Considering our Christmas Footprint

Master of Sustainability candidate Maria Nasta Bittar reflects on the often-overlooked impact of the holiday season on the environment, and provides some helpful tips for reducing our Christmas ‘footprint’.

Image via Unsplash

Christmas is fast-approaching. And so, the New Year. A time for change, for reflecting and a time for resolutions. A time when we overdo: overeat, overbuy, waste and as a result, damage our environment (Farbotko, 2013).

In fact, literature refers to Christmas as ‘the world’s greatest annual environmental disaster’ (Bryant, 2010) and our environmental footprint as individuals – which is a measure of our impact in terms of pollution and waste we generate together with the life cycle of the products we use – is enormous around this time of the year. We typically spend 60% more of our income and generate 30% more household waste during this period, according to Australian councils.

While Christmas is often described as ‘the most wonderful time of the year’, it is important that we keep in mind the state of our planet, and mitigate potential environmental impacts by reducing the increased personal footprint that the ‘silly season’ is likely to generate.

So, what aspects of Christmas have the major impact? And how can we reduce these impacts?

First, let’s look at gifts. They are a major feature of Christmas; they are a way of expressing appreciation and reciprocation (Mauss, 1925). Gifts also represent the greatest expense during the holiday period. According to the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Australians spend over $11 billion at Christmas, with each person spending on average $593 on presents alone.

With these expenses, plus an over consumption of food and beverages, comes more pollution and waste. According to research, around $4 billion worth of returned gifts are generated after Christmas with most of those returns not making it to store racks, but instead ending up in landfill. Considering gift-giving accounts for around 80Kg of CO2 towards our carbon footprints (Farbotko, 2013) being mindful of what we purchase is one simple way to reduce our impact. When it comes to gift giving, we can mitigate our footprint by:

  • Buying less and buying local. There are many things we can give, that do not come with the high carbon price tag that gifts, especially imported goods may have. We can choose local products and also consider alternative gifts such as second-hand or recycled items, or home-made gifts with a lower environmental footprint.
  • Donate, don’t buy. We could choose to help others who need more than ourselves. For instance, donate to Oz Harvest, and give food to the food insecure; Care Australia, and donate clean water; you can even choose to protect an animal and adopt it by donating to WWF. Additionally, according to UNICEF, around 22,000 children from around the world will be dying as a result of poverty, as we celebrate Christmas, and there are lots of organisations that assist with poverty related issues that we could choose to give to.
  • Gift an experience. According to research, ‘experiences’ are often preferred to material goods and they have a lower carbon footprint. A concert ticket, a massage or a yoga class are all great examples, or for instance, the Centre for Continuing Education of The University of Sydney is offering gift vouchers for its short courses.
  • Choosing ethical, or fair trade products. It’s tempting to get the $5-dollar t-shirt but it is very likely that to meet that price, someone was exploited somewhere around the world in terms of wages, working conditions, human rights, child labour or environmental harm. Be aware of this fact and make sure you check the sourcing policy of the store before you shop.

Second, a big issue around gift giving is the amount of wrapping paper and plastic bags that we use to turn the commodities we buy, into ‘gifts’. In fact, each year we throw away around 227,000 miles of wrapping paper, capable of wrapping the island of Jersey and equivalent to approximately 50,000 trees . Additionally, we make our way through 125,000 tonnes of plastic packaging. All this waste has a major environmental impact. Some easy tips to reduce this impact include:

  • Get creative for your packaging. Use the comics sections of the newspaper, or recycled wrapping papers.
  • Recycle previous Christmas cards. For instance, you can gather old Christmas cards, cut and re-use them by turning them into to/from tags.
  • Fabric, not plastic. Get your own fabric tote when you go shopping instead of bringing another plastic bag home. If Australian households used only one less plastic bag per week, there would be 253 million less bags used per year.

Third, in terms of waste, in Australia, it is estimated that food waste costs the Australian economy around $20 billion per year, yet 3.6 million Australians have experienced food insecurity in the last year. Tips:

  • Try to plan your grocery purchases to avoid excess and waste. The ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ campaign shares some ideas to reduce food waste this Christmas.
  • Manage the excess. If you do have an excess of food but can’t share it with others, it can be composted to go onto household garden beds.

Last, is the use of increased energy. In the case of Australia, energy accounts for the major source of environmental impact as the country relies upon on fossil fuels for 86% of the energy generation plus the country has the highest per capita emissions in the OECD Therefore, this Christmas:

  • Choose LED lights. LED lights use 95% less energy than the incandescent bulbs Additionally, if you have them on for 4 hours instead of 10, the running costs can drop by 60%.
  • The cooling and heating of spaces is crucial too. If you’re using an air conditioner (AC), have it on temperatures among 23-26 degrees, since each degree can add 10% in terms of costs and damage. Besides this, choose fans if possible, as they use around 20% or less of the energy used by AC.

As Julian Cribb (2016) expresses in his book ‘Surviving the 21st Century’, action at an individual behavioural level is key. So, let’s get on to it!


Bryant, R. (2010) Peering into the abyss: environment, research and absurdity in the ‘age of stupid’. in M. R. RedcliftG. Woodgate (Eds.), The International Handbook of Environmental Sociology (pp 179-187). London: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Cribb, J. (2016). Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them. Springer.

Farbotko, C., & Head, L. (2013). Gifts, sustainable consumption and giving up green anxieties at Christmas. Geoforum, 50, 88-96.

Maria Nasta Bittar is Paraguayan. She is a Master of Sustainability Candidate at The University of Sydney. She holds a Bachelor of Communications from Bond University and has work experience in Advertising, Corporate Social Responsibility and as a Fashion Entrepreneur. She is interested in Waste Management. Yoga lover.