Commentary: All I want this Christmas is an end to eco-friendly gifts
Metal straws or bamboo cutlery don’t move the needle on the waste problem, says CNA’s Erin Low.
SINGAPORE: Shopping for Christmas gifts? Please take my advice: Do not buy reusable straws. Or anything reusable, really.
My kitchen cabinets are spilling over with sustainable stuff: Glass tupperware, beeswax wraps, grocery bags and more.
Of metal straws, I have a silver one, a chrome blue one, a multicoloured one, and a golden one with a crook on top so it looks like a bendy straw – but because it can't actually bend, it always catches on my drawer whenever someone opens it.
To add to the clutter, each straw comes with a thin brush that can be slipped in to clean the inside. They resemble tiny toilet brushes but serve no other purpose.
I never use these reusable straws or their respective brushes. If I were artistically inclined, I would create a sculpture out of this junk and title it, The Last Straw. Or, Carbon Sucks.
It would be the centrepiece of my protest against cutlery-related virtue signalling.
GOOD INTENTIONS BEHIND TOTALLY IMPRACTICAL GIFTS
Friends and family might think these bits and bobs make great stocking stuffers. A little token to say they’re thinking of us this holiday season, complete with an Earth-friendly bent. Especially if they know you care to do little things like recycle or eat less meat.
The same thinking must go on at companies. Perhaps through corporate social responsibility initiatives, they’re building a BYO (bring your own) culture at the office and want their holiday gifts to be on-brand.
Last Christmas, my colleague passed me a bamboo cutlery set she got as a corporate gift, because she had already received many in previous years. Just like my assorted metal straws, I’ve never used it before.
Such magnanimity from our loved ones and work contacts has unintended consequences. We're now drowning with reusable paraphernalia.
If your intention is for your recipient to embark on a zero-waste lifestyle, what would they do with such excess? And if you’re giving these things in a bid to live more sustainably yourself – are you really making a difference, or are you contributing to the problem?
THE TRUTH ABOUT YOUR ECO-FRIENDLY PRESENTS
On the outside, sustainable, plastic-free wares make great presents. They are sleek and stylish, and when marketed as 100 per cent recycled or organic, fair-trade and so on, make consumers feel good about using them.
But are they actually better for the environment?
Nanyang Technological University scientists found that a cotton bag has more than 10 times the global warming potential of a reusable plastic bag, considering both are used 50 times. This is because growing cotton requires massive amounts of water and land.
Some studies even suggest you even have to use your cotton bag thousands of times before it’s more environmentally friendly than a single-use plastic bag.
In another example of drink containers, University of Southampton researchers say glass bottles might take a larger toll on the environment than plastic ones, because their production uses relatively more energy and resources. Recycled aluminium cans, in fact, have the smallest footprint.
It can be argued that anyone can cherry-pick studies demonstrating how “environmentally friendly” alternatives, which we tend to think refers to anything that isn’t plastic, might not be environmentally friendly at all.
So let’s talk about the practical day-to-day use of these products. Do zero-waste gifts actually eliminate waste?
While reusables were useful during the circuit breaker period from April to June 2020, when takeaways were the default, most households are probably now in possession of the whole range. Tote bags, tiffin carriers, tumblers and so on may no longer be practical gifts.
And the idea that they cut back on disposables during those tough months doesn’t really hold. National University of Singapore alumni found that an additional 1,334 tonnes of plastic waste – the mass of 92 double-decker buses – was generated during circuit breaker.
This is thanks to a 73 per cent rise in the number of food deliveries across surveyed households and a 50 per cent increase in online grocery purchases.
If the pandemic got us hooked on these online conveniences, then all the more our reusables collect dust, because everything’s showing up at our door swathed in at least two layers of packaging.
How do staggering 11.11 sales figures sit with a growing consciousness about waste and sustainability? We ask a marketing professor and Lazada's Chief Business Officer on Heart of the Matter:
SO WHAT SHOULD YOU GIVE THIS CHRISTMAS?
This is not to shut down efforts to slash single-use packaging from our lives, which makes up one-third of domestic waste in Singapore.
But with statistics like these, it’s quite clear that gifting metal straws or bamboo cutlery won’t move the needle on reducing waste and other harms done to the planet.
To believe otherwise will be to buy into what British writer George Monbiot terms “micro-consumerist bollocks”. As he wrote in his Guardian column on Oct 30: “We focus on ... tiny issues such as plastic straws and coffee cups, rather than the huge structural forces driving us towards catastrophe.”
So if our choice of tableware is distraction, rather than solution to a problem on a literal global scale, then what can we do?
Let’s not forget that beyond reusing, two other important principles of zero-waste are to refuse and reduce. Instead of showering people with metal straws, why not avoid straws altogether?
In my mind, straws are only permissible in bubble tea or milkshakes. If medically, you need a straw, then by all means go ahead.
So if we opt out of buying unnecessary things, then what should we give this Christmas?
Perhaps we could give our time instead of an item. In this attention economy, time is much more valuable than money anyway.
For the busy bees out there, carving out an evening for dinner might be even more challenging than buying cloth pouches en masse at the mall. Your friends will appreciate you all the more for doing the former.
And if a meal sounds too basic, how about an experience? Performing arts groups put on a lot of shows, Christmas-related or not, around the December holidays. Plus, you support the local arts scene, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.
These suggestions might reek of bourgeois post-materialism, but if we’re serious about conscious consumerism, the circular economy and whatever else invoked at sustainability forums, this is the simplest path to walk.
This Christmas, give those metal straws a pass, and instead, catch up with your loved one over a meal. If you’re doing takeaway, bonus points if you BYO.
Erin Low is Research Writer for the Commentary section. She also works on CNA podcasts Heart of the Matter and The Climate Conversations.