Over the past year, MrElaineous and I have been working to reduce our “wasteline”: we’ve cut out most single-use plastic from around the house and I would estimate we’ve managed to decrease our overall plastic usage by at least 80%. We are now approaching the most dangerous time of the year for both waste and waists: the Christmas holidays.
I’m afraid I can’t help if you’re looking for advice on how to avoid scoffing down the mince pies, but if you’re concerned about reducing waste, there are ways to avoid adding to the tsunami of brightly coloured paper, plastic, and other bits and bobs that are about to land on our doorstep.
After all, they say it’s the thought that counts when it comes to gift giving, but how much thought has really gone into many of the items that end up under the tree, in a stocking, or given at an office gift exchange? It feels like Christmas has become an excuse for just getting something—anything—that is vaguely appropriate. We have conflated quantity with caring and adopted the attitude that something is better than nothing.
How to combat this while still participating in holiday traditions? I think much of it boils down to shopping mindfully rather than on autopilot. It’s asking the questions, “How long will this gift last? Is it something the recipient actually needs or wants?” It’s looking at the packaging: can it be reused or recycled? It’s even going so far as to think about the disposal: is it the type of item that will break quickly and end up in a landfill before the end of January? Or was it built to last and could have a second life in a charity shop or on Freecycle? Does the gift even have to be tangible at all? After all, we are living in an increasingly dematerialised world as films, books, and music shed their physical presence to take up residence in the Cloud.
Some of this list is the same as in past years, but I have updated it with several different companies I’ve come across, as well as added a few new categories. Is your favourite wastefree product or idea missing (or is there a broken link or two)? Please let me know!
I have a confession to make: I love a nicely wrapped present. I love little details, like matching ribbons and gift tags. But there are so many ways of getting that same attention to detail without costing the earth.
- Newspapers and magazines: This is an old standby, and one that can be can help greatly reduce your Christmas budget as many papers can be acquired free.
- Maps: Old atlas pages are my favourite way of wrapping gifts. The paper quality is good enough to look quite smart, and you can even use cities or locations that are meaningful to the recipient (I told you I liked details!). These sheets are especially good for wrapping DVDs and books.
- Sheet music / books: Charity shops are a great source for both of these: old books of music and large tomes like dictionaries can be sacrificed for the greater good to wrap smaller packages.
- Scarf / tea towel: Wrapping something in a scarf or a tea towel allows you to give two presents in one.
- Gift bags: This saves wrapping awkward presents and, if you know the person well enough, you can ask to have the bag back afterwards and reuse it until it wears out. Another option would be to give a gift in a reusable tote bag that the recipient can then use.
- Glass bottles: This is a suggestion that I came across recently at an environmental event. Maybe a wine bottle with a printed certificate for a wine-tasting experience rolled up inside? Or something that can double as a vase when it’s done? Interesting jars and other containers can also house gifts; use a bit of tissue paper and twine to turn it into a Christmas cracker. This is great if you have small odd-shaped items to wrap, or perhaps want to fill a jar with the recipient’s favourite candy or baked good.
Regardless of what you decide to wrap with, it is always worth considering how packaging will be disposed of, and please keep in mind that gift wrap and greeting cards with foil and glitter usually can’t be recycled (and some of us loathe glitter with the fiery hatred of a thousand suns. You’ve been duly warned).
Yes, I have already started to buy and wrap Christmas gifts! The top photo shows pages from an old atlas used as gift wrap, with garden twine to tie them together (as an aside, you can guess what type of gift is inside by the city on the map … I told you I liked details!). From left to right on the bottom row: sheet music and a map, a tea towel used to wrap several gifts together, and a jar wrapped up like a Christmas cracker. Interested in a keepsake wooden gift tag? These are my designs and just contact me if you would like to order any.
FOR THOSE AIMING TO PALL (Plastic A Lot Less):
I see nothing wrong with using Christmas (or birthdays, anniversaries, or any gift-giving occasion) to promote a more sustainable lifestyle to family and friends. If you want to help your friends and family start down the path to less waste, then these gifts say “I’ve thought about you AND the planet”.
