Why I’m Planning a Plastic-Free Christmas—and How You Can Too

Covid-19 has sidelined efforts to reduce plastic waste. So I’ve told Santa not to bring any down my chimney.

Red tree ornaments, plastic-wrapped mints, candy canes, and paper-wrapped & glitter-covered gift boxes arranged in a pile.
Photo by Laura Gomez via Unsplash

Christmas brings plastic in so many forms, from decorations and gifts, to polyester bows and cellophane-wrapped candies. This year, I’m saying no to it all!

I’m always amazed at how much plastic invades my home on Christmas — especially since having kids. Some plastics sneak in, hiding in wrapping paper, cards, ribbons, and bows. Others are guests of honour: the toys, dolls, and electronics that promise untold smiles and skills. A few are more discreet, masquerading as snuggly stuffies, fuzzy fleece jammies, and pretty polyester dresses. Then there are the party crashers: single-use plastics that hitch a ride on various gifts and treats before heading straight to the trash.

By the time all the gifts have been unwrapped, there’s enough plastic waste to fill Santa’s sack. And that’s not even the presents! How long before the plastic toys and clothing wind up in the landfill as well?

According to Stanford University, the average US household throws out 25% more trash from Thanksgiving to New Year’s than the rest of the year. Much of this is wrapping paper, often made with plastic films or glitter that make it impossible to recycle. Then there are the gifts themselves, especially for kids. So many toys are made of plastic! For many people, this plastic exchange takes place under a plastic tree.

At every stage of its life cycle, plastic contributes to climate change. Made of petrochemicals, plastic accounts for 12% of oil and gas production — a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, even when not burned as fuel. Converting fossil fuels into plastic resin dumps even more carbon and pollutants into the atmosphere. Plastic’s carbon footprint continues to expand as raw materials are manufactured into products, shipped all over, and eventually disposed of.

Recycling systems were never designed to handle the volume and complexity of materials currently on the market.

Every year, Canadians throw away 3 million metric tonnes of plastic waste. Did you know only 9% of that plastic is recycled? The rest piles up in landfills, is incinerated, and litters the landscape — releasing greenhouse gases as it breaks down. Of all the plastic ever made, 79% still exists in landfills and the environment.

“Our recycling systems were never designed to handle the huge volume and complexity of materials that are currently on the market,” says Ashley Wallis, plastics campaigner with Oceana Canada, a charity dedicated to ocean conservation. “And because we heavily subsidize our oil and gas sector, there is a tonne of cheap oil and gas available to make plastic from virgin petrochemicals — so it’s usually more expensive to use recycled materials.”

Keith Brooks, programs director for Environmental Defence Canada, says part of the problem is that plastics producers aren’t required to create products that can actually be recycled. And even when products are recyclable, there often aren’t systems in place to recycle them. “People can manufacture as much plastic as they want,” he says. “They don’t need to ensure that it’s recyclable, either technically or practically.” Unfortunately, it seems like Santa’s workshop is one of the worst culprits.

Forty-seven percent of plastic waste comes from packaging — largely single-use plastics. A University of California study estimated that up to 12.7 million metric tonnes of plastic waste entered the ocean in 2010. Experts say that if we keep going at this rate, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. Plastic is filling up our fresh water too. Researchers from the Rochester Institute of Technology estimate that nearly 10,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste enter the Great Lakes every year.

This plastic litter isn’t just unsightly — it’s deadly.

“Whales and other marine life can mistake plastic bags for jellyfish,” says Wallis. These and other macroplastics can block an animal’s digestive tract or create a false sense of fullness, ultimately causing starvation. Rough pieces of plastic can cause abrasion and internal bleeding. Animals also get entangled in plastics like six-pack rings and fishing gear, which can choke or drown them.

And that’s just the big stuff. Macroplastics eventually degrade into microplastics: pieces of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters.

“Microplastic is even easier to ingest because it’s much smaller,” says Wallis. So small, in fact, that it’s in our drinking water. “There is now a lot of evidence to show that we are eating plastic, drinking plastic, and breathing plastic.”

Environmental activists have been working for decades to stem the tide of plastic pollution, and in the last five years the movement started gaining momentum. More and more people were trying to use less plastic, and companies were following suit. Coffee shops offered discounts for using reusable cups, grocery stores charged for plastic bags, and bulk stores encouraged customers to refill their own containers. Then, in June 2019, the Canadian government announced a plan to ban single-use plastics. Finally, real action was on the horizon.

