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Christmas

About this guide

Whatever our religious beliefs, the period around the Christmas holidays, from the end of the school year and up to Australia Day, is a time of celebration with plenty of eating, drinking and the giving of gifts.

Many Australians at this time eat more, drink more, shop more and travel more—making a big impact on our budgets and the environment. Why not make this year the time to think about the wider impact of your Christmas consumption and take steps to save money and save resources?

At the heart of the festive season, the key Christmas essential is about spending time with family and friends. Many Australians are seeking ways to add meaning to the season and reduce its materialistic focus. So why not try some of these ideas and give the planet a present at the same time?

This guide gives you some easy, practical and realistic tips that you can use when deciding how to celebrate. Many of our tips are fun, family-friendly and may help you celebrate the season without blowing the budget. You don't have to do them all—initiating even a few changes this year will make a difference.

Christmas trees

There is a lot of debate about which is better—a fake or a real Christmas tree.

Fake trees

The advantages of fake trees are that they:

  • can be re-used year after year
  • are generally less expensive
  • can be left up for longer.

Young girl adding decoration to a Christmas tree made from sticks on a beach.

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The disadvantages of fake trees are that they:

  • are made of plastics and metals
  • are not biodegradable
  • end up as waste in landfill before too long
  • are often shipped long distances
  • need to be stored for the remainder of the year.

Real trees

The advantages of a real tree are that they:

  • are biodegradable
  • can be chipped into mulch in the New Year
  • help act as a filter to clean the air in the years they take to grow
  • smell wonderful.

The disadvantages of a real tree are that they:

  • are sometimes grown using pesticides and herbicides
  • may be shipped across the country
  • produce mess inside your house
  • need to be recycled (while they can be mulched, you are likely to have to transport the tree yourself and not all communities can access recycling options.)

So what to choose for a happy medium?

One popular and sustainable option is getting a potted, live Christmas tree. If you keep it properly watered it won't dry out, shed foliage or become a fire hazard. Depending on the type of tree you chose, it can smell wonderful too. When you're done with the tree, you don't need to arrange for it to be mulched—you can plant it outside. You can plant it in the garden to decorate as an outdoor tree or leave it in its pot to bring inside again for next year—and it will clean the air for many years to come.

For a particularly Australian approach you could choose a native shrub or plant and put this into your garden at the end of the festive season. A potted grevillea, banksia or bottlebrush will provide food for native birds if you later plant it in your garden.

You can really think outside the square and make your own natural tree by gathering some dramatic branches from outdoors and setting them in a large, weighted pot. Or really get arty and create one from scratch from dead twigs or found objects.

If you opt for a fake tree, choose a durable one and keep it in good condition ready to re-use for many years to come.

Decorating

A box of 9 coloured glass globe decorations.

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Buy good quality decorations that can be re-used for years to come, rather than having decorations and tinsel that end up as land fill come January. Better still make your own with some paints and scrap paper and packaging that would otherwise end up as waste. Entertain children with a treasure hunt by tasking them to keep an eye out for found objects or nature's ornaments like pine cones. They can stow them away in a craft box ready to transform into next year's decorations.

Looking at decorated houses bedecked in Christmas lights is one way to get into the festive spirit, but Christmas lights also consume energy, adding to your electricity bills. To minimise your costs and impact, choose LED lighting and don't leave Christmas lights on all night. Turning lights off overnight avoids wasting electricity when it's not needed and reduces the risk of lights being accidentally left on during the day.

Cards and wrap

A present wrapped in brown paper and tied with string

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Card giving and gift wrapping is a common Christmas tradition but also consumes lots of resources—all that paper was once a living tree. Here are a few ideas to help reduce your paper use as well as your overall Christmas spend.

If you buy cards, look for ones made from recycled paper or try to reduce the total number of cards you send—or choose e–cards instead. If you traditionally send friends and family an annual update with news and photos, you could send them in an email. Another option could be creating a holiday album on a photo sharing site and circulating that instead of a paper copy. Remember to recycle any cards you receive, or cut them up and turn them into gift tags for next year.

This year try skipping wrapping paper whenever possible. You could hide children's gifts around the house and giving them a 'treasure map' with clues as to where they are instead. If you do need to wrap something, try brown paper—it's less resource intensive. Using a ribbon alone on a large present is another idea. Alternatively you could make the wrapping part of the gift by using things like scarves, tea towels or tablecloths, or putting the gift in a re–usable tin or box. Christmas is also a great time to clear out the year's stock of children's artwork to re–use for wrapping or gift tags. If you do use paper, why not tie up the gift with re–usable ribbon or string instead of sticky tape which tears the paper? This way you can recycle the paper for use next year.

Shopping

Two women shopping and looking at a handbag

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Perhaps the easiest way to reduce our Christmas impact is to buy less 'stuff'. This doesn't mean becoming a Grinch—there are frugal but fun ways to do this.

You could try doing a Secret Santa or Kris Kringle with your loved ones or at your work—where people in a group are randomly assigned other members to whom they anonymously give a gift. This offers a way for many people to give and receive a gift at low cost to those involved. You could also choose this year to give gifts only to the children in the family or determine an upper limit on purchases, and stick to it.

Not everything has to be bought new. There are many great flea markets, estate sales and local craft fairs that are a great source for gifts like vintage jewellery and bicycles or early edition books. Choosing these options also supports local providers and sellers.

If you're keen to reduce the materialistic focus, you could buy a really practical present to help someone from any of our world's poorest countries to lift themselves out of poverty. You can purchase gifts like trees, animals, tools, educational podcasts, or even solar power.