- Books: Blue Planet II highlighted the problem with plastics in the ocean, and the recent BBC documentary Drowning in Plastic has driven the point home even further. If you know someone who has expressed interest in reducing their own “wasteline”, there are a number of books now available to help them get started. Martin Dorey’s More. Plastic. What you can do to make a difference is good for those who are just starting to consider how to reduce plastic consumption, and his #2minutesolutions make it easy for anyone to participate. There is also How to Give Up Plastic by Will McCallum and Beth Terry’s Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.
- Cups: With 2.5 billion coffee cups disposed of every year in the UK, anything that can make a dent in this number is a big help. I like the cups by eCoffee: made from sustainable bamboo, they come in fun patterns (I’m partial to the William Morris designs), are incredibly lightweight, and are a great size for that morning cuppa. You could also consider getting a personalised mug or something a bit different through Redbubble (useful if your recipient is a fan of pop culture references). Looking for a bit extra? Fairtrade tea or coffee is a nice stocking filler, or a voucher to a friend or family member’s favourite café is a great way to reduce waste while letting them get exactly what they want.
A new brand I’ve come across this year is Huskup, which makes cups out of rice husks. For those who are local to Chippenham, Hall’s Emporium of Fancy Goods on New Road has a lovely eco selection that includes these cups.
- Water bottles: There are so many stylish reusable water bottles out there now that you are spoiled for choice: metal, BPA-free plastic, foldable … helping to avoid single-use plastics is a gift that benefits everyone.
- Kitchen: If you have a friend or family member who enjoys baking, cooking, or eating, there are a number of ways to cut down on plastic waste in the kitchen: reusable cutlery or straws, veggie bags, and beeswax wraps are just a few of the options available.
- Portable ashtray: If you know a smoker, this could be a great stocking gift. Cigarette filters are made from plastic and can take up to 10 years to degrade, leaching chemicals the entire time. Butts should be disposed of properly, not left on the ground, and these ashtrays can help.
FOR THOSE WITH—OR WITHOUT—A GREEN THUMB:
- I love the idea behind Seedball: native wildflower seeds are wrapped up in a bit of clay, chilli powder is used to keep the insects away, and compost to give the seeds a head start. They come packaged in a lovely tin that is perfect for a stocking, or buy one of the sets to give as a main present. Simply sow the seeds on the ground or stick a few balls in a pot to enjoy flowers throughout the year.
FOR THE EXPLORER:
- Giving experiences that can be used throughout the year is a great way to almost completely eliminate Christmas waste while also helping the recipient make lasting memories. You’ll have science on your side too: it’s been shown that people tend to gain greater happiness from experiences rather than things. To this end, consider giving an annual membership to the National Trust, English Heritage, or the British Museum (the latter is one of my favourite gifts to find under the tree!). Or think local: in our neck of the woods there’s Westonbirt Arboretum, Bristol Zoo, Bowood House, and Longleat. These types of things are perfect to print out and put in a glass bottle; if you’ll be opening gifts with the recipient, you’ll also get the pleasure of watching them trying to fish the certificate out!
FOR THE WILDLIFE LOVER:
- Gifts for the garden are the type that keep giving: bee houses, bat houses, bird feeders, and nest boxes help provide wildlife habitat and give the recipient something to watch out for during the year. Bonus points: help them install it! There’s also adopting an animal. Not for real, of course (dogs, cats, and guinea pigs are for life, not just Christmas), but through a charity such as the Wildlife Trusts. Seals, puffins, and red squirrels are all up for grabs, and most wildlife charities will offer something similar.
FOR THE HOUSE PROUD:
- I was introduced to Weaver Green’s products a few years ago and absolutely love that they have managed to turn recycled plastic bottles into stunning and stylish rugs, cushions, blankets, and handbags. The colours and designs are easy on the eyes, and despite being made from plastic the rugs are soft under foot. I can also vouch that the rugs clean up easy so they’re ideal in a kitchen or bathroom, and while I haven’t tried them outside, they are advertised as being versatile.
Or at least those whose taste buds you would like to tickle. Farm shops are a great source of local products, often with minimal plastic: jams and preserves