Please welcome Brody Bell, the creator of this month’s blog with 6 ways to reduce your environmental impact over the holidays in your personal and professional lives.
A Green Holiday Season
The holiday season brings good times and traditions for many, but these are also accompanied by increased amounts of waste and energy consumption. Here are 6 tips that you can implement in your personal and professional lives this holiday season to help reduce your environmental impact.
If a Christmas tree is part of your holiday celebration, how you use it will affect whether an artificial tree or a natural tree has a lower environmental impact. Trees store and sequester carbon from the environment, and when they are cut down they release stored carbon as they decay. The removal of trees for a temporary holiday season may seem to have a clearly negative environmental impact compared to reusing an artificial tree, but it depends on how long the artificial tree is in use. While studies vary, in general in order for an artificial tree to have a lower carbon footprint, it would need to be reused for a minimum of 8 years, and ideally longer than 20 years. In Canada, the average artificial tree is thrown out and replaced after 6 years, and often the materials include harmful polyvinyl chlorides and other petroleum based materials that cannot be recycled.
The disposal method of trees also affects how it impacts the environment. Artificial trees are generally placed in landfills or are incinerated when they are thrown out, which may take hundreds of years to decompose or release harmful chemicals when burning. Natural tree disposal methods often vary, but heavily impact its carbon footprint. Natural trees that are placed in landfills become sources of methane, which is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Better disposal options include turning it into mulch or compost by using a woodchipper, which allows stored carbon to return to the ground. Additionally, local municipalities and organisations often run tree collection programs. For example, Royal Botanical Gardens runs a tree donation program where they aim to use a maximum of 2,000 Christmas trees to place in critical zones for stream restoration projects. The donated trees help to fortify and stabilise local riverbanks. Conservation Halton has also run a Christmas tree collection program for the past 4 years, using the trees for aquatic restoration and flood protection projects. In 2021, Conservation collected over 200 trees for these local projects. In 2021, Conservation Halton also partnered with the Children’s Foundation of Guelph and Wellington’s Trees for Tots program as well as the City of Hamilton to collect an additional 600 trees.
Another factor to consider includes the stimulation of local economies through the purchase of natural trees. Artificial trees are primarily manufactured overseas, whereas natural trees are grown on local farms. In Canada, over 2,000 farms grow Christmas trees. Canadians spent $60 million on natural trees in 2014 which was infused into local rural economies. This is in addition to the $30 million in natural trees that were exported to the United States and $32.6 million exported elsewhere worldwide.
Overall, the debate between an artificial tree and natural tree primarily depends on how long an individual uses the tree and how they dispose of it. With an artificial tree, individuals should aim to reuse it for 20 years, and with natural trees individuals should try to buy it locally, and donate it to a local tree collection program at its end of life.
The exchanging of gifts is often a well enjoyed tradition during Christmas and holiday seasons. Researchers have found that gift giving is an important aspect of human interaction as it can help strengthen bonds and is embedded in many cultures. But, one aspect of gift giving that we may not consider is the amount of waste that it generates. In Canada, household waste increases by as much as 25% during the holiday season. There are many reasons that gift giving should remain a part of our lives, but giving experiences instead of physical products is one way we can help avoid waste during the holidays.
Gifting experiences includes a wide range of possible activities, from trampoline park tickets, yoga lessons, a day pass at a national park, and much more. This shift from physical products to experiences has many benefits both individually and environmentally. Individually, it has been shown that experiential gifts generate more emotion. This emotional experience is more effective at strengthening relationships, and often the objective of gift giving is to strengthen a relationship between the gift giver and the gift receiver. Environmentally, it is important to note that only 1% of the products that an average person buys are still in use within 6 months of purchase, leaving 99% of the products discarded. On average, Canadian households spend over $1,300 on gifts and over $600 on decorations, but between 6-9% of these holiday goods are also returned to retailers. Many companies send returned items to landfills or to be incinerated due to the associated cost of a returned item, which may include repackaging or quality control. According to a 2016 Canadian survey, 46% of Canadians specifically indicated they prefer to receive experiential gifts, and gifting an experience provides an alternative to traditional physical gift giving and the associated potential environmental impacts.
