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All for a good Claus: How to have a zero waste Christmas

Chrissie Russell meets families who are turning their backs on the festive excess and celebrating the holidays by adopting an eco-friendly mindset


Annette Fuhrmann made her own Christmas tree with her children (l-r) Ayda (3) Sayid (8) Linda (10) and Malik (6). Photo: Douglas O'Connor

Annette Fuhrmann made her own Christmas tree with her children (l-r) Ayda (3) Sayid (8) Linda (10) and Malik (6). Photo: Douglas O'Connor

Annette Fuhrmann made her own Christmas tree with her children (l-r) Ayda (3) Sayid (8) Linda (10) and Malik (6). Photo: Douglas O'Connor

It's hailed as the most wonderful time of the year, but it's also the most wasteful. Research suggests we generate an extra 30pc of rubbish at Christmas, with cards and crackers to rolls of wrapping paper ending up in the bin. Then there's the pressies that no one really needs, the tree that will end up in the tip and the leftover food thrown into the bin.

It's no wonder a growing number of people are turning their backs on the festive excess and learning to cut back, but without losing any of the Christmas spirit.

From loo roll crackers to pillow-case wrapping paper, five Irish families tell us how they're hoping to have a very Merry (zero waste) Christmas this year.

Mum-of-four Ann Teehan loves getting 'mummy vouchers' as gifts and having the kids help make decorations from recycled paper.

"I think getting the children involved in making is actually much more in the spirit of Christmas and they enjoy it so much more than buying decorations," says Ann. "This year, we'll make crackers out of toilet rolls or I might buy some from Jiminy.ie (Ireland's first eco toys company) - they do reusable Christmas crackers. Our tree is cut from the top of the tree so it can continue to grow.

"Wrapping paper will be newspaper with twine and something from the garden and I've said to family not to buy the kids plastic toys (we've done that the last few years), so they'll probably get book tokens. Santa mostly shops second hand! Like last year, my daughter wanted a go-kart and Santa found a second-hand one. Toys don't need to be brand new for kids to love them - they just need to be new to them. The kids make me 'mummy vouchers' for my pressies - like a promise for a five-minute massage! I have a couple of old Celebrations tubs that neighbours gave us last year, so I'll take those to the butchers for them to put my meat in and, with eight of us in the house, food never goes in the bin! Even the guinea pigs eat any peelings.

"Zero waste isn't just for Christmas for us. I set up my website, anniepooh.ie, eight years ago when I couldn't find eco-friendly nappies and now I've opened a zero-waste shop in Greystones. I think a lot of people want to try and live in a less wasteful way all year round."

Timi Nicholson of simplenowastelife.com rents eco-friendly toys and Christmas party accessories, and shuns busy shops in favour of home-sewn Christmas clobber.

"I do buy stuff - I'm not a minimalist - but I try to get whatever I want, or need, second hand. That saves money and is the most eco-friendly option after not buying anything at all," the Dubliner says.

"This year, I'm sewing matching pjs for my two children [aged one and 4] and their two cousins. They'll be made from organic cotton and with a winter theme so they can be worn longer than just the holiday season.


Reusable Christmas crackers from Jiminy.ie

Reusable Christmas crackers from Jiminy.ie

Reusable Christmas crackers from Jiminy.ie

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"The kids will get whatever we can buy second hand or from ethical sources and I'm renting a set of BioBio building blocks from Jiminy.ie for them to play with while their cousins are here. The adults get 'experience' gifts - like last year, it was a ticket for Brian Cox and workshops at the Irish Seed Savers. Any wrapping is made by me from an old duvet cover that's red and white.

"I think planning is key to saving on food waste. We get a weekly vegetable box and then all dry food comes from NOMS in Phibsborough. I bring my own containers, hardly ever buy meat and avoid processed food. I make our own cakes and mince pies with all ingredients bought without packaging - if you hand-make it, you're less likely to throw it out.

"My motivation is the kids. I want to live a sustainable life for them. If we all made changes, it would matter."

Lisa Lynch lives in Sweden with her family. She says it's important to remember that Christmas is about family - not shopping.

"As a family, we strive to live by the motto 'do no harm' and trying to be as zero waste as possible is part of that. But we're not perfect and it's definitely harder to be zero waste at Christmas," says Lisa. "Luckily, we avoid most of the pressure from advertising as we don't own a TV, but our kids [aged nine and 12] are still very aware of the vast amount of stuff that's available in the shops.

"Our biggest spend on 'new' presents is on books. But at its heart, Christmas for all of us is about family and togetherness. I hope our kids will grow up thinking our Christmases are normal and they will continue (and even improve on) some of our zero-waste traditions.

"My rule is that anything that is simply for decoration has to be made by us, as decorations are not necessities. We don't send Christmas cards (we got a few Scrooge accusations over that!) and we use old pillow cases, sheets, tea towels and material from charity shops to wrap presents. It actually looks really pretty and a number of our friends have started doing the same.

"There will always be cynics, but I do feel that we're making a difference. It's easy to say that one person can't save the planet, but if we all think like that, then nothing is ever going to change."

After living in Africa for several years, Annette Fuhrmann from Dublin returned to Ireland wanting to live a less materialistic and wasteful life. She says her children (aged 10, eight, six and three) are great at creating their own fun as a result of not being reliant on always getting the newest toy and improvisation is a great gift (one that mum embraces too, right down to making her own Christmas tree). "Last year's Christmas tree was a couple of bamboos tied vertically around a cable reel and this year, the cable reel is out again, this time with a bit of bamboo stick stuck into it and strips of cardboard rotated around it to look like a tree," says Annette.

"Our local charity shop is my favourite shop and most gifts are hand-me-down toys or clothes that I wrap in boxes (like cereal) from shopping collected over the weeks before. Neighbours get handmade cards and cookies.

"I'd say that - compared to the €2,500 the average Irish family is reported to spend in the run up to Christmas - we probably spend around €300.

"I'm not 'bah humbug', but I don't really go all out buying presents at Christmas for the sake of it being Christmas. The kids always get what they need. Also, last year, we went camping for four weeks in France and I explained to them that, if we want to do things like that, then we need to choose wisely what we buy. I lived in Niger, Africa, for almost six years and maybe that experience influenced me. There were people who had nothing who were the happiest I've seen. Then I moved back to Ireland and it was a reverse culture shock - everyone had everything and were still complaining and moaning!"

Karina Palfalusi, from Donegal, asks relatives to gift 'adventures' to her two sons, Adam (four) and Aron (one). Santa's also a savvy second-hand shopper and there's no need to worry about food waste when you've chickens and goats.

"My mum has a huge talent for charity shopping and always finds the best stuff for presents for our boys. And family know that I would rather they gift them adventures instead of toys," says Karina.

"We've been using the same fake tree for years now and if we want that Christmassy smell, then we just pick up a pine branch from the local forest. Christmas decorations come from the zero-waste Facebook group or it's also great to go to charity shops just after Christmas and keep them for the next year.

"We don't have any food waste. Our Christmas dinner is gone pretty quickly and veggie peels go to our chickens and goats!"

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