Which waste material was the biggest Christmas culprit?
With an estimated three million tonnes of waste produced in the UK over the festive period, there can be no disputing that Christmas has a huge impact on the resource sector. But exactly which waste stream has the biggest effect? Is there a single culprit? Or does the end of year indulgence create many problems for the waste and recycling industry to tackle?
In our December poll we asked our website visitors what they predicted would be the most common type of additional household waste over Christmas. The results were fairly startling.
Christmas trees and cards escaped much of the blame, with each only receiving 2% of the votes. Wrapping paper similarly fared well, with only 7% of respondents believing that would be the biggest waste headache. Even leftover/excess food only attracted 12% of votes!
By far – when it came to the type of waste people most pointed the finger at – the culprit was packaging waste, with 77% of votes. If we think back to Christmas day itself, and the aftermath that followed gifts being opened, this viewpoint is hardly surprising. Despite the UK’s supposed commitment to a circular economy, many of us still give and receive products enveloped in an array of packaging materials – many of which seem unnecessary.
So, those are the waste culprits that our website visitors predicted ahead of Christmas 2015. But were our poll participants correct? Waste and recycling figures have not yet been revealed for December, so as yet it’s too early to tell. However if we look to reports from previous years, we learn that the festive problem really is multifaceted.
UNTHA UK’s managing director Chris Oldfield comments: “One of the stand-out articles I remember reading about Christmas ‘rubbish’, came almost ten years ago. The Independent ran a story₁ which detailed how far the Yuletide waste problem stretched. I recall that, at the time, as many as six million Christmas trees were to be dumped or incinerated, rather than properly recycled. I read that, if laid end to end, this mass would reach London to the North Pole and back.
“It was also reported that, within three months, 41% of toys would be broken, and most would go to the tip; 125,000 tonnes of plastic packaging would end up in the bin; and more than a billion Christmas cards would be dumped or burnt which represented enough recycling material to have stretched around the world five times.
“These startling figures have stuck in my mind because they highlight the environmental costs of us all enjoying a Merry Christmas. However, I’d like to hope we have achieved significant progress during this time.”
Social media saw many members of the public complaining about household waste collections over Christmas. And to a certain extent these frustrations are understandable. If a family has gone to great efforts to segregate at source, and ensure clean recyclates are ready to be picked up, it is a little disheartening to see recycling bins overflowing and the only other option being recyclate contamination in the general waste bin. Even Viridor is reported to have warned councils about the cost of getting collections right, or wrong, over Christmas₂.
That said, a number of local authorities did try to communicate extensively with households before Christmas, to encourage sensible recycling practices during the holiday disruption. Recycling centre opening hours should also receive praise, as they provided a virtually constant opportunity to responsibly dispose of ‘waste’ materials that had amassed throughout December. We also saw posts about Christmas tree drop off and collection services, unwanted Christmas card recycling, and tips to minimise leftover food waste (a theme championed also by some of the supermarkets).
As a nation, it seems we’re gradually getting a better grip of the waste we produce and the actions we take to handle it. We’re far from perfect of course, as the December 2015 figures will no doubt reveal in due course. But it is a time for New Year’s resolutions after all…