Christmas is a special time for celebration with family and friends. However, it’s worth exercising a little mindfulness to avoid overindulgence and manage festivities in a more sustainable way, so that not only our families but also the planet can start the New Year with good prospects.
Waste management – including plastic packaging, food waste and electrical waste – is a key sustainability issue at Christmas. According to 2020 data, the total waste generated in the EU by all economic activities and households increased to 2,151 million tonnes or around 5 tonnes per capita, although the waste generated by households lags behind the one made by the construction, mining and quarrying industries which account for 37 and 23 per cent each. On the other hand, the amount of household waste should not be underestimated, as it is ten times higher than the one related to agriculture, forestry and fishing. In addition, proper management of waste also adds to its complexity: recycling, among others, is a major challenge, as waste comes from many different sources.
How much waste is created in the different EU and CEE countries in households, can be estimated by municipal waste data, which includes mainly household waste and in some cases of small businesses and public buildings such as schools and hospitals. As indicated also on the graph, CEE countries generated less municipal waste than Western-European countries. In CEE, it’s the Czech Republic that creates the most significant amount of municipal waste.
Data also highlights that, although CEE countries on average generated less municipal waste than Western countries, the recycling rate is also lower than in the West. Almost 70 per cent of waste is recycled in Germany, 61 per cent in Austria and around 50 per cent in Switzerland, compared to 14 per cent in Romania (the EU country with the least household waste in 2020), 32 per cent of recycled municipal waste in Hungary and 45 per cent in Czechia. Nevertheless, efficient waste management is an important step towards a circular economy, where most, if not all, products and materials are recycled or reused several times. Therefore the EU set the ambitious goal applicable to all member states to recycle or prepare for reuse at least 60 per cent of the waste by 2030.
Moreover, the role of households in food waste is significant, as they are the sources of half of all food waste in the EU.
In the EU, nearly 57 million tonnes of food waste (127 kilograms per capita) is generated every year. Although this is significantly lower than the one found by the 2012 EU FUSIONS study with 88 million tonnes of food waste per year, the 57 million tonnes per year are estimated to have a market value of 130 billion euros.
While food waste is to be avoided all year round, Christmas is a particularly tempting period, with special offers flooding the shops. Therefore, it might be more challenging to stay rational. A solution to this might be to plan what meals to prepare, what ingredients are needed and arrive at the store with a shopping list, so one can save time and avoid wastage. Leftovers can be saved for the next day or frozen. In addition, buying from local producers is also a step towards reducing waste as shorter supply chains are less likely to generate food waste. Besides, with buying from local producers at the market often means less packaging. It is beneficial as the reduction of plastic packaging and packaging waste is also a high-priority area for action.
On average, a European generates nearly 180 kilograms of packaging waste per year and packaging has a considerable impact on the environment. The production of plastic packaging and its management as waste after usage involves a great amount of energy, water use and CO2 emissions. Without action, packaging waste in the EU would increase by a further 19 per cent by 2030 and plastic packaging waste by 46 per cent. For that reason, the Commission proposed a new legislation on 30 November 2022 to provide consumers with reusable packaging options, get rid of unnecessary packaging, limit over-packaging and promote correct recycling through clear labelling. It would require EU countries to reduce packaging waste by 15 per cent per person by 2040 compared to 2018. The proposal would also ban the use of products such as mini-shampoo bottles in hotels and throwaway cups in cafes and restaurants to tackle “unnecessary” packaging.
Regarding households, their contribution is also essential to reduce packaging waste. At Christmas, this can be implemented among others by reusing last year’s decorations, or by using biodegradable wrapping paper for presents. Whether to use wrapping paper can cause a real dilemma for some, after all, who doesn’t love a carefully wrapped gift? Certainly, glittery presents decorated with bows, ribbons and other decorations can add a lot to the Christmas spirit. In addition, wrapped gifts add value for many recipients, even gifts wrapped in brown paper are preferred over unwrapped gifts, as stated by Daniel Howard, professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in his 1992 study. On the other hand, the current climate emergency is prompting us to change this habit. The latter is particularly important as paper and cardboard account for a great share of packaging waste Between 2009 and 2019, paper and cardboard were the main packaging waste type by weight, with 32.2 million tonnes in 2019, they overtook plastic and glass. Other steps households can adopt at Christmas is choosing plastic-free gifts, for example giving experiences (a movie night, online theatre, or concert tickets) instead of gifts.
Besides, electrical and electronic equipment-related waste should not be forgotten either at the end of the year. With digitalisation, people spend more and more time online (almost 7 hours a day according to the study of GWI) and linked to this digital-electric devices such as phones, laptops and smartwatches are becoming increasingly popular. As a result, there can be a high demand for these types of devices around Christmas, but even other electronics such as a new coffee machine or TV can be placed under the Christmas tree. These devices, however, when they get to the end of their life or usage generate e-waste, the amount of which is in growth in the EU, being the fastest growing type of waste. In addition, e-waste often contains hazardous materials, which increases the importance of proper waste management.
Therefore, it’s important not to throw away equipment that is no longer in use but to leave it at a collection point, several producers take back used products. If the product is still usable, one can also give it away, which is a nice gesture at Christmas, but it can also be sold.