Snow crunches beneath your feet as you approach the house, balancing a warm pie and three gifts, trying not to slip on the ice. A beloved family member throws open the door before you have a chance to ring the bell, and suddenly the dark, cold night is transformed into a warm, welcoming space. You hand off your pie and untie your boots, savoring the spiced fragrance in the air. Hugs are given, warm drinks are imbibed, tasty tidbits are nibbled, gifts are opened, laughter fills the home.

This familiar, if somewhat romanticized, scene of a holiday gathering includes a few perhaps unexpected details: None of the gifts were store-bought. All of the decorations were homemade. The gift wrap was recycled.

Most years, we’re swept up into a frenzied whirlwind of Christmas gift shopping in the weeks – or, if you’re a raging procrastinator, the days – right before the big day arrives. And those gifts, which often trigger a rush of stress (“Did I get the right thing?” or “This is draining my bank account”) are usually store-bought, often made from materials that will be around for, well, forever. Gifts shipped from thousands of miles away. Gifts that may never get used.

The irony? Despite the frenzy and the stress, most people’s post-holiday reveries revolve more around their happiest memories than on the gifts they received.

So why worry about a part of the holiday that, in the grand scheme of things, may not really matter that much?

Don’t get me wrong: I love giving gifts. But it’s a bit of a conundrum when you’re trying to cut down on waste and consumption. And then it hit me: This is merely a creative challenge – and I love a good creative challenge.

Things to Consider

There is no denying that the internet has allowed gift-giving to unfold at the rate of a few mere clicks per second. In my family, for example, we even use an online Secret Santa gift exchange website where you can make lists of the things you want and then your “Santa” can buy it for you right there. Voila! You don’t even really have to think about it.

But I kind of like thinking about it.

Zero-waste gift-giving falls on pretty much the opposite end of the “effort” spectrum. But I find that the effort is totally worth it – and it gives you an extra warm, fuzzy feeling knowing that you did as little harm as possible in the process.

Ready to take the zero-waste plunge? Naturally, there are a slew of things to consider when you’re trying to reduce your waste and environmental impact.

Resources That Go Into Making the Product

An often-cited statistic suggests that nearly 80 percent of the environmental impact of a product takes place before it even hits the shelf. So when you find yourself at the intersection of “buying stuff” and reducing environmental impact, your best bet is probably to avoid purchasing anything at all. Your next best option? Buy secondhand.

Another consideration to take into account revolves around a seemingly simple question: What materials is the item made from? When shopping for a gift, look for things made from natural materials such as wood or cotton, or recyclable options such as glass or metal. Taking that one step further, ask yourself another question: What will happen to this gift when it’s tossed out? Will it decompose or will it sit in a landfill for 1,000 years?

It’s also important to think about quality. Sure, one product might be cheaper than another, but which one will stand the test of time? Many textile recyclers, for example, have said that clothing made today is of such low quality that items can’t be reused – even for rags. In short: Get the good stuff that will last.

Shipping

How far did this item have to travel before making its way to the perfect spot nestled under your Christmas tree? Shipping is a complex metric for many reasons, but it’s still not a bad idea to try to buy as local as you can. Not only will the product likely have burned less fuel to get to you, but you are also helping out a neighbor by shopping at their store.

When shopping online, some sites such as Etsy have ways to filter your results by location so that you can buy from local vendors.

Packaging

This is tough. It’s hard to even buy clementine oranges these days without an excessive amount of plastic packaging. But as you wander the aisles of a particular store, trying to decide between two gift ideas, you can break the tie by choosing the option with less packaging. It’s also not a bad idea to get familiar with the kinds of plastics that you can recycle in your area so that, if the only option is plastic, you at least know how to dispose of it.

One way to eliminate this consideration altogether is to buy secondhand, handmade or from a zero-waste store such as Tare Market in Minneapolis. I’ve also had good luck with reduced packaging when buying “green” products from Etsy, such as these reusable sponges, which tend to come in eco-friendly paper packaging.

And always remember to bring a reusable bag.

Gift Ideas

Now, the fun part! Let’s put on our creative problem-solving hats and figure out the perfect zero-waste gift for your loved one.

