A Cluttered Christmas: Avoiding waste around the holidays
Let me start right off the bat and say I’m no Grinch, Christmas is cool. I’m down for a big blow-out Christmas Day with me and my forty closest relatives. But - here’s the big but - the way Australians have been celebrating Christmas recently gives me pause for concern.
Some stats about Australians at Christmas:
We will spend $1325 per person this year on celebrations
We will spend $130 per person on alcohol
We will spend almost $1000 on presents per household, two-thirds of which are unwanted
We will spend $554 million on food then throw one-third of it away
We will consume 125,000 tonnes of plastic packaging
We will use 50,000 trees worth of wrapping paper
But OK, people can buy whatever they want and spend their own money however they want so no judgment here. We should probably just let people enjoy themselves and their traditions. Everyone works hard all year and has the right to enjoy a big Christmas.
That would be fine, except that an AMP study found two-thirds of Australians regret the money they spend around Christmas. 40% of Christmas spending is charged to credit and only 82% of people manage to pay that debt off in under six-months while 7% struggle to pay it off in more than two years, if ever.
This means Australians are lucky to spend less than half their year paying off the annual holiday while a large group of us spend the majority of our lives working to pay off Christmas parties. Despite this, almost 60% of people admit they feel like gift giving is an obligation they can’t opt out of.
And what is this money being spent on? It’s largely spent on unwanted gifts and uneaten food. Spending money for money spending’s sake. Australians typically spend $11 billion on gifts of which $4 billion will be returned, and another almost $4 billion of gifts that aren’t wanted are just left to clutter up our homes. Imagine if we redirected all that waste and debt and reinvested it into our health, our education, travel and experiences or savings.
As Christmas spending and waste creation seems to be skyrocketing, there is a fortunately a counter-movement to recognise the harm in Keeping Up With The Jones’ and slowing down to declutter our holiday celebrations.
Establish Your Values
In December, Australians spend 20% more than they make and household waste increases by 30%. We’re chewing up primary resources, producing tonnes of carbon emissions (80kg each), creating lots of guilt and stress within families upholding these obligations, while putting these families into debt for years which forces them to work harder and ultimately spend less time with their family (ironic, right?).
So perhaps, instead, December could be used as a time to stop and reflect on your true values and what really does matter to you. There’s a good chance that dropping a thousand bucks on useless junk isn’t important to you, once you really think about it. So what is?
Some things you may value are spending quality time with family, teaching your kids the true meaning of giving, disconnecting and recharging after a big year at work, saving money for a big holiday or lifestyle shift, slowing climate change, reducing your environmental footprint, fighting global poverty, supporting local businesses, ending cruelty against animals, preventing food waste, getting out of your comfort zone and experiencing something new. These can all be things you value and wish to focus on more over Christmas.
Establish Your Budget
Given that the average person spends 120% of their December income on the holiday, there are more practical ways we can go about this. What we need to do is reverse engineer the way we spend and no longer think of Christmas as an obligation we must go into debt for, and instead set realistic spending limits then purchase only what we can afford on that budget. This may sound like over-simplistic commonsense, but the societal pressure to orchestrate an elaborate Christmas is real. The only way we may be able to cutdown this chronic overspending habit is through more open conversations about the harm it causes to individuals, families, the environment and ultimately the economy.
There are plenty of ways to cutdown spending on a budget. A Planet Ark study found 57% of Australians save leftovers for Boxing Day, 40% keep their wrapping paper, 39% stick to a shopping list, and 37% find out what gifts people want before shopping. A comparison website found 17% of Australians said they’d be making their gifts this year to save money, while 15% will be avoiding gifts altogether.
Realistically evaluating your financial situation and dividing each gift recipient by the amount you have to spend will give you your actual budget for buying presents this year. While the average gift is often $65, if that’s unfeasible, there’s no reason you can’t DIY an amazing gift or gift someone a voucher to contribute to something they love to do to pamper themselves for far, far less than $65.
Ask What They Want
The best thing you can ever do to ensure you gift someone something they will want to keep, is to ask them first. The best-case scenario is they’ll have something really specific in mind, so you can go out and buy them something you know they’ll love and use and which will enrich their life, not detract from it.
If they don’t have anything in mind upfront, prompt them by asking what kind of experience they’d enjoy. You don’t need to buy anyone a physical gift if they don’t need something. A massage, an NRL pass, movie tickets, skydiving? An experience, if it is something you know they’ll want to do (probably don’t gift your grandma a skydiving experience until she specifically requests it), means you aren’t just adding obligation-heavy clutter into someone’s life.
Don’t Be Flashy
Meaningful presents gifted with intention are more valuable than unnecessarily expensive flashy gifts. Does the person you’re buying for necessarily need the latest tech gadget or several hundred dollar piece of jewellery, or would they benefit more from a heartfelt gift that shows you know them well and have remembered one of their interests? Wouldn’t something like a copy of the autobiography of someone they loved, or that game they said they loved as a kid, or a voucher to their favourite salon or restaurant, make a more meaningful gift? Even if it cost less? We don’t need to be flashy to give the best gifts. Choosing an experience or something local, fairtrade or homemade can be worth so much more.
It’s perfectly reasonable to let your friends and family know you’ll be slowing down this Christmas because you want to avoid the pitfalls of a stressful, expensive holiday season. Women and mums in particular! There can be something revolutionary about being the first person to say it. You are not obligated to pull off the most elaborate Christmas festivities ever seen. It’s OK to ask for a smaller event this year, or to request a spending limit on presents (or even better, no presents at all). The holidays are meant to be for well, having a holiday! Jump back to my first point about establishing your values and decide how you’d really like to be spending your December.
