Support journalism that lights the way through the climate crisis by June 3

Goal: $100k
$40,867

Canadians are fanatics when it comes to fun, garish, loud, ugly Christmas sweaters. We’re so spirited, we’re sure we started the global holiday fashion trend and even rope our pets into participating.

But bright comical jumpers festooned with reindeer, polar bears or penguins have a dark side when it comes to plastic pollution, particularly for ocean ecosystems.

There are loads of simple, fun, creative ways to maintain an obsession with hideous holiday wear and ease any guilt and impacts on the environment, said Charlie Cox, Ocean Wise’s microplastics solutions manager.

Most festive wear is made with problematic plastic synthetics, such as acrylic or polyester, derived from fossil fuels, Cox said. When U.K. charity Hubbub collected more than 100 different sweaters sourced from a mix of retailers, it found 95 per cent contained plastic materials.

When washed, these materials shed microfibres — a type of microplastic less than five millimetres in length — that evade waste water treatment systems and end up in the marine environment, posing serious danger to oceans, he said.

An average of 533 million microfibres are discharged from home laundry on a per household basis annually, according to Ocean Wise. The fibres are so pervasive, they are found in the most pristine environments, such as the Arctic Ocean, Cox said.

The microfibres are ingested by sea creatures at the base of the food chain, such as plankton, impacting their growth and development, he said. It means less food for animals that eat them, and it fuels plastics accumulation in larger species. Filter-feeding whales are likely eating 10 million microplastics on a daily basis.

But there are some solutions.

Washing your Christmas sweater (or any other clothes) on the gentle cycle can reduce microfibre shedding by approximately 70 per cent, a recent Ocean Wise study suggests.

Our bright comical Christmas jumpers have a dark side when it comes to ocean plastic pollution, but there are easy, creative ways to ease the impacts hideous holiday wear has on the environment, says Charlie Cox @OceanWise #UglyChristmasSweater

People can reduce their plastic footprint further by washing clothing less often and only when needed, using cold water and using front-loading washers, which tend to be more energy and water efficient.

But the greatest way to ensure a greener Christmas is to avoid buying a new sweater or any excess clothing at all, Cox said. Millions of new sweaters are bought each year, even though last year’s is still sitting in the closet.

“Wouldn’t it be great to have the same sweater you’ve worn for years and is tied to happy memories of the time you wore it to your office party or family Christmas?” he said.

“You’d really feel a connection to that item, have a story about it and value it, rather than discarding it when the holiday season’s over.”

Get the "Thriftmas" spirit

Charlie Cox, Ocean Wise’s microplastics solutions manager, shows off his festive and colourful second-hand jumper. Submitted photo

Celebrating “Thriftmas” is a great way to rein in Christmas consumerism and help people out, said Ted Troughton, managing director of national recycling operations for Salvation Army thrift stores.

“When you shop for the perfect ‘ugly’ Christmas sweater at the thrift store, you’re contributing to a greener Christmas,” Troughton said.

“Not only are you giving it a second chance to be reworn instead of being sent to a landfill, but it spreads holiday cheer to neighbours in need and generates funds which support local Salvation Army programs and services.”

It’s also cheaper and contributes to a circular economy, he added. The Sally Ann is one of the country’s largest clothing recyclers, diverting almost 80 million pounds of clothing and household items from landfills last year. The charity also provided nearly half a million dollars worth of free shopping vouchers to people who needed them.

Donations to the thrift stores drive Sally Ann’s operations, especially at Christmas, Troughton said.

“We’re in urgent need of donations across Canada, especially of winter clothing and everyday houseware items, to help care for neighbours in need through the colder months.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Keep reading