Give Experiences

I love giving experiences because: 1) They are not “stuff,” 2) they are about creating memories (which is really the goal, right?) 3) if appropriate, you can go along on the experience and spend time with your loved one, and 4) you actually get to experience the giftee enjoying a delightful new gift.

Ideas:
  • Memberships (to the zoo, a favorite theater, a museum, a CSA*)
  • Tickets (to a concert, dance performance, movie, sports event)
  • Classes (cooking classes, music lessons, Zumba classes)
  • Gift Cards (Think outside the box here: vouchers for AirBnB, salons, music downloads.)
  • Consumables (handmade food, sauces, drink mixers**)
  • Plants (bonus points if it’s a cutting from one of your favorites)
  • Donations (Try to discover their favorite charity and make a donation in their name. I would not advise giving to your favorite charity in their name. Some organizations offer thank-you gifts when you donate. If you still want to give your loved one a tangible object, this is a nice option.)

You can even take a page from my niece’s book and give “coupons.” Instead of free hugs, though, you might consider giving the little ones in your life “A day with your favorite aunt and uncle” (or, put another way for their parents, “A day without your kids”).

A membership to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is a great gift all year round

Make Something

The options are nearly endless here. If you’re not already a crafty person, consider paying an artistic friend to create something for you – that’s essentially two gifts in one! Or if you’ve always wanted to learn macramé or welding, this is a great excuse to take a class so that you can create something unique for your loved ones. Your local community education program is a great place to start looking for classes.

Personally, I love to make things. After all, while I toil away knitting or sewing or drawing or crocheting, I think about that person. When I give someone a handmade gift, it is imbued with countless memories and loving thoughts. As I’ve entered further into the zero-waste sphere, I find that I consider ways to create gifts using only the materials I already have – another creative challenge.

If you want to use this opportunity to help others enter the world of zero waste, you could make any number of things, including:

As a bonus, you can customize the fabric to your loved one’s tastes, hobbies, home color schemes, etc.

A knitted sleep sack for a new family member (cat for scale)

Buy Local

We are lucky in the Twin Cities – and in greater Minnesota – to have no shortage of craft fairs in December. This is a great opportunity to meet and support local makers and artisans while buying truly unique gifts.

Gift Wrap

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention some ideas for gift wrap. The bottom line: THERE IS NEVER A REASON TO BUY GIFT WRAP. Just look around your home and get creative:

  • A package wrapped in newsprint from a paper you were going to recycle anyway will look adorable with a bit of twine and a sprig of pine.
  • You can’t go wrong with “brown paper packages tied up with strings” (a paper grocery bag + twine).
  • You can even go the extra mile and make the wrapping part of the gift – a reusable bag or a handmade hanky.
  • And, if you’re a pack rat like me, you might just have a stack of tissue paper and gift bags you rescued from your cousin’s wedding shower that will last you for years.

As for gift tags (really not necessary, but if you insist), consider making seed paper. It’s homemade paper embedded with seeds that the recipient can plant in the spring.

The other thing to consider in this arena: After all the presents have been opened, be sure to either remove the tape and recycle the paper that can be recycled (glittery and foil paper are not recyclable) or save it for future gifts. Remember how your grandma used to do this? Let’s bring that tradition back.

Ready To Try?

What do you think? What are some of your creative solutions to reducing waste during the holidays? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

 

* You can also get things like Flowers, Art, and Bread in a “CSA” format. Try doing an internet search in your area to find more (I was able to find a flower CSA for my mom in our Central MN town of 2,000 people)
** Here’s a handy list of places in MN that carry bulk food. Just bring your own jars and stock up to make some zero-waste treats!

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Once upon a time, many people in Scandinavian communities dressed up in disguises and paid Halloween-esque holiday visits to their friends and neighbors in search of candy or alcohol. The tradition – called julebukking – persists in some Minnesota towns. Need to know more? We’ve got you covered. 

When Sears filed for bankruptcy and announced it would begin to close stores across the country in 2018, the news spurred a bittersweet rush of reverie that included the long-running holiday season catalog, the Sears Wish Book. In addition to pages filled with nostalgia, however, the Wish Book also pedaled products that would make us cringe in more modern times. Take one last look at the Sears Wish Book.