‘Tis the season to Live Net Zero

In their final challenge, Canadian Geographic’s eight Live Net Zero families find ways to modify their holiday traditions to reduce household emissions

  • Dec 19, 2023
  • 1,876 words
  • 8 minutes
The Shannons sport matching Christmas PJs while sitting in front of their Christmas tree. (Photo courtesy the Shannon household)
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The holidays are a time for giving, from gifting thoughtful presents to prioritizing quality time with loved ones. Though it’s a joyous season filled with warmth, joy and cheer enveloped by sparkling lights, hearty meals and cozy evenings by the fireplace, it can often translate to increased carbon emissions.

This year, Canadian Geographic asked the eight competing Live Net Zero families to consider giving back to the planet by modifying their holiday habits to reduce their household carbon footprint. As the aviation industry has a significant impact on global emissions, accounting for two per cent of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion, the families considered ways to adjust their travel or gift-giving plans. 

From Alberta to Nova Scotia, the households explored effective ways to celebrate consciously. Here’s how they tackled their final challenge.

Baldev and Ameena Marsh took their grandparents to the aquarium to celebrate their grandmother’s 71st birthday. (Photo courtesy the Marsh household)
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Sustainable gift-giving

More than half a million tonnes of waste is generated from gift-wrapping and shopping bags every year in Canada, according to a 2017 study from Zero Waste Canada. To put that into perspective, that is equivalent to the weight of 100,000 elephants or 4.5 CN Towers. With these statistics in mind, all the Live Net Zero families decided to be more intentional with the gifts they gave this year – ones that minimize waste, have a long life cycle or are centred around experiences.

For example, the Marshes are approaching their gift-giving as an opportunity to create memories: Brandon has been gifted tickets to a Maple Leafs game and Nigel has been gifted a spa credit and tickets to a New Year’s Eve dinner and dance party. The Shannons have also embraced “service gifts,” which benefit local businesses, skilled professionals, and artists for years. For this challenge, the family curated a collection of creative and thoughtful gift ideas that embrace people’s various personalities and characteristics – from a cooking class for the food enthusiast to a personal trainer session for the fitness fanatic. “By choosing a service gift, you demonstrate that you truly see and understand the unique qualities that make your giftee special,” said the Shannons.

Meanwhile, the DePape-Rodrigues household is re-imagining gift-giving. The family has a longstanding tradition of exchanging donation gifts amongst adults, with family members being randomly selected to donate on behalf of another member. Each person then decides which non-profit they’d like the donation. “It’s a great way to support the incredible work of nonprofits and learn more about causes our loved ones care about,” said the family.

A focus on wrapping

The Live Net Zero families got creative for the gifts that require wrapping or packaging. One of the main points the MacInnis-Boudreau family is sticking to this holiday season is choosing reusable gift wrap. Though Ashley MacInnis says she loves wrapping gifts, she acknowledges that sparkly and shiny paper can’t be recycled and glittery gift wrap contains microplastics that end up in our oceans. With this in mind, the family opts for reusable gift bags, fabric wraps and brown Kraft paper with recycled ribbons wherever possible.

Natalie says soup mixes work great as gifts and are also convenient to have on hand for busy weeknights. “Mixes made in reusable jars are the gift that keeps giving,” she said. (Photo courtesy the Foreman household)
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Sara Foreman smiles next to jars of soup mix she and her mom, Natalie, assembled. (Photo courtesy the Foreman household)
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The Foremans are also exploring different ways to package presents. While at the grocery store, plastic tubes of pre-made soup mix caught Natalie Foreman’s eye. Remembering that her neighbour likes soup mixes and her daughter wanted to gift her teacher something healthier than cookie mix, the Foremans were inspired. Over a weekend, Natalie and her daughter, Sara, prepped mixes that they then packaged in reusable mason jars, placing the ingredients in layers to make them more aesthetically pleasing. Not only are plant-based mixes healthy for you, but they are also healthy for the planet as they have a lower carbon footprint. In addition, Natalie points out that receiving homemade gifts is more special for the recipient as it means someone has taken the time to make something just for you. “A gift from the heart [and] a healthy gift good for the heart,” she said.

The Proulx-Colls also found more environmentally friendly ways to package their gifts. Reusing grocery paper bags can do the trick for a simple wrapping job. To personalize it, you can also draw on them. Moreover, newspapers can make great gift wrap and are recyclable. If you want to steer clear of paper altogether, the family suggests using clothing that doesn’t fit anymore to tie the gifts. They say this method worked well and were motivated to try this alternative after discovering Canadians use a whopping six million rolls of tape during the holiday season.

Choosing your tree

It’s the classic Christmas debate: should you purchase a real or artificial tree? The overall consensus from experts is that real trees are better for the environment as most small-scale Christmas tree farms are inherently sustainable – harvesting only certain sections while allowing younger trees a chance to grow in roped-off sections. Once the holiday festivities are over, the trees can be given a second life, as many cities have organizations that take donated trees for conservation and habitat projects. Typically, for every tree sold, the National Christmas Tree Association says one to three seedlings are planted in its place.

