Saving the planet starts with small steps, so recycle your tree, reuse that wrapping paper and pick up nasty plastics
It’s about this time when, after weeks of decorations and flashing lights, we want to get rid of it all, vacuum up the pine needles and start afresh.
The Cop26 summit highlighted the need to be waste and consumption-conscious, so the start of 2022 is a great time to pick up environmentally friendly habits.
“Prior planning is fantastic, but on the other side of Christmas, it can be difficult to have the motivation to do that,” says Claire Leonard, Tackling Plastics communications officer at Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful.
“We always say, ‘Make it the most wonderful but not the most wasteful time of the year’.”
The charity’s mantra of refuse, reduce and recycle is particularly relevant when it comes to disposing of Christmas clutter.
“Many of us already have an artificial tree that is returned to the attic every January, and that is great,” says Claire.
“We would say to continue using your artificial tree rather than going out and purely purchasing a new one or even a real tree.
“We’re not fantastic with recycling in Northern Ireland, but regardless, we do need to move away from this sort of linear, throwaway culture to something which is more of a circular economy.
“Plastic pollution is a big problem all year, but particularly at Christmas.”
Claire, whose granny has been using an artificial tree since the 1950s, suggests that, where possible, families could consider a locally sourced live potted tree that can be replanted post-festivities.
“Garden centres are happy to take old trees which they can convert into wood chippings,” she explains.
“For the greener-fingered among us, which unfortunately isn’t me, in addition to replanting, people can strip the tree bare and use it as a climbing frame for plants.”
While we can be more careful about packing away decorations, what about wrapping paper? It’s possible, given the Covid restrictions, that some are people only opening gifts now.
“The rule of thumb is usually, if you scrunch it and it stays scrunched, it can be recycled. If it’s shiny, glittery or bounces back, it can’t be,” reveals Claire.
“You can use brown paper as a wrap. I’m a massive fan of reusable gift bags, which can do the rounds in our house certainly, and people get re-gifted the same back again and again.”
Turning to alcohol, what should consumers be aware of in terms of choosing more environmentally sound packaging?
“Most alcoholic beverages, you’ll be delighted to know, already come in glass, so you don’t have to worry about that too much,” says Claire.
“For wine drinkers, one thing to watch out for is there’s a new style of wine cork. It’s made from plastic and is very, very smooth. It’s totally unnatural, so we would suggest trying to avoid that.
“For beer drinkers, the cans are recyclable, which is fantastic, but try and find beers that are in cans and bottles in a packet or a cardboard carrier rather than the shrink wrap or the ring holders. They cause such utter devastation to marine life and they’re totally unnecessary.”
Reducing food packaging — a massive contributor to plastic pollution — is the biggest mountain to climb for consumers, but it is achievable.
“With plenty of greengrocers and supermarkets now, we’re seeing people selling packaging-free produce,” says Claire.
“Refill stores are also popping up all across Northern Ireland, which is fantastic to see.
“Some plastic is going to be inevitable, so we always say, ‘After refusing and reducing, where you can’t reuse, make sure to recycle responsibly’. It’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, the long-term solution to our plastic problem.”
Plastic products have often been linked to convenience, and while an attitude change means we’re opting for less, the impact is still, Claire says, “insidious”.
She adds: “In the last year, we had a litter composition analysis survey. We discovered through our survey that at any one time, there are 1.3 million items of litter dropped in Northern Ireland, which is horrific.
“Of that, 71% are plastics. They’re not going anywhere. They’re working their way into the oceans or our food agriculture or animal ingestion. It’s insidious, it’s a scourge.”
Anyone looking to adopt a plastic-free lifestyle should not be overwhelmed.
“Nobody is expecting anybody to live a completely zero-waste lifestyle. As a first-world consumer, it’s just not possible,” Claire admits.
“The tip I give people is — and it could be actually a nice new year’s resolution — go room by room. When I began in this role in this organisation, I just started in one room and thought that, over time, I would see what I could switch up.”
It’s not about throwing things away, simply to purchase a greener option.
“The most sustainable items are the ones that you more than likely already have in your house,” explains Claire.
“We say to continue using those no matter what they are. Whether it’s Christmas decorations or whether it’s your existing toothbrushes, continue using it until the end of its life. It’s not anti-plastic, it’s sustainable. It’s a different way to look at it.”
It’s also vital that consumers realise their behaviour can have a positive impact.
“People may feel jaded or feel like their individual actions don’t count, but we say that they do,” stresses Claire.
“The habits you form now you can hopefully bring into your daily life. We have to act. The time is now to make those changes.”
As we enter the new year, Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful is encouraging people to complete its Environmental Engagement Index. Developed in collaboration with Daera, Queens University Belfast and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, anyone who completes the survey will be able to compare their engagement score with friends and family, as well as the Northern Ireland average, which is currently 7.72 out of 10. To complete the index, visit liveherelovehere.org.