautiful piece, you can include wrapping instructions and the recipient might be tempted to reuse the cloth for future gifts. Find instructions (issued by the Japanese government) here. MM

31. Use gift bags instead Gift bags are an alternative to wrapping paper that can be reused again and again. You can make your own with scraps of fabric, or buy them, but make sure to include a tag with the words, "Reuse this bag!" instead of the recipient's name, to help ensure it does have a longer life. MM


32. Send ecards (or pick up the phone) One and a half billion Christmas cards are thrown away by UK households each year, according to Imperial College researchers. This would suggest that Ireland dumps around 47 million cards – a pretty heavy toll on the planet for what is meant to be a generous, festive act. Consider sending ecards instead – or, even better, pick up the phone and call your loved ones instead. If you are sending a card, make it meaningful with a considered handwritten note; and if you're a business, forget about sending corporate cards – no one really appreciates them. MM

33. Make your own cards Homemade cards using scrap paper or repurposed cardstock are a great alternative to shop-bought ones. If you're not artistic, you could simply gather some dried leaves and glue them to a nice background. Children will love making cards for the whole family. It may seem labour intensive, but consider the wasted resources squandered on throwaway cards each year: in the US, 300,000 trees are felled to create enough cards to fill a football field 10 stories high. MM

34. Use An Post If you are sending cards and packages, use An Post, which has postmen who pass your door daily, rather than a courier company which might have to make a special journey to reach you. If you do have to send or receive something by courier, try to give a work address which regularly receives courier deliveries. MM


35. Buy less When it comes to grocery shopping this Christmas, don't take a the-more-the-merrier approach. A third of all food produced in the world goes to waste. Each Irish household throws €700 worth of food into the bin annually, peaking at Christmas time, according to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Planning ahead and making a list before going shopping is key to not getting carried away in the supermarket. SH

36. Mind your food portions With food portions, do your best to make the right amount for those big family dinners, breakfasts for visiting relatives, or nibbles for parties. When it comes to planning meals and filling our plates, a little more care can go a long way. You can find tips at stopfoodwaste.ie. SH

37. Donate and compost leftovers If you do buy or cook too much, challenge your family to suggest recipes with whatever's left in the fridge. Then freeze any leftovers, give them to an elderly neighbour or donate to a local food bank. Compost anything that remains using your brown bin or home composting. MM

38. Reduce air miles By the time the ingredients that make up our Christmas dinner reach us, they may have travelled tens of thousands of kilometres around the world. Turkeys from Europe, vegetables from Kenya and Peru, wine from Australia and cranberries from America will really blow up your festive carbon footprint. Opt for Irish-reared meat and seasonal Irish vegetables instead. MM

39. Support local producers How local could you make your Christmas shopping? By consciously trying to support small suppliers and producers in your local community, you will not only be minimising your carbon footprint, but making your spending a positive act for people living near you. The produce often tastes better, too. Find them at a stall in your nearest farmer's market; there's a list of the larger farmers markets here. MM

40. Go vegetarian or vegan (or just reduce your meat consumption) A traditional turkey Christmas dinner for a family of six with all the trimmings emits the same amount of carbon dioxide as a typical petrol car driving 126km. That's more than double the emissions of a vegan nut roast with plant-based sides, according to recent research from Harvard University and the Humane Society International UK. Before dismissing the idea of a vegetarian or vegan dinner outright, check out some of the great veggie Christmas recipes from chefs like Jamie Oliver (jamieoliver.com) or Yotam Ottolenghi (ottolenghi.co.uk). If a totally meat-free Christmas dinner is too big a leap, consider whether both turkey and ham are necessary. MM

41. Buy an Irish turkey Of the one million turkeys consumed in Ireland each Christmas, around 30 per cent are imported, according to the Irish Farmers Association. If you can't countenance giving up your turkey dinner this Christmas, then at least ensure they are Irish, organic, free-range and humanely reared. MM

42. Ditch the clingfilm Instead of wrapping up food leftovers with clingfilm, invest in some Irish-made beeswax wraps. These are durable, easily washable and will rid your kitchen of one less source of unrecyclable plastic. They come in different sizes – the small ones are great for bits of cheese, the bigger ones will fold neatly over bowls or plates – and there's even a Christmas-themed wrap with a wintery wonderland tree pattern. See irelandbeeswaxwraps.ie. SH

43. Avoid disposables Single-use convenience items from disposable napkins and plastic cutlery to paper plates and aluminium foil roasting tins were never part of a traditional Christmas, and are not needed now. If you don't have enough cups or plates, borrow from a neighbour or ask your guests to bring some along. MM

44. Cans or bottles? The jury is still out on whether cans are better than bottles when it comes to the environment – mainly to do with the damaging bauxite mines and smelters that are needed to create aluminium. But cans are said to have about 75 per cent recycled material, they're infinitely recyclable, won't take up as much space in your fridge – and are so much lighter to transport which is no small thing when it comes to emissions. SH

45. Drink local beers, ciders and spirits Supporting small, local and independent enterprises is central in creating sustainable communities. And with such a huge – and growing – brewing and distilling industry in Ireland, Christmas is a great time to show your backing. From Dingle Gin to Teelings Whiskey to Kinnegar or Rascals beer, stock up at your local off-licensc, check out craftcentral.ie or thebeerclub.ie, and always keep an eye out for local offerings when you're out for a Christmas tipple. SH

46. Avoid individual beverages See can you eliminate bottled water and fizzy drink cans by making homemade lemonade, hot chocolate, kombucha or even a fruit punch using Irish whiskey and Irish apple juice flavoured with foraged juniper berries and Irish honey. If you are buying soft drinks, larger bottles generate less waste than several smaller ones. MM


47. Start new Christmas traditions Start new Earth-friendly family Christmas traditions, such as a soulful, watchful nature walk, a beach clean or a tree-planting ritual in which you and the children get to trace the annual growth of the trees you planted on previous Christmases – perhaps each sapling could be a different variety of native Irish tree, so that you could look back to the oak Christmas, the birch Christmas, holly Christmas, et cetera. MM

48. Be kind to the birds Before tucking into your big dinner, the family could all prepare a meal for the birds by decorating a tree with bird feeders, seed trays, suet balls, pine cones with peanut butter and seed bells. Just make sure the tree does not harbour places for a cat to lurk and pounce. A bird count can also be a fun and competitive way of engaging with nature. Using binoculars and a field guide, the whole family gets to build up a record of the species local to your area and the amount of each type. By comparing results from previous years, you can build up a valuable record of local birdlife and their migration habits. Children too get to see how their own spotting abilities increase, or decrease, over the years. You can share your findings as part of Birdwatch Ireland's Irish Garden Birds Survey; find out more at birdwatchireland.ie. MM

49. Slow down Stop trying to compete, stop spending, stop stressing. Try to simplify everything this Christmas from going to too many events to striving to please everyone. Instead, try to make this holiday a mix of rest and revelry in these darkest days of the year. MM

50. Connect with others Consciously think about honouring family traditions or creating new ones. Experience nature and the changing weather patterns with friends and family. Bake together, send handwritten cards with meaningful messages. This could possibly be the last Christmas you spend with someone you know and love. Honour that. MM