Here's a question for you. Who is the greatest Christmas villain?
Scrooge? The Grinch? Die Hard’s Hans Gruber? (It is a Christmas film)
The correct answer is... none of the above. I'm willing to argue that the greatest Christmas villain is...Santa.
Yes, you heard right. Forget Krampus, it's time we talked about the problem with Jolly Old St Nick.
Exhibit A is this plastic Santa. You can pick up tons of this cheap, badly made tat for peanuts at your local pound shop. The kids pestered us into getting it because it has flashing LEDs (which are amazing when you're 4 years old). I was surprised that it lasted even the few weeks until Christmas last year. Predictably, it's totally broken now.
So what's the trade-off for that two weeks of joy it brought us?
It's hard to see exactly what he's made out of, but it's probably a plastic called PVC. Most PVC isn't recycled because it's too tricky to sort and process; so when he ends up in landfill he could be around for hundreds or even a thousand years.
Think about that for a minute. If they had it then, depending on the type of plastic and where it ended up, William the Conqueror could have dumped this and it would still be around now.
Thanks to those LEDs, it's possible he won't make it to landfill. Maybe he'll end up with the up to 90% of electronic waste the UN estimates is shipped illegally to places like Ghana, Nigeria, China, Pakistan, India, and Vietnam. There he'll have the valuable metals ripped out for resale and the shell will be burned releasing toxic fumes.
Mountains of waste
Or maybe he'll somehow join the plastic waste littering the country or end up with the estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic that enters the ocean every year. This waste is already starting to cause a problem for wildlife across the world. The large pieces we see filling the stomachs of marine life and depicted swirling around in enormous ocean garbage patches are bad enough, but recently we've started to learn it's worse than we thought. Much of that plastic breaks down into toxic micro plastics then get absorbed into the food chain, creating an impact that we still don’t fully understand.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the Christmas season it's estimated that we generate something like 30% more waste than usual. According to recycling experts, WRAP, we produce 300,000 tonnes of card packaging alone at Christmas every year.
In the long run this extends to the more treasured gifts we receive. Think back to that pile of presents from last year. How many of them are still in use now?. How many will still be being used in five years? In ten? In fifteen? Let’s be generous and say it breaks after twenty years of faithful service that means it could still be around for centuries. That’s something like just 4% of its entire existence actually be being useful.
But it's not all bad news.
Let’s take another look at our Santa. He almost certainly came from one place and - spoiler alert - it’s not the North Pole. In fact it’s very likely that he actually came from the city of Yiwu in Western China.
You might not have heard of it, but you probably own something that was made there. It is estimated to produce 60% of the World’s Christmas decorations. And that’s just the Christmas section of Yiwu’s Futian (international trade) market.
The full size of the market is staggering. It is so large it is divided into 5 districts covering an area of 4 million square meters providing 62,000 booths where 100,000 suppliers exhibit 400,000 kinds of products.
All this is linked to the city’s incredible growth from a small town of just 5000 people in 1955 to a thriving city of 1.2 million people. (The Guardian have created a fascinating time lapse of the astonishing growth of some of China's largest cities). It’s a story being played out all across China as its economy has boomed. Work in the factories in places like Yiwu is part of the reason per capita income in China rose sharply from $200 in 1990 to $5000 in 2010. Working conditions can be poor but at the same time this change has lifted 500 million people out of extreme poverty, so that’s one thing we can partly thank Santa for.
Sadly, all of this has also come with a price paid by the local environment. Parts of China are routinely listed as having the worst pollution in the world and the country as whole is now responsible for 45% of the world’s coal consumption.
The better news is that the environment is an area that China appears to be starting to take more seriously. Tougher regulations are being introduced and enforced, they have set ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and are investing renewables like solar and wind.
Plastic and recycling
We should also take care to not make plastic out to only be a villain. It’s an incredibly flexible and useful material. In healthcare it provides sterile IV tubes, syringes and many other items that keep infection rates low. It also plays a major role in cutting food waste which is already a huge problem; remove plastic packaging at that gets even worse.
The durability of plastic can also be a good thing when it’s used correctly. Take my Lego collection that I’ve just handed on to my kids for example. A large part of that is now inspiring and entertaining its third generation; it’s practically a family heirloom.
Recycling rates are also better than they were. It the UK we’re up to around 40% of waste being recycled which is a lot better than the 12% back in 2001. There is room for improvement and we are a long way behind Germany’s 65%, but we’re making progress.
It’s also easy so see things in a binary plastic bad / natural materials good way. The reality is often more complicated because you have to look at the whole picture and make a judgement about which environmental impact is worse. Imagine this toy was made of cotton instead. Instinctively most of us would see it as the greener option, but that doesn’t take into account the larger amount of CO2 produced to manufacture it, use of finite water resources and the pesticides used to grow the cotton.
This little ornament has taken us on a global journey that Santa himself would be proud of. From my local high street, out over growing ocean garbage patches, into the e-waste processing centres of Africa and Asia and right into the sprawling Chinese manufacturing cities. This little lump of festive plastic has shown that the increased consumption at this time of year actually just highlights existing global forces that a putting unsustainable pressure on the environment all year round, but also revealed the way these same forces have lifted millions out of poverty. This challenge, of providing brighter futures for our growing global population without breaking our life support system, is probably one of the toughest and most important that we face.
Things are also improving on the environmental side, maybe not as fast as we’d like, but people are making progress on approaches that have fewer negative impacts on our planet.
So Santa is not totally responsible for the problems, has helped lift millions out of poverty and is cleaning up his act, but at the moment he’s still putting a lot of pressure on our environment. So in the meantime the answer as always is always the ‘3 Rs’:
- Reduce. Consider whether you need something in the first place or choose things that don’t require replacing as often.
- Reuse. Once something has come to the end of its life try to find a way to reuse it. For example using old jam jars for storage or upcycling old furniture into something new.
- Recycle: When the first two things aren’t an option try to recycling anything that you can.
As for my Santa, I've learned my lesson and I'll be trying hard to resist the pester power of my kids in the future. He's going to go on display in my office with a note explaining his dark side and unseen good deeds. That way I’m thinking of my 3 Rs and in this case I’ve settled on reuse. With a bit of luck, he’ll encourage visitors that see him to consider reducing waste by not buying more like him too.
Senior Communications Officer,
By vaidehi shah from Singapore - Litter on Singapore's ECP, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56641266
Electronic waste: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_waste#/media/File:Agbogbloshie.JPG