Tips for a sustainable holiday season

In an effort to improve the environment we live in, Preventing Plastic Pollution, one of SERT’s ambitious primary projects, focuses on reducing single-use plastic on the River Medway as part of a much wider effort across both France and England.

At this festive time of year, being aware of reducing our plastic waste is something everyone can – and should – take a moment to think about.

We asked staff at the South East Rivers Trust for their ideas and top tips for creating an environmentally friendly and sustainable holiday season, and below are their thoughts and recommendations.

Sustainable cards and decorations

As an alternative to sending physical season’s greetings cards, you could send a virtual one. Alternatively, you could make your own from recycled paper, making sure that glitter is not used, or that the design can be fully recycled in your paper bin.

In addition, you could save the professionally-designed cards you receive this year to use as gift tags next year.

As for decorations, why not make new ones from paper?  The whole family can get creative by cutting out stars, reindeers, snowflakes, trees and other festive shapes to deck the halls. They can get into the competitive spirit by creating paper chains from packs and see whose is longest! These can be stored and reused for many years.

Groups or businesses* can reduce paper use by creating one big card and displaying it in their offices or meeting places, encouraging members to sign it as a collective message to one other. 

Making your own card gives Christmas a personal touch Jonathan Borba/Pexels

Are your gifts wrapped sustainably?

An increasing number of supermarkets have cut plastic from their seasonal wrapping paper and accessories and thankfully a lack of glitter and tape now means it can all be recycled.

You can go further by using plain blank wrapping paper that you decorate yourself. Tie your gifts and packages up with string or ribbon, which is reusable, and then you wont need to use unrecyclable sticky tape.

Don’t forget to save the wrapping paper for next year. If you do have to dispose of it, carry out the ‘scrunch test’ before recycling it because it won’t stay scrunched if it is mixed/lined with plastic.

Alternatively, when giving gifts use materials such as fabric, or repurpose containers such as biscuit boxes.

Brown paper and ribbon can help you have a sustainable Christmas / Pexels Biferyal

A sustainable tree

If you are buying a real Christmas tree every year (to avoid plastic entirely), one of the most important questions to ask is: how far has it travelled and is it responsibly grown? Was it grown in the UK or abroad.

Look for a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) mark, indicating that the tree is part of a responsibly growing programme. 

Another big question to consider before buying a tree is what will you do with it afterwards? Check with your local authority about whether you will be able to recycle it through garden waste collections or at the community recycling centre.

However, if you have space, then why not buy a tree in a pot? After Christmas, simply take it outside and nurture it through the seasons, then bring it back into the house. Repeat annually! 

To minimise plastic on a tree, decorations can be made of recycled glass baubles which will last for generations. Alternatively, upcycle. Old fabrics can be reworked, or colourful plastic that can’t be recycled, such as branded rice packets, could be repurposed into bright decorations. The whole family can get involved in this creative process.

Many retailers now sell Christmas trees in pots

Buy second hand or non-plastic items. Or bake!

With the cost of living nibbling at us all, several reasons spring to mind for buying second hand instead of new. However, with regard to helping the environment, if you buy clothes in a charity shop or second hand, you’re not only saving on packaging, some of it plastic, you’re also saving on “embedded” water or “virtual water”.

As we mentioned earlier in the year in our Water Saving Tips work, a new cotton T-shirt takes 2,720 litres of water to make – the equivalent of one person’s drinking water for three years. 

Buying second hand books saves on the packaging of new ones and the carbon footprint.  As an alternative to plastic toys for children, seek out wooden ones from sustainable sources. These could last for generations.

Baking tasty treats will thrill recipients and allows you to control the packaging, using non-plastic options. Biscuits or cakes will need to be consumed quickly, but if you have made jams or chutneys during the year these will last a good while in glass jars.

Alternatively, there are plenty of goods, from confectionery to coffee and tea, available from ethical sources. This gives you a chance to check whether they give a fair price to the grower. 

Making clothes uses lots of water

A chance to influence behaviour change in others

Over the past 18 months, our fantastic volunteers who have supported cleanups for our Preventing Plastic Pollution project have helped us collect data about common times of litter – much of it single-use plastic.

Since May 2021, they have carried out more than 20 cleanups and sorted the litter into categories.

Among common finds are:

  • shopping bags (just over 300)
  • Bottles (488) and lids (635)
  • takeaway containers (151) and pieces of cutlery, trays or stirrers (164)
  • cups (109)
  • straws (167)
  • food wrappers (1284)

From the list above it’s easy to see patterns and there are so many easy ways to help prevent this litter reaching our rivers. With a little thought and effort, your gifts can have a positive impact on the environment by cutting down on single-use plastic, which ultimately reduces the chances of it reaching our streams, rivers and oceans.

How about a gift of a reusable bottle or refillable coffee cup? A metal lunchbox or beeswax wrapping for sandwiches will also reduce our reliance on food wrappers and clingfilm. As a lifestyle change, encourage a friend or family member to make a packed lunch, as opposed to buying meal deals. Not only will it save them money it will well be far kinder to the environment.      

Whatever you decide to gift, presenting it in a cloth or hessian bag will save on wrapping entirely.

To encourage sustainability in others, give presents such as a metal lunchbox, bamboo cutlery and beeswax wrappers

Donate to charity this Christmas

An alternative to a physical and often disposable gift is the idea an experience. Anything from a day out, to a promise of time to help will reduce the plastic that comes with many gifts.

A popular present at this time of year is to donate to charity that your friend or family member cares about. Selfishly, we would love you to consider us as part of your Christmas giving and if you’d like to do so please use our “donate” page.

Similarly, organisations often don’t send seasonal cards to staff, but instead make a point of donating to a cause of their choice. Again, we would love you to consider us as you plan your corporate giving – now or in the new year.

* If your club or group is based in the River Medway catchment and you are interested in creating a plan to reduce plastic throughout the year, why not sign up for our single-use Community Action Plan scheme?

We’ll work with you to reduce single-use plastic in your area.

Many organisations donate to charity in lieu of sending cards. Could you support us this Christmas?