As mentioned earlier, gift giving is a big aspect of Christmas and the holiday season, which in turn is accompanied by large use of wrapping paper and materials. It is estimated that each Canadian throws out 51 kilograms of garbage over the holidays. Specifically related to gift giving, 540,000 tonnes of wrapping paper and gift bags are thrown out each year. Additionally, 6 billion Christmas cards and six millions rolls of tape are purchased during each Christmas holiday season in Canada. The amount of wrapping paper that is deposited in landfills in Canada is equivalent to 100,000 elephants! In general, gift bags and wrapping paper are non-recyclable, primarily because of glitter and foil, but there are solutions that can be implemented.
One solution is to upcycle materials for use as wrapping paper. Upcycled materials could include newspaper or cloths and fabrics that you already have around the house. For example, enough wrapping paper to cover 45,000 hockey rinks could be saved each year if every Canadian wrapped 3 gifts in upcycled materials instead of newly purchased wrapping paper. Alternatively, keeping gift bags for multiple holiday seasons for reuse reduces the amount of waste generated. Additionally, eliminating non-recyclable items such as tape and ribbons and replacing them with reusable or recyclable materials can help to reduce the environmental impact of gift wrapping during the holidays. Instead of ribbons and tape, scrap string can be used to tie together wrappings and old glossy magazines can be folded into ribbons. Both these materials can likely be found around the house, and recycled when they are no longer needed as well.
If your business closes offices or facilities during the holiday season, one strategy to reduce emissions, and costs, is to address vampire energy. Vampire energy refers to appliances and machines that use energy even when they are turned off. Common sources of vampire energy can include computers, printers and coffee makers. For example, the energy used from an idle coffee maker increases the energy energy associated with one brewed cup of coffee by 50%, and turning a computer off at the end of the day can result in a 15% decrease in its energy cost per year. Overall, 20% of a business or household’s monthly electricity bill can be attributed to vampire energy. Implementing strategies to address vampire energy not only reduces a business’ environmental impacts, but also reduces costs through reduced energy consumption.
To address vampire energy, machines and appliances that can be shut off when not in use should be identified. One of the most simple strategies to reduce vampire energy is to unplug machines or appliances when they are not in use. Another related strategy includes implementing power bars throughout office or business facilities. This allows users to turn off multiple devices when they are not in use. Smart outlets can also be installed in facilities to turn off at scheduled times.
Another tradition that often accompanies Christmas and the holiday season is decorating homes and offices with festive lights. Often festive light decorations are incandescent or LED, and while they may look similar, LED lights use 80-90% less energy than incandescent ones. Additionally, LED festive lights last up to 100,000 hours compared to 3,000 hours with incandescent lights, resulting in less waste. Other strategies to reduce the environmental impact of festive lighting includes choosing single-colour light strings, which can reduce energy consumption up to the higher threshold of 90% compared to incandescent lights. Similar to an office or a home’s regular lighting, festive lights should be switched to LED lights to not only reduce energy consumption, but increase cost savings through increased efficiency.
To further improve the energy consumption of LED festive lights, timers can be placed on lights to turn them off when they are not in use. When possible, using timers to avoid peak hours can also reduce energy consumption and the strain on energy grids. In Canada, the highest energy consumption time is between 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. and should be avoided if possible. LED festive lights are also beneficial as they do not heat up as much as incandescent bulbs, reducing the risk of fire hazards.
In Canada, buildings are responsible for producing 13% of our national emissions, with most coming from space and water heating. Space heating accounts for 55% of energy use in commercial and institutional settings. Similar to vampire energy, thermostats can be turned down over holiday breaks if offices temporarily close and heating does not need to remain at the same capacity. Businesses, similar to homes, can also use programmable thermostats to save energy. The recommended temperature in offices during the winter is between 20 to 23.5 °C, but when no one is present it is recommended to turn thermostats to down to around 16 °C. Keeping the thermostat at 16 °C prevents pipes from freezing and avoids any structural risks, but uses the least amount of energy which in turn also reduces business costs.
Green The Holiday Season
The holidays bring with them many enjoyable traditions that should be celebrated and enjoyed, but it is possible to make minor changes to reduce the season’s environmental impacts. This holiday season, try some of the tips above in your personal or business life to make this year’s Christmas holiday season more green.