Commentary: Our holiday extravaganza has a huge carbon footprint
Yet there are simple steps to reduce our waste this holiday season, says George Jacobs.
SINGAPORE: The climate crisis is on our minds, now that the Madrid United Nations conference came up short. With a host of holidays on our doorstep, how can we enjoy the holidays and still do our fair share to address global heating?
Let’s start with one of the best parts of the holidays: Presents. With online shopping platforms like Lazada, AliExpress and Shopee, it has become even easier to experience the joy of giving. But will the recipient like our gift?
“If they don’t like the gift, they (or we) can always send it back,” we might tell ourselves. However, one reverse logistics company Optoro estimates that 2.5 billion kg of returned gifts received by retailers end up in the rubbish.
GIVE YOUR TIME
Instead of buying new products, there are so many low-carbon gift-giving choices, if only we bothered to look.
What about offering to enjoy an experience with gift recipients, such as a chance to play their favourite card or board game with us or to go with us to watch one of our many excellent local theatre companies?
In this hectic world, a gift of our time may be the best most valued present of all. If we do want to buy something, here are some climate-friendly ideas.
About 500 billion single-use plastic cups are used annually. That makes eco-friendly, reusable cups a gift that keeps on giving, and these cups come in an assortment of stylish colours and designs. Plus, places such as Starbucks offer discounts to customers who bring their own cups.
Thrift shops, such as those run by charities, including Salvation Army and MINDS, have pre-loved items looking for a new home, and the gift recipients will appreciate you thought so highly of them to believe they would appreciate a reused gift rather than worry their ego would be bruised unless they received something new.
SAY NO TO WRAPPING PAPER
After we’ve chosen or made a gift, we need to wrap it. In the UK alone, an estimated 50,000 carbon dioxide absorbing trees are chopped down for wrapping paper during the holiday season.
The old standby for green wrapping paper is to use old newspaper. To spice up this type of gift wrapping, add fallen leaves or other nature items.
Another alternative is to use a second present as the wrapping by putting presents inside towels, scarves, other clothing, and jars found at thrift shops. Yet another alternative is to use no wrapping at all.
Instead, organise a scavenger hunt by hiding the unwrapped presents with the recipients’ names on them and letting everyone search for their own and others’ presents.
Many people like to travel for the holidays. Reduced air travel is another area in which combating the climate crisis can open our eyes to alternative ways to enjoy holiday time together.
Rather than hopping on a plane and enduring long journeys in cramped cabins and long queues at customs to holiday in Iceland, South Africa or Korea, we can board a boat and in almost no time be enjoying nature, visiting a spa and tasting local delicacies in Batam and Bintan.
Or, even easier and quicker, we can try a staycation. About two-thirds of Singaporeans have staycationed at least once and demand for staycations has risen 15 per cent recently.
Sometimes, the happiest and most surprising discoveries lie right in our backyards, not far away on the other side of the world.
For example, how many of us have checked out the many Singapore heritage trails, such as the new one in Kallang, or tried the guided walks offered by NParks, VegThisCity and other providers?
Hundreds of local Meetup groups and local media have pages listing the huge variety of cultural, recreational and educational events available in Singapore, some of which are free of charge.
Here in Singapore we have easy access to a rainbow of cultures, from our local multiracial, multireligious society to the cosmopolitan array of peoples working and visiting here.
We can expand our horizons without boarding a climate-warming airplane by stepping outside our comfort zones and meeting people different from ourselves here in Singapore.
For example, many charities, such as the Singapore Children’s Society and ACRES, welcome volunteers.
The connection goes so much deeper and can be so much more fulfilling when we volunteer at home, because the relationship is not hello-and-goodbye; it can be ongoing, with all the travelling done in only a matter of minutes on public transport.
HIT PAUSE ON FASHION
Fashion presents more opportunities to respond to the climate crisis, while reveling in being unique in our holiday best.
With the advent of fast fashion – inexpensive clothing produced quickly to respond to the latest fashion trends – we are now buying and discarding more clothing more quickly.
A 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicted that by 2050, the world’s fashion industry could account for more than a fifth of our species’ carbon footprint.
It is ironic that while it is fashionable to walk around with intentional holes and tears in our jeans, at the same time, we feel we must throw away other items of clothing at the first sign of wear-and-tear.
Maybe we can start a new fashion trend using our Instagram and other social media. Let’s share pics of us wearing our shirts longer.
For example, even when a shirt collar begins to fray, we can savour its familiar look and comfortable feel for another year or more.
Plus, we can find colourful ways to do patches and other coverups, for example, by frequenting the local tailor and alteration shops found at wet markets.
RETHINK EATING MEAT
Last but not least, the centerpiece of many families’ holidays is the food. Here again, we can do our share to protect the earth for our younger generations to enjoy by tweaking the foods we enjoy so much.
Animal agriculture – using animals for food – has produced more CO2 emissions than the entire global transportation sector over the last 100 years.
Fortunately, we can increase our consumption of plant-based foods and, in the process, discovery a wide variety of new foods and flavours, using spices – curry, chili, ginger, cumin, and more – with tofu, tempeh, lentils and other alternatives to meat, eggs and dairy.
Many Singapore entrepreneurs are already engaged in recreating our favourite foods in climate-friendly ways.
For instance, Singapore startup TurtleTree Labs is developing cow’s milk without the cows. Another Singapore startup Karana makes plant-based meat from jackfruit.
It’s great to have many new foods to try at restaurants and to experiment with in our own kitchens.
Here is one more thing to celebrate for the holidays: The more recent Climate Change Public Perception Survey by the National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS) found that more people are now ready to make changes in response to the climate crisis.
In that spirit, let’s ring in 2020 and the Year of the Rat with progress towards a low-carbon future.
Dr George Jacobs is the outgoing president of the Centre for a Responsible Future.