Then came Covid-19. The pandemic has not only sidelined the fight against plastic pollution — it has made the problem worse. Since March, plastic use has soared higher than a balloon at a birthday party. In a survey by Dalhousie University, 29% of respondents said they are buying more plastic-packaged goods during the pandemic. A representative of the International Solid Waste Association told the Economist that US consumption of single-use plastic may have increased by 250–300% since the pandemic began.

Between restrictions on indoor dining and people staying home, more people are ordering takeout, with plastic-packaged meals arriving in plastic bags along with plastic cutlery. Online shopping has doubled, with myriad parcels arriving in plastic shipping envelopes. Now, with the holidays around the corner — and storefronts closed again — people will likely do most of their Christmas shopping online.

US consumption of single-use plastic may have increased by 250–300% since the pandemic began.

This October, Environment and Climate Change Canada announced the next steps in the government’s plan to achieve zero waste by 2030. This includes a ban on certain single-use plastics, improvements in plastic recovery and recycling, and requirements for recycled content in products and packaging.

“It is a good next step,” says Oceana’s Wallis, “And it’s great to see a proposed list of items to be banned. But the six items that the government is proposing to ban are very low-hanging fruit.” She says the list doesn’t go far enough.

Brooks says the government is headed in the right direction, but they need to focus on extended producer responsibility — which makes companies responsible for the waste they produce. A more comprehensive solution would ban companies from selling products that cannot be recycled, and require that a high percentage of plastic products actually get recycled. Perhaps Santa should swing back around on December 26th to collect all the plastic he left us with. Maybe then he’d make sure it actually gets recycled — and use less plastic in the first place.

“We can’t just simply recycle our way out of this,” says Brooks. “We actually need to produce less plastic. We need to produce fewer kinds of plastic.”

Meanwhile, the planet is drowning in plastic. So, I’m not waiting for the government to institute a plastic ban — I’m issuing my own. No plastic allowed this Christmas. No plastic toys, dolls, jewellery, electronics, or arts and crafts supplies. No plastic fibres like polyester, nylon, or acrylic. No plastic gift cards. No plastic-wrapped candy. And finally, no plasticky wrapping paper or plastic bows and ribbons.

Banning all those plastics from Christmas is a daunting task, I know. If you’ve ever walked through a toy store, it may seem downright impossible. And not only is plastic omnipresent, it is so often the most affordable option. So how am I going to pull off a plastic-free Christmas? Well, armed with research and tips from friends, I’m confident my family can do it. We just need to think outside the (big) box, support ethical and sustainable companies, and get a little creative. Here are some suggestions I’ve shared with my family:

  • Purchase electronic gift cards or vouchers instead of plastic gift cards.
  • Choose clothing or stuffed animals made from sustainable textiles like wool, linen, or organic cotton.
  • Buy zero-waste writing utensils like wooden pencils or a bamboo fountain pen.
  • Look for plastic-free, nontoxic art supplies like beeswax crayons, natural paints (these look cool), biodegradable paint brushes, and even eco-friendly glitter.
  • Make homemade playdough instead of buying it in plastic containers.
  • Buy wooden toys, musical instruments, or play equipment.
  • Bake your own treats instead of buying plastic-wrapped goodies.
  • Give books, puzzles, old-fashioned photo albums, or magazine subscriptions.

We need to think outside the (big) box, support ethical and sustainable companies, and get a little creative.

  • Get crafty and make your own gifts, like knitted hats and scarves.
  • Give experience gifts like lessons, spa days, restaurant gift certificates, or outdoor activities like skiing or dog sledding. (Just make sure they don’t expire any time soon.)
  • Make a donation to a charity in a loved one’s name. If you’re not sure where to give, check out Canada Helps or Charities.org.
  • Opt for second-hand clothing and toys (including plastic). They’ve already been produced, there’s no new packaging, and you’re keeping them from the landfill. If local thrift stores are closed, look online!
  • Wrap presents in cloth, newsprint, kraft paper, old calendars or maps. Or use baskets, tins, or cloth gift bags.
  • Decorate gifts with natural fabric bows and ribbons instead of disposable plastic ones.

A plastic-free Christmas may seem like a big ask given the year we’ve had. But it’s precisely because of the pandemic — and its impact on the environment — that I want to use less plastic. So if any of those pesky plastics come knocking at my door this Christmas, I won’t feel bad about telling them: You’re not invited.

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