6 facts about Christmas waste and what you can do about it

The end of year is traditionally a time for sharing our love and thanks for one another. However, when it comes to the planet, the festive season is far from kind.

Christmas has been referred to as ‘the world’s greatest annual environmental disaster’, with all of us creating a huge impact in terms of pollution and waste we generate. In fact, it’s estimated that Australians spend 60 percent more of our incomes and generate 30 percent more household waste over the Christmas period. Woah!

Christmas waste is a real and growing issue.

6 facts about waste generated by Christmas

There’s no doubt most of us enjoy celebrating Christmas. There’s something magical and exciting about choosing gifts for your nearest and dearest, and wrapping them with extra love. Hell, you may even go to the extra effort of adding one of those sticky bows and matching ribbon for someone really special!

But did you ever think about the extra waste that all these gifts, wrappings and cards create?

  • In Australia alone, we use around 8,000 tonnes of wrapping paper every Christmas — that’s the equivalent of 50,000 trees!
  • If that doesn’t shock you, then what about the fact that we create 125,000 tonnes of waste in plastic packaging alone?
  • According to research, Australian adults spend on average $475 on presents, with only half of them being appreciated.
  • As a whole, the nation spends an extra $554 million on extra food, with a third of it going to waste.
  • On top of that, there’s the problem of ‘out with old and in with the new’ when it comes to electronic items and many kids’ toys, with the old often ending up in the bin destined to become landfill, particularly in the case of plastics that can’t be recycled easily.
  • And as for batteries, another environmental nightmare at Christmas time, Australians throw away over 8,000 tonnes of them, sending toxic or corrosive materials such as cadmium and mercury, lead and lithium directly into landfill.

It’s certainly not a joyous time of year of year for Mother Nature.

Unwrapping the truth: the wasteful reality of wrapping paper

Most of us are aware that the food and drink we consume over the Christmas period isn’t the healthiest, with many resolving to ‘go on a diet’ or ‘eat healthier’ in the New Year.

However, not many of us think about the long-term health effects of the gifts that we give our children. Even the paper that we wrap our gifts in can be harmful.

Yes. Many brands of wrapping paper — much of which is made overseas where there are looser environmental regulations — have been found to contain lead, synthetic inks, plastic film, or chlorine or metal-based foils.

Some wrapping papers can also contain harmful chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde, benzene and acetone. Research has shown that short-term exposure to VOCs can cause headaches along with itchy eyes, nose, throat and skin. More serious side effects can include eczema flare-ups, allergies, asthma attacks and cancer.

If that isn’t enough, when the wrapping paper is burned (yes, many people burn it), toxic and carcinogenic compounds are released into the air. Gulp.

Plastic waste and pollution at Christmas

If you buy your child a plastic toy, you’re in good company. Statistics show that around 90% of toys sold are made from plastic. Unfortunately, many plastics contain harmful chemicals that can have some serious repercussions on children’s health.

One of the most common compounds found in children’s plastic toys are phthalates — which are used to soften toys. Phthalates have been linked to a range of health problems including birth defects, cancers and diabetes, as well as male reproductive issues.

But phthalates aren’t the only dangerous compounds found in plastic toys.

You may remember earlier this year when the popular toy, Squishies was found to contain dimethylformamide, styrene and toluene. These substances can impair fertility, act as carcinogens, cause liver damage, and irritate the mucous membrane or eyes. These toys were banned in Denmark, but Australian authorities are still investigating the safety of these toys.

Toxic waste and pollution at Christmas

Many painted toys (including wooden toys), may use toxic paint. One of the most common chemicals to be found in paint is lead. Lead exposure in children can cause behaviour and attention problems, along with learning difficulties. It can also inhibit physical growth, blood cell development and impact kidney function.

Fragrance is one chemical cocktail that’s rife in skincare and ‘smelly’ gifts at this time of year. When you see “fragrance” as an ingredient, it’s actually a catchall term for up to 4,000 other fragrance-forming ingredients, most of which are synthetics, preservatives, and potentially allergy-provoking substances. In fact, exposure to synthetic fragrances has been linked to the skin conditions like dermatitis and eczema, as well as more severe conditions like cancer, asthma, and kidney damage.

Once in our environment, toxic chemicals have equal impacts on other species and habitats, destroying nature’s careful balance, polluting food chains, soil and water systems.

Creating a greener, cleaner Christmas

Fortunately, there are many options to having an eco-friendly, safe Christmas!

Our tips for a toxin-free Christmas that everyone (including Mother Nature) will enjoy include:

  • Buying products that are certified to be eco-friendly, and toxin-free
  • Choosing Aussie-made products in order to reduce greenhouse emissions
  • Avoiding plastic products where possible
  • Choosing products made from natural resources such as wood or organic textiles
  • Choosing quality products over quantity
  • Opting for hand-made products or DIY gifts where possible
  • Avoiding toys that require batteries
  • Choosing toys that are made out of materials like wood and metal, that will last the distance
  • Wrapping gifts in materials such as hessian, cloth, recycled wrapping paper, or children’s artwork.

If all of us make a little effort to be more eco-conscious this Christmas, we can collectively make a big difference to the world we live in.

Spinal ResearchKidspotNews.comMayo ClinicEndocrine SocietyHuffington PostNew York TimesPlastics eMagAustralian EthicalSydney Environment Institute
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Nerissa Bentley

Nerissa Bentley is a Melbourne-based health writer and blogger. As a mum of 2 (a teenager and a pre-teen), she understands the challenges involved in raising children, balancing work, and making time for yourself. Through her writing, she aims to inspire and empower families to live happy, healthy, fulfilling lives. Nerissa is also working on her first novel. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her reading, drinking coffee, lifting weights, or enjoying the odd sneaky red wine.

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