The shocking environmental truth of commercial holidays

With Valentine’s Day just gone by and Mother’s Day coming up next week, it’s important to look at the waste these sort of commercial holidays can cause. Things like excessive food waste, fireworks, cards and wrapping paper can have a negative  effect on the environment.

Overeating over holidays like Christmas is a tradition in itself. The downside to this, however, is that it creates excess waste and pollution to the point where in places like the UK, they are binning 230,000 tonnes of food during the Christmas period. That’s the equivalent of 74 million mince pies or two million turkeys, at the price of £275 million. In fact, the University of Manchester recently calculated that the UK’s combined Christmas dinners produce the same carbon footprint as a single car travelling 6,000 times around the world.

Halloween is also a big holiday for eating, and due to the huge consumption of sweets and snacks, the streets are littered with wrappers and waste every year. Pumpkins are also one of the main contributors to food waste every Halloween – in the UK in 2019, 8 million pumpkins were sent to landfill. That’s enough to feed the whole nation!

Gift-giving holidays like Christmas, birthdays, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s/Father’s Day result in a huge amount of gift-wrapping paper going in the bin. It is estimated that around 50,000 trees are cut down each year to make enough wrapping paper. Shiny and glitter-encrusted paper is especially bad because it cannot be recycled and is nothing but microplastics. The glitter pollutes oceans and ends up being ingested by animals which, over time, will end up gathering enough of the waste in their stomachs to prove fatal.

Fibres found in cheaper types of wrapping paper are not strong enough to recycle; wrapping paper is often dyed and laminated, and may also contain non-paper additives such as gold and silver colouring, glitter and plastics. Then there is the added issue of sticky tape, which is still often attached to paper when thrown away. Landfill or even incineration are often the only options to get rid of the waste.

A huge staple of commercial holidays is the sending of greetings cards. The good news is that most cards and envelopes are recyclable if they are made exclusively from paper, and some cards are made from entirely post-consumer recycled paper. The bad news is that any adornments like shiny or glossy materials, music players, glitter, metallic ink, or metal charms must be removed before the card can go into the recycling bin.

Unfortunately, glitter and music players contribute to plastic pollution globally. A recent study by Exeter University in the U.K. showed that sending one card produces about 140 grams of carbon dioxide. With about two billion cards sold annually in the U.K., that carbon footprint is roughly equivalent to manufacturing 10,000 cars per year.

Fireworks are another common sight during holidays like Halloween and New Year’s Eve. Fireworks create highly toxic gases and pollutants that poison the air, the water and the soil, making them toxic to birds, wildlife, pets, livestock — and people — but there are environmentally-friendly alternatives available. During the recent Diwali festival of lights in 2019, the concentrations of airborne pollutants were pushed even higher than normal in already severely polluted Dehli.

As well as adding a huge amount of fine particulate matter to the air we breathe, fireworks also add dangerous gases and aerosols to the atmosphere. For example, one study found that fireworks create a “burst” of ozone, which is an extremely reactive greenhouse gas molecule that can attack and irritate the lungs.

Before you go all out for future holiday occasions this year, think about the effects of the glittery card, shiny wrapping paper and party food you’re getting, and consider scaling down to more environmentally friendly options.

Erica Carter
Erica Carter

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