Dear Santa, Less Stuff Please

By Dawn McGregor 15 December, 2016

This Christmas CWR's McGregor highlights why we need less stuff but that doesn't mean no to presents

Old Arctic ice is the smallest it has been in 30 yrs; China issued an ice flooding warning for the Yellow River
A big issue with gifts is the packaging, which we then add to when sending around the world, leaving a trail of waste
Low recycling rates & increasing e-commerce purchases, like Singles' Day, mean waste & pollution are likely to grow

It’s been a good couple of years since I last wrote to Santa but I think it’s time to again. This time though, it’s not just to ask for presents but also to ask for less stuff… but aren’t those requests mutually exclusive? I don’t think so, read on to find out why.
Dear Santa,
I hope all is well though I do have concerns after reading that the old (perennial) sea ice in the Arctic is smaller than it has been in three decades. That can’t be good for the life at the North Pole, nor gift production.  China is also having some ice issues with a recent warning for ice flooding along the Yellow River. And I’m not sure if you caught it but actor Leonardo DiCaprio made a documentary exploring climate change “Before The Flood” – worth a watch.

Old sea ice in the Arctic is smaller than it has been in three decades
China is also having ice issues, with a recent ice flood warning for the Yellow River

Old Ice Comaprison
Now for the gift part. There are some items on my wishlist (who doesn’t like presents) but above all this year, I would like to ask for less stuff and less waste. Why? Our gifting culture and festive exuberance is contributing to environmental pollution including water contamination and plastic leaching into soil. On top of this, our highly connected world with impressive logistical networks means this pollution is reaching all corners of the planet. These gifts and connectedness are costing our natural resources and us.

Our gifting culture & festive exuberance is contributing to pollution

I have fond memories of ripping open wrapping paper to find out what it was hiding but as I grew older I noticed what happened to the wrapping paper after… it got thrown away.  Then there is also the packaging that the gift comes with – plastic, cardboard etc., which also got thrown away, leaving trails of waste. The packaging industry market value reached USD400 billion in 2012.
There is more. When we then send gifts/purchase gifts on e-commerce platforms, even more packaging is added as they travel around the world (sometimes also sent back as returns). This time maybe adding some bubble wrap and more cello-tape. Every Chinese person received/posted on average 10 packages a year in 2014. Nearly 14 billion courier packages were delivered across China, a 52% increase compared to 2013.

Tmall reported 657 million orders on this year’s Singles’ Day in China…
…think about all that packaging & transport, incl. bullet trains

But these numbers have likely increased with the popularity of China’s “Singles’ Day” – November 11th. This year online shoppers spent RMB10 billion in the first seven minutes after midnight on Alibiba’s Tmall shopping platform. In total Tmall reported more than 657 million orders with a total of more than RMB120 billion.
These orders are sent all across the country. This year around 1 billion parcels will be shipped by rail, double that of 2015. Some even on bullet trains that will stop at 505 cities for express delivery.

So what is all of this ‘costing’ us?
With low recycling rates the majority of packaging is ending up in landfills. In China, less than 20% of packaging waste is recycled. This rate differs for different packaging materials. Cello-tape is one of the trickiest with practically no recycling. Product returns amplify these waste issues. The average order return rate for China’s 2012 Singles’ day was 25%, according to the China Industry Research Network. Then there are water considerations.  The total water use of manufacturing paper packaging materials in China was 1.6 billion min 2012 – almost the same as Beijing’s municipal water use of over 20 million people in the same year.
The Oceans are also suffering with 8 million tonnes of plastic waste making its way into it every year, with an annual impact from pollution of ~USD13 billion.

