With all the talk of the green surge in the local and European elections earlier this year, and the school strikes for climate, and Greta Thunberg, and climate action plans, and the growing impact of the Extinction Rebellion folks, you might be forgiven for thinking that, when it comes to caring about the environment, Irish people have turned the corner.
Then Christmas comes and it quickly becomes clear that such thoughts are nonsense. Nothing exemplifies the almost comical waste of Christmas past and present as the cracker.
About 15 million such things will be pulled in Ireland between now and the time all the ho-ho-hos dry up. Along with the useless jokes and the flimsy paper hats and the disappointing snap the in-built explosives make, most of the crackers will come with a rubbish plastic novelty that had been shipped over from China.
At best the plastic novelty will be looked at for maybe 15 seconds before being added to the mountain of festive detritus that accumulates in homes around the country each year. At worst, it won’t attract so much as a second glance before making its way slowly to landfill or the sea.
Of course, Ireland is not alone. In the UK it is much worse: across the water more than 150 million crackers will be pulled and the mountain of plastic will be much larger.
But even that is dwarfed by the environmental impact the cracker will have in the United States, Australia, Canada and all the other countries where Christmas is celebrated – at least in part – by the pulling of cardboard tubes and the immediate discarding of their contents.
A billion crackers
We're going to go out on a limb here and say that before the last of the Auld Lang Synes are sung, a billion crackers will be pulled. In a world trying to tackle climate change and fighting to stop plastics leaching into water and then into fish and then into our bodies, that is not crackers, it is insane.
And it is an insanity that all of us – or at least most of us – have allowed this to happen for donkey’s years without even thinking of saying: “Hang on a second, is this really the best use of our resources?”
But when it comes to crackers a change is coming. Slowly. A couple of weeks back two of the biggest retail chains in the UK announced that they were removing plastic toys from crackers or at least they are planning to.
Waitrose and John Lewis are the retailers in question but in making the announcement they said the lead-in time for buyers is so long that they have missed the boat this year so it will be 2020 before the say goodbye to the plastic toys.
If only someone had known that plastic wasn’t doing the environment any good this time last year, eh?
Plastics campaigner for Friends of the Earth Julian Kirby welcomed the moves by the two retailers while challenging "all supermarkets to give us the gift of a Christmas completely free of unnecessary plastic".
There is a long way to go yet. Glitter is another serial offender. It might seem super festive but it is made with micro-plastics which are hugely destructive for our environment. Tinsel takes forever to disappear and then there is wrapping paper and cards and the packaging and the foil. . . well, the list is longer than Santa’s.
Retailers are paying some attention, mind you. Tesco is rolling out plastic-free, biodegradable glitter this year and removing it from its own-brand wrapping paper, tags and Christmas cards. Marks and Spencer has said so long to Christmas glitter this year and will be glitter-free by the end of 2020.
But while such steps are to be welcomed they are small when you consider the amount of waste we will leave behind once the last of the bells jingle this Christmas.
According to the people at Repak, Ireland will generate almost 90,000 tonnes of packaging waste this Christmas and we are still one of the largest per-capita users of plastics in the European Union, green surge aside.
We will buy almost a million turkeys, which will result in tonnes of turkey packaging. We will eat – or at least buy – about two million Christmas puddings, most of which will come decked in heavy-duty cardboard and thick, single-use plastic. The two million mince pies we will eat will leave behind two million foil cases, which equates to about two tonnes of aluminium material.
Packaging is not, obviously, just for Christmas. And across the retail sector businesses have been looking closely at their habits to see if changes can be made.
A survey to be published today suggests that most have reduced product packaging in recent months, with a view to being more environmentally friendly, while more than two-thirds say they are planning to invest in sustainable supply chains to reduce their environmental footprint.
The research, from Barclays Bank, suggests that over the past year 67 per cent of Irish retailers have reduced product packaging, while 80 per cent say they have put processes in place to encourage employees to recycle, with a further 76 per cent saying they have implemented initiatives to encourage consumers to recycle their products.
Despite the changes, retailers believe that having a low carbon impact remains the least important priority for consumers when receiving orders by delivery, with speed the most important, followed by reliability, cost, defined time slots and reduced packaging.
Therefore, the challenge for retailers will be sharing the costs with consumers. For example, 28 per cent believe customers would expect businesses to absorb the costs of greener deliveries, while 31 per cent believe customers would be willing to pay a maximum increase of 1-2 per cent. No retailers surveyed expect customers to be willing to pay more than a 10 per cent increase for greener deliveries.
When it comes to changing customer behaviour, 37 per cent of Irish retailers believe that a reward-based system is the most effective in incentivising customers to be more sustainable. A penalty-based approach is preferred by just 15 per cent of retailers, while 48 per cent don’t believe that their customers need any incentives.
"Investing in sustainability is fast becoming one of the key strategic imperatives for businesses," says Brian Wallace, the relationship director with Barclays Bank in Ireland.
“While a strong sustainability programme presents an opportunity for businesses to build trust and enhance their overall reputation with customers, businesses must recognise that weak environmental commitments risk undermining an organisation’s future reputation.”
Dreaming of a green Christmas: dos and don’t to reduce Christmas waste
Don’t forget to bring all those wine, whiskey and Bailey’s bottles to your local bring bank
Do avoid drinks in plastic bottles. The contents of the containers will be gone in minutes. The containers will take more than 500 years to disappear.
Don’t throw batteries in the bin and make sure they are recycled. Bring all electrical or electronic waste to your local civic amenity site, where it will be taken free of charge.
Do shop like a ninja and don’t buy food which you end up binning.
Don’t buy products cased in heavy plastic and support retailers and enterprises that are cutting back on packaging.
Do use the plastic decorations and plastic tress you have but don’t add to the pile. Sprigs of holly and mistletoe are a much better alternative, and hanging festively-shaped biscuits from your tree is always a good idea, not least because you can eat them when peckish.
Do makes sure your real tree has been sustainably sourced.
Don’t buy crackers. . . and maybe send fewer Christmas cards?