Dreaming of a Green Christmas
PUBLISHED: 15:53 12 November 2007 | UPDATED: 14:55 20 February 2013
There's more food miles travelled and more waste generated at this time of year, but with a little thought we can all enjoy a merry and ethical Christmas. Being ecologically conscious has never been more important. In the past year we have been as...
"I think the pressure for cheaper prices from some customers and supermarkets has changed the nature of the traditional Christmas dinner," says Tony Robins of Rumwell Farm Shop, near Taunton. "It's a sad fact of life that a chicken or turkey can be shipped thousands of miles and still retail at half the price of a local free-range bird."
So much of our food is imported, with the average Christmas dinner travelling more than 30,000 miles before it reaches our plate. The turkey could come from Thailand, the carrots from Morocco, and the Brussels sprouts from the Netherlands. If we bought our food locally instead, this figure could be less than 400 miles. And that's just one meal. During December our carbon emissions associated with imported food rises, as spending on food increases on typical monthly averages.
"Those with a green conscience will realise the huge benefits in terms of food miles that can be gained by buying local. It is a very easy way to help reduce our individual carbon footprint," says Kate Harris of Somerset Food Links. She adds that buying local also has other environmental advantages. "Christmas is a very important time for producers as their trade can double or more, and can make a vital difference to their ability to survive. By supporting local farmers you ensure that there is someone there who can manage the landscape and countryside effectively, which is important."
For many people, being greener is all well and good but, ultimately, if you're going to pay the small extra premium that buying local often entails, then it's important that the quality of the produce reflects the higher price. "One of the main benefits of buying local is freshness. You can't beat buying your turkey fresh on Christmas Eve, rather than something that has been frozen, imported and sat on a supermarket shelf for weeks. Fresh food is significantly more nutritious than food that has travelled long distances or been frozen," says Kate.
The one caveat to shopping in this way is that as consumers we have to appreciate the seasons. There is limited vegetable choice in winter, which means we can't always get what we want if we wish to stay true to the buying local ethos. That said, it's arguably better to do without than buy something that has been flown halfway around the world.
Local Drink is Miles Better
"Christmas has gone mad. British customers have become enormously price-sensitive; placing too much emphasis on cost and not enough on quality and taste," says Louisa Sheppy of Sheppy's Cider, near Taunton. "If traditional Christmas fare can be made and imported cheaper than English-made produce, then it seems to sell even if it is really a very poor relation, which is a problem for drink producers here because our emphasis is on quality."
The food miles inherent in our decision over what we drink rise considerably during December as our average monthly intake of alcohol increases by almost 50%. Whether it's cider, wine or beer, every import has a built-in number of food miles that raise our carbon footprint each time we choose them over a locally produced alternative.
According to Alan Walker of the Exeter branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), Somerset is blessed with enough locally produced beer for there to be no need to buy anything imported. "Somerset now has a total of 14 micro-breweries within its boundaries, so there is a great selection of locally brewed ales to sample around the county."
When it comes to Christmas, many local brewers make special brews such as Exmas from Exmoor Ales (they claim 'there's noale like it!') and Moor Beer Company's Nutty Niki, a cloudy, spiced, wheat beer - ideal for savouring around the fire after Christmas dinner. "Why buy something mass-produced and imported when you can have that instead?" says Alan.
Each year one hectare of Christmas trees will absorb six tonnes of carbon dioxide
The same is true of wine. Although, historically, the quality of English wine has been debatable, in recent years there has been something of a renaissance amongst wine producers in this country. "English wine has always had the potential to be good. Obviously the weather can be more of a problem for us compared to other regions, but this factor is becoming more variable everywhere. UK winemakers are becoming more experienced and professional too," says Hugh Trip of Pennard Organic Wines in Shepton Mallet. "We do hear more about English wine winning awards these days, so you can take that as a signal that it is getting better. It's definitely worth trying something produced locally rather than something flown in from miles away."
Whatever drink you buy, good quality, locally produced wines, beers, ciders and juices are available across the county, and each pint or glass you choose over an imported variety represents a significant saving in terms of carbon emissions.
A Recycled Christmas
"Here in Somerset, like the rest of the UK, waste definitely increases during the Christmas period," says Paul Chiplen, Waste Communications Officer with Somerset County Council. "I think that in general people have got a good idea of what can and can't be recycled, but we still run a Christmas campaign every year with press releases and radio adverts to spread the word, and our waste education team go into schools and do Christmas recycling workshops with the schoolchildren."
Part of this advice asks us, as consumers, not only to think about recycling our waste, such as plastic bottles, paper and cardboard, but also to think about the waste we accrue in the first place. You can do things such as avoiding goods which involve unnecessary packaging, particularly that made of plastic, which cannot be recycled. Another idea is to give someone an activity gift, such as tickets to a play or a voucher for a spa treatment, which would require no packaging at all.
During Christmas we also throw away a great deal of food, all of which ends up in landfill. If this waste is not composted it produces methane, a greenhouse gas considered more damaging than carbon dioxide.
According to Paul, "over a third of your bin can be composted. Materials that can go in your home compost bin include uncooked vegetable peelings, such as carrots, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, coffee grounds, and also tea bags and egg shells. You can also compost old flowers and any garden waste. All residents can get a subsidised compost bin through their Local Authority, and those people living in the SORT IT! areas (Taunton Deane, Mendip and South Somerset) are able to use their food waste collection service for the composting of all types of food waste, including cooked food, such as meat, bread and cheese."
"I don't understand why, in such environmentally sensitive times, anyone should be allowed to buy something that neither quickly degrades nor is produced in a remotely sustainable way," says Nick Hendy of Langford Lakes, in Wellington. "The only sensible claim artificial tree buyers make is that their purchases will last a lifetime. I quite agree, and more! They do last that long but not always acting as intended, more like many of our lifetimes in a landfill site, before nature finally wins the battle to recover its constituent parts. Its carbon footprint must be hefty considering it is likely to have been manufactured in China, before distribution all around the globe, usually by air."
Each year one hectare (21/2 acres) of Christmas trees will absorb six tonnes of carbon dioxide. There are 30,000 hectares (75,000 acres) of Christmas trees growing in the UK, which equates to 180,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. It is also the case that Christmas tree farms stabilise soil, protect water supplies and provide refuge for wildlife.
"Considering we grow and retail our trees, we talk in terms of 'food' yards rather than 'food' miles," says Nick. "So the environmentally responsible amongst us can enjoy our Christmas tree knowing we're supporting something that is having a positive environmental effect, as well as helping our individual carbon footprint." BY JIM KEOGHAN
Do you aim to make your Christmas greener? Share your ideas with other readers on the Forum.
Campaign for Real Ale
Tel 01727 867201
Tel 01823 400476
Pennard Organic Wines
Tel 01749 860393
(or contact your local authority)
Rumwell Farm Shop
Tel 01823 461599
Tel 01823 461233
Somerset Food Links
Tel 01458 241401