Live Net Zero: Decking the halls sustainably

In their final challenge, the five Live Net Zero families modified their holiday habits with the goal of living net zero 

  • Dec 23, 2022
  • 1,259 words
  • 6 minutes
Andrea Loewen-Nair transports a Christmas tree on the family’s cargo e-bike.
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Festive music, cozy drinks, glittering lights and happy reunions: Though the holidays are a much-anticipated time of the year for many, they can also be a time of increased carbon emissions. The aviation industry accounts for more than two per cent of global energy-related CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion, which has an amplified effect on global warming as aviation occurs higher in the atmosphere. In addition, gift-giving can have an outsized impact on your carbon footprint, with production, packaging and shipping contributing to increased emissions across the supply chain. 

That’s why, for Live Net Zero’s fifth and final challenge, Canadian Geographic challenged our participating families to take a greener approach to the holidays, from gift-giving to card-making to food preparation. 

The Richmond Family

Christmas cards are an important tradition for the Richmond family, so this year they recycled old cards into handmade creations.
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The Richmonds love their Christmas cards — making them, sending them, receiving them. It’s an important yearly tradition for the Alberta family. “There’s this warm, twinkly kind of feel to it,” Ania Richmond explains, adding physical cards convey an intimacy that e-cards fail to express. “I still pull out cards from my dad, who’s now passed away, from 15, 20, 30 years ago. There’s just something really sentimental and powerful [about it].”

Though the Richmonds decided physical Christmas cards were not something they wanted to let go of, they were conscious of the waste. With the goal of living net zero in mind, they struck a balance: recycling old cards the family didn’t intend on keeping. Armed with glue sticks, markers and scissors, Ania and her kids spent an afternoon gluing cut-out Christmas trees, reindeers and Santa Clauses on top of old cards. By recycling what would have been tossed in the trash, the Richmonds were able to adjust their holiday habits to make them more sustainable. 

As in the Thanksgiving challenge, the family is also focusing on their food-related emissions. Wigilia, the traditional Christmas Eve dinner in Poland, has been a long-standing tradition in Ania’s family. However, the 12-course feast is a very carbon-intensive meal, with many of the components, such as fish and beets, imported from Poland. To modify this traditional meal to make it more sustainable, the Richmonds will steer clear of imported food and will instead buy ingredients from their local farmer or opt for more local fish such as salmon. 

The Pistor Family

The Pistor family is minimizing the use of wrapping paper this holiday season and, where possible, gifting experiences rather than things.
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Conscious gift-giving was a big area of focus for the Pistors in this challenge. As Canada’s retail sector is responsible for an estimated 10.5 per cent of our country’s greenhouse gas emissions, the Pistors knew they needed to shift the way they gift. 

One way they’ve approached this goal is by giving experiences rather than physical items. The Pistor kids have their birthdays in November and December, so they were treated to a Disney on Ice evening. The girls loved their night out, so Jen Pistor says the family is looking to give other family members experiences as well, for example gift cards to local attractions. Not only do these kinds of presents typically involve fewer emissions, but they provide an opportunity for loved ones to spend quality time with one another. 

Second-hand gifts are another way the Pistors are approaching their gift-giving this season. The family hit their local thrift stores and second-hand boutiques in search of pre-loved items waiting to be brought to new homes. By doing so, they are extending an item’s lifecycle by spreading out its production footprint over a longer period and delaying the introduction of a new footprint for a new item. 

The Lai Family

The Lai family is sticking close to home this holiday season and enjoying local activities. They’re also cutting down on wrapping paper waste by re-using bags they’ve accumulated over the year.
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Recipients of presents from the Lai family this year might find themselves opening a paper bag from Chatime. That’s because the family is cutting back on wasteful wrapping this holiday season. 

Instead of purchasing brand-new gift wrap, the family is reusing any and all bags they’ve accumulated over the years, and are repurposing recycled craft paper that their young son, Nathan, has decorated. By doing so, the family is extending the life of material they already own, instead of sending it straight to a landfill. After all, about 540,000 tonnes of waste is generated from gift wrapping and shopping bags in Canada alone – the equivalent to the weight of 100,000 elephants or 4.5 CN Towers, according to a 2017 study from Zero Waste Canada

Following Live Net Zero’s first challenge and learning just how much commuting contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, the Lais are also making a conscious effort to celebrate the holidays locally this season. In Stouffville, Ont., where they live, there are countless activities for families to enjoy, including a holiday market. The family of three recently enjoyed a festive night filled with vendors, photos with Santa, food and beverages, and live performances. 

The Leung Family

The Leung family opted for homemade gifts this year, including epsom salts and rosemary harvested from their garden.
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The Leungs are getting creative for Christmas. Instead of only purchasing new items to gift to loved ones, the family is gathering what they already own to assemble homemade presents. From epsom salts with essential oils packaged in reusable glass jars, to rosemary picked from their home garden, the family of four found many unique ways to give this holiday season

Like the other families, the Leungs also made a significant effort to cut back on wrapping paper, instead opting for cloth bags, mesh pouches, tin cans and beeswax paper. 

For many families, it’s difficult to imagine Christmas without a tree. Although the Leungs started out purchasing real trees when they first moved into their home, they were given an artificial tree about 13 years ago and have since stuck with it. However, John Leung acknowledges the former is more environmentally friendly, as real trees are 100 per cent biodegradable, while artificial trees cannot be recycled and require large amounts of fossil fuels to be transported from factories overseas. Despite this, John says he knows getting rid of an artificial tree while it is still perfectly usable would only add more trash to landfills. Instead, the family will continue to use what they already own.

The Loewen-Nair Family

Semblables à la famille Pistor, les Loewen-Nair offrent des expériences cette année.
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The big takeaway from the holiday challenge for the Loewen-Nair family was that “reduce” is the word of the day. “We discovered the majority of wrapping paper goes in the garbage so we are not going to buy any wrapping paper,” says Andrea Loewen-Nair. Instead, the family is wrapping their gifts in reusable gift bags or brown paper with a tiny bit of masking tape and string. A tip to identify if your wrapping paper is recyclable? Do the scrunch test, Andrea says. If you scrunch it but the paper goes flat again, it’s garbage.

The family will also have fewer items to wrap in the first place as they are focused on gifting each other experiences rather than physical items. Like the Pistors’ Disney on Ice evening, the Loewen-Nairs will enjoy a night out watching Hamilton

Ultimately, the family proved that anything is possible when you’re committed to living net zero — including fitting an eight-foot Christmas tree on a cargo e-bike and transporting it all the way home. They will likely not have to make a second trip next year, though, as they will be investing in a potted tree – one of the most sustainable ways to decorate your home for Christmas


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