Hugh and Aruthur sit with Bruce the Spruce, the Waddell-Shankland’s carbon-negative Christmas tree. (Photo courtesy the Waddell-Shankland household)
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It is true that artificial trees can last many years if they are well cared for and can have the same carbon impact as a real tree if you keep it for at least ten years. However, a hefty amount of carbon emissions is associated with producing and shipping these trees, and once they end up in a landfill, they can take hundreds of years to decompose. The Marsh family has always brought home a real Christmas tree for these reasons. To further reduce their household carbon footprint, the family uses reusable decor like meaningful, handmade ornaments and LED lights, which last longer and use less energy. 

There are other options for real trees beyond the classic ones you cut down at local farms. This year, the Waddell-Shanklands purchased a living tree in a pot with roots attached. The family of four has named their new carbon-negative Christmas tree Bruce the Spruce, and though it’s a small tree, it has a significant environmental impact. Every year, the family will bring Bruce inside during the holiday season and transplant him into the soil on their property once the festivities wrap up, growing with the family. Hugh and Arthur have also decorated the tree with homemade and locally made ornaments, and the tree’s lights are plugged into their smart power bar, which automatically shuts off at bedtime.

Holiday cooking

About 58 per cent of the food produced in Canada is wasted, costing Canadian households, on average, $1,766 in avoidable food loss. As the holiday season is a popular time for cooking and baking, from large family gatherings to festive afternoons with loved ones, there can be an even larger increase in uneaten food. In fact, household waste – including food – can increase by as much as 25 per cent around the holidays, according to non-profit Zero Waste Canada. 

The Foremans gave loved ones maple syrup they harvested in their backyard. (Photo courtesy The Foreman family)
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To make the gift “prettier,” the family made labels for their syrup bottles. (Photo courtesy The Foreman family)
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For the holiday challenge, Canadian Geographic asked the Live Net Zero families to explore ways to decrease the carbon emissions connected to the meals they consume. For the Proulx-Colls, revisiting their food footprint meant re-examining how to store fruits and vegetables properly to conserve them longer. Keeping them separate helps extend their life, as some fruits release ethylene gas that can spoil veggies. In addition, the Proulx-Colls make sure to hold off on washing their produce until right before they eat them. Meal planning is also a great way to ensure food waste is reduced, as cooking meals primarily according to what you already have in the fridge and freezer avoids extra food accumulating and potentially getting wasted. 

For the meals, the family also explored dishes with a smaller carbon footprint. As nuts and legumes have a far lower greenhouse gas emission count than animal-based food products, finding ways to incorporate them into meals, such as the Proulx-Coll family’s beluga lentil salad recipe, can help reduce one’s household carbon footprint. The Marsh family also embraced plant-based feasts, such as tofu mushroom curry, vegan eggplant parm, vegan chia gingerbread cookies and homemade hummus

Meanwhile, the Foremans harvested maple syrup from their backyard that they realized would make great presents. By gifting what they already have, the family reduced their carbon footprint and eliminated potential food waste in their household. 

Visiting loved ones 

Of course, the holiday season often includes visits with far-away family and friends. Many Canadians choose to fly across the country to be with loved ones, while others may travel internationally. But air travel is the discretionary action with the largest impact on your carbon footprint, with the International Energy Agency projecting aviation emissions from increasing passenger and cargo flights will reach 1,147 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030 under current climate change pledges – far above the cap of 783 million tonnes required to meet net-zero goals.

The Waddell-Shanklands got together with family for an early holiday celebration to avoid making two trips to Toronto in one month. (The Waddell-Shankland household)
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Because of this, some families decided to adjust their holiday travel plans. The Waddell-Shanklands, for example, had to travel to SickKids in Toronto as Hugh had his annual check-up for his liver condition. To minimize their carbon impact, the Windsor family took the train and combined the visit with an early holiday party with loved ones to avoid making multiple trips to Toronto for the holidays. 

Meanwhile, the Shannons would normally have to travel 5,574 kilometres – from B.C. to Ontario – to see their close family relatives for the holidays. Since a round trip from Vancouver to Toronto adds nearly 500 kilograms of carbon dioxide to one’s footprint, the Alberta family will instead be live-streaming their Christmas morning for their extended family. As a result, they will be reducing their carbon dioxide emissions by 7.95 metric tonnes, according to Sustainable Travel International

Finally, the Reid household has been thinking a lot about air travel and our choices to be with loved ones or go on vacation during the holidays. Last year, Jen and Steve travelled from Dundas, Ontario, to be with family in Vancouver, and the household often makes a few trips back and forth to Stratford over the holidays, which is less than a two-hour drive. This year, the Reids will be carpooling with other family members to reduce individual carbon emissions and have chosen not to fly to Vancouver. Instead, they will have a family getaway in Ellicottville, another two-hour drive from home. “For me, it feels irresponsible [to fly] during the climate crisis in which we find ourselves,” Jen Reid said. “I do know that I will occasionally fly for family reunions – love miles – but will offset my travel and will stay for a longer period of time.”


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