Christmas time is a great time to teach children about giving to those who will be alone at Christmas or don't have the means to buy everything they'd like to give their children. You can share the spirit by asking your children to pick toys that they don't play with very much and donating them to a charity or putting them under a giving tree.

Gifts and giving

A woman and three children making their own cards.

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There are some great options for lower impact, lower cost gifts.

Instead of buying a tangible present you could try giving an experience as a gift instead. Options like a subscription to your local theatre or sporting events, a cooking lesson or a massage are excellent alternatives to packaged gifts. If you give gift certificates, you know the recipient can get what they really want and won't discard your gift. These options reduce the need for wrapping too.

You could get the kids involved in making a gift or cook up a batch of gifts from your kitchen.

Why not give someone a gift that lets them become more efficient or saves them money? Possible ideas range from things for the kitchen garden, a potted plant, compost bin or worm farm, through to gifts that are solar, wind or hand powered. These don't need to be expensive. A refillable water bottle makes an easy gift, and it has the potential to reduce plastic waste and could save the recipient thousands of dollars by avoiding the purchase of bottled water. Similarly a re–usable travel beverage mug would be great for a colleague or office worker, and can reduce the need to bin hundreds of disposable coffee cups each year.

Many of us will get new or upgraded gadgets this Christmas. If your old model still works, why not gift this on to someone else, or choose to recycle your old computer, TV, or MP3 player. Visit Planet Ark's RecyclingNearYou website for details. The Australian Government has also introduced an industry-funded National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme for televisions and computers, printers and computer products such as keyboards, mice and hard-drives. If you're shopping for new home entertainment gadgets and technology or electric appliances, look for energy-efficient models as the running costs will add up over time and will impact on your electricity bill for the lifetime of all these products. A big energy bill is a gift you may not want to give.

Try to avoid gifts that are battery operated or look for those that can run off mains power—or give a battery charger and some re–chargeable batteries as a gift (parents will love you).

Christmas is about giving but it's also about sharing. Many charities and environmental organisations offer gift options which you can give the 'person who has everything' and also help others or help the environment. You could offset the emissions for someone's car for a year, or buy school supplies for a child in the developing world. Some of these gifts are also tax deductible so you'll get a gift come July.

Food and drink

A reusable shopping bag full of fresh vegetables

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Start by making your list and checking it twice. When you're buying food for Christmas, try not to buy too much, and think about leaving things like disposable plates, cutlery and napkins off the list.

Keep food waste to a minimum. When food scraps have to be disposed of, choose to compost or use a worm farm.

Take your re-usable shopping bags with you. You can leave them in the car so you'll always have them on hand when needed.

Why not cut down on your beer miles and drink a local brew or try a local winery? You could even choose from the increasing range of organic or carbon neutral beers and wines.

Remember to recycle your glass bottles. Corks can be recycled too. Visit Planet Ark's RecyclingNearYou website for details.

Parties

People outside having a barbecue

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If you're hosting parties this festive season, why not choose some lower impact options?

  • To save paper you could send out invitations by email, text messages or via online social networking sites.
  • You might help your guests to car pool by passing on details of who is travelling to your event and who is willing to be a designated driver.
  • You can add details about public transport options into your invitations, or encourage taxi sharing at the end.
  • Consider choosing a central location or destination to get everyone together. This will mean less travel time and fuel consumption for all participants.
  • Gathering outside is a great way to celebrate the Australian festive season and save energy. Take advantage of the beautiful summer weather and the great outdoors to enjoy time with friends and family. Having picnics or a barbeque are two great ways to avoid higher electricity bills from parties inside.
  • If you are outdoors you may like to put out bins or tubs clearly marked for recycling bottles or food waste. If they're strategically placed you'll also save on clean-up time!
  • Try our outdoor entertaining—no and low waste dining ideas

Travel

A family on their bikes enjoying cycling

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Summer is a popular time for travel in Australia, but there are still lots of ways you can reduce your impact.

If you're flying for your holidays you can opt to pay a little extra to offset your travel emissions. Most airlines provide offsetting options that contribute to projects which will help reduce your air travel footprint. There are even in–flight things you can do, like pack light to reduce luggage weight and take your own snacks in re–usable containers, or take your own earphones instead of accepting on-board disposable ones.

If you're hitting the road, you can minimise your fuel consumption and costs by driving efficiently. Or you could choose to holiday closer to home instead.

Summer is a great time to try active transport options. Why not walk to a neighbourhood party or try cycling to a barbeque or picnic? Not only are these options good for your wallet, they might even help your Christmas waistline too.

Try to combine your trips so that you're making one car trip instead of many—this will reduce your fuel use and save you time and money. If you take public transport you'll avoid parking fees and the stress of trying to find a parking place.

Planning and booking your holiday or even shopping online is another great way to save time and petrol during the hectic festive season. Stay Smart Online has some simple steps you can take to protect your personal and financial information online.

Avoid throwing money away on wasted energy if you're travelling over the summer. Turn off appliances at the wall, turn the fridge down a little and make sure you turn off the air conditioner if you have one.

New Year's Resolutions

A calendar showing early January circled with the word 'start

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Yes, New Year resolutions are easy to make but can be hard to keep. If you want to make some resolutions to save money or improve your energy efficiency there are many actions you can choose.

A really effective way to save is by becoming more energy efficient at home. Equipped with some realistic and practical know–how, you can reduce your energy bills and start saving now. Many of our energy saving tips are no cost or low cost, so whatever your lifestyle or budget you can reduce your impact and start saving for next year's festivities.

If New Year's resolutions are too 'big picture'—why not try taking some simple steps seasonally? You can make choices tailored to summer, autumn, winter and spring.