Gifting isn’t bad Santa but the current ‘costs’ to our waters, landfills, soil & oceans need to change…
Less packaging & more recycling will help

I’m not saying that gifting is bad, Santa, just that these ‘costs’ seem too high and need to change. The key is to be more aware of the impact of gifts, which is easy to forget when ordering online so removed from the product or when one is caught up in the excitement of Christmas. There is no quick fix but some solutions are higher quality gifts and if possible less of them. And of course, less packaging and recycle as much as possible, including old gifts or items like smartphones with already high e-waste levels. As for the logistics, some retailers in the UK (Waitrose, John Lewis & others) are greening their deliveries this Christmas with new biomethane fuelled gas-powered trucks.
And if you’re in need of a helper Santa, China may be an option. The country is launching its nation-wide carbon trading market in 2017. Also, environmental inspection teams have been sent to seven more regions including Beijing, Hebei, Shanghai and Guangdong. After the last round of inspections more than 1,500 Chinese officials were called to account for major environmental problems.
So this festive season Santa, please help spread the word and hopefully there will be less stuff.

Further Reading

  • 5 Years On – Have We Made A Difference? – As China Water Risk turns five years old, Debra Tan reflects on its journey & milestones. Have we made a difference? What next for the coming five years?
  • Buying Electronics Can Pollute Our Future – This Christmas Hongqiao Liu wants you to think twice before buying that new electronic device as key rare earths & other critical raw materials are causing pollution in China. Companies also need to act & cut out built-in-obsolescence
  • Water In: Beer, Crisps & Chocolate – Food & drink help create a festive atmosphere in Christmas but how much water do they use? China Water Risk’s Woody Chan looks into the water footprints of beer, chocolate & crisps, the impact on China & potential solutions
  • Playing With Trees At Christmas – Trees can play a key role in protecting water.  With this is mind China Water Risk’s Hubert Thieriot tests out a new ‘toy’, the World Resources Institutue’s Global Forest Watch map, on China. See what he finds
  • Can APAC Lead In Adaptation Finance? – After attending two key climate conferences, including COP 22, CWR’s Hu shares why adaptation financing in APAC is crucial though it’s lagging and how the private sector can lead this effort
  • 8 Planet-Friendly Gifting Tips – Make this Christmas your best one yet for you but also the planet with China Water Risk’s McGregor & Thieriot’s 8 planet-friendly gift & lifestyle tips that Santa & Rudolph will approve of
  • Plastic Waste: The Vector For Change? – USD13billion is the annual cost of  impact of plastic pollution to our oceans. Doug Woodring, founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, shares challenges ahead and strategies for a plastics-free ocean
  • Unwrapping Packaging Water Risks – China’s paper packaging industry discharges wastewater similar to its entire coal industry. Explore the dirty secrets behind paper & plastic packaging with China Water Risk’s Feng Hu. Also, see how shifting consumer attitudes can bring about new innovations
  • Are You A Responsible Consumer? – With waste levels already sky high and set to grow China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor mulls over the challenges of being a responsible consumer from fashion to food to plastic. Be it as an individual or corporate, see what action you can take
  • 2015 State of Environment Report Review – China says overall environment quality has worsened in 2015 with groundwater deteriorating for the fifth year straight. It’s mixed news for rivers but lakes & reservoirs see marked improvement. Get the latest pollution status updates from the newly released 2015 State Of Environment Report
Dawn McGregor
Author: Dawn McGregor
Dawn leads CWR’s work to help corporates navigate increasingly disruptive & material risks from water & climate threats, as well as transitional risks in the supply chain arising from new regulations in China. Here, Dawn engages extensively with the global fashion industry delivering on-ground workshops in China to keynotes and strategic input at European HQs. She has written at length on the end of dirty and thirsty fast fashion and her report to overcome gaps between brands and manufacturers for a clean and circular future inspired the industry to create a new wastewater tool. Dawn also works closely with the property and tourism sectors where she not only conducts strategic assessments of their exposure but builds collective action toward resilience via closed door working groups and invite-only events. Having helped build CWR, Dawn is a frequent keynote, panellist & moderator at events, including being twice selected as the lead-rapporteur at World Water Week. Her articles are cited in various industry publications including the UN’s ‘World Without Water’. Dawn previously worked in a global investment bank assessing geo-political risk, crisis management and business resiliency. She was born and bred in Hong Kong and has lived in France, England, Singapore and Beijing.
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