You have every right to skip hosting a Christmas party, skip attending every friend or colleagues’ Christmas drinks, skip travelling across the country when the flights are so unreasonable that time of year, skip gifting every member of the extended family an individualised gift, skip preparing a three-day Christmas feast, skip buying meats and cheeses and other environmentally destructive but traditional foods, skip decorating your entire house from top to bottom, and generally to skip anything you want from now until forever because there is no reward for winning the race to being the most exhausted human in Australia.
While I love Christmas and I appreciate the traditions and all those childhood memories, one of my favourite Christmases will forever be the first time my immediate family, all grown up before any grandkids arrived, had our first restaurant Christmas lunch in Melbourne. We kept things minimal, opened gifts in a hotel room, ate out for every meal, and were probably the most relaxed family in Australia that day.
Opt-Out Of Plastic
There are obvious ways to cutdown on Christmas plastic: Avoiding plastic wrapping paper and ribbons, boycotting plastic bonbons, skipping the tinsel and opting out of the plastic trees. There are also less obvious ways to cutdown on plastic, as all consumption increases around Christmas and not just specific Christmas-themed items. As we buy more food, alcohol, gifts and decorations than any other time of year, we use more plastic packaging, plastic shopping bags and even things like plastic straws in our drinks as we start to eat out more and attend Christmas parties. This is avoidable! We can practice mindfulness every day of our lives and remain vigilant about plastic waste, no matter how much easier it may be to give yourself a Christmas pass.
Tips for limiting plastic waste around Christmas are recycling wrapping paper or using newspaper, skipping Christmas cards, making your own gifts, avoiding buying kids highly packaged toys, buying a real Christmas tree or DIY’ing your own, decorating the tree with glass and cardboard decorations, banning glitter from the home, choosing hessian flags over plastic tinsel, investing in compostable disposables instead of plastic for your parties, and more.
Cook What You Can Eat
Planning your Christmas season menu ahead of time is one of the most valuable economic and environmental actions you can take. Sit down and make a list of all the events you have to cater and how many people will be attending, and try to be realistic. Plan your celebrations, count your guest list, set a realistic portion serving size, and limit the number of sides. One delicious meal doesn’t need 16 snack options on the side.We have a chronic problem where every year we all just say “it’s OK we’ll eat the rest as leftovers” while the stats show that’s not actually happening and we’re really kidding ourselves.
Annually Australians throw away $20 billion worth of food. Our cultural problem of buying more than we can eat is a very real environmental issue, and I personally think it’s one rooted in status-seeking and ego by proving how much food we can afford to serve. We need to cut the bull and be more reasonable. Don’t just count the servings of the main dish, think of all the plastic packaged dips, bags of bread rolls, pieces of fruit and other items that will spoil if not eaten quick enough. All these little side purchases on average are what add up to too much food to eat before they go off, and what end up being thrown away. Don’t forget to include drinks and specialty items like Christmas pudding when accounting for how much your guests will consume.
Clean Up Consciously
Australian city councils report that we tend to slack off and get lazy about sorting our trash around Christmas, probably because there’s just so much more of it than we’re used to dealing with and we might not be able to fit it all in our regular council bins. When cleaning up after the big day, you’ll probably face an abundance of trash you don’t normally have in your daily routine. Some of this can be prepared for before we even start producing the waste by buying in bulk, choosing our alcohol or food based on the recyclable packaging, and setting up a second bin for the excess waste as you might need to wait a week to put out the rest.
It’s really important to avoid recycling bin contamination that could see your recycling from the biggest day of the year all be sent straight to landfill. Plastic trees and wine corks go into landfill, not recycling. A lot of your wrapping paper was probably non-recyclable plastic, too. Particularly if it’s shiny, metallic or has any glitter. For paper-based wrapping paper, just be sure to remove any tape or other materials that may contaminate the recycling process. And don’t forget to make your landfill and recycling bins clear for all your guests, to save yourself picking out soggy food scraps from the recyclables later.
If two-thirds of presents given over Christmas are unwanted, approx. $620 of the $1000 of presents per household, that’s a lot of stuff that needs to find a new home. Of that $620, $218 will be re-gifted, $185 will be unwanted clutter, and $120 will be thrown in the trash. But there are more sustainable alternatives to keeping something on a shelf for four years before throwing it in the landfill. If admitting the gift isn’t quite right isn’t an option so you don’t want to be caught returning it for cash, an etiquette expert recommended keeping a log of who gifted what, and re-gifting your present into a different social circle to avoid awkward overlap. And of course, only re-gifting something you think will suit the new owner better because they would love the item, and the item is still in great condition. She commented that it’s perfectly polite to sell on or re-home something if you haven’t touched it in months since receiving it, and that candles and gift cards are the most common repurposed gifts.
Other options to re-home an unwanted gift and keep it out of landfill are donating to a specific cause like a women’s shelter or a donation bin if you don’t have a charity in mind (brand new clothes are more likely to be resold than your old tracksuit pants so brand new gifts are a better item to donate), selling online through Facebook marketplace or Gumtree or eBay for privacy, or swapping with friends who might have received a gift you like more.
And of course, the most important thing to come out of these stats about unwanted gifts, is to have more open conversations with your friends and family about exchanging wishlists, capping your gift spending, choosing a Secret Santa gift exchange instead, or simply mutually agreeing to call it even and opt out of the obligation this year.
There’s so much to consider when we think about the use of time, money and resources over the Christmas period. It’s many people’s favourite time of year, so it’s really easy to relax on your values and forget about anything but having a good time. Yet by putting in a little thought, staying a little present in the moment and having a bit more intention in your actions, we can skip the year-long hangover of credit card debt and working too hard, as well as the massive worldwide hangover of our trash crisis and devastating consequences of climate change.
Christmas can be done differently and still be done well. Less clutter, less pollution, less debt, more relaxation, more gifts you enjoy and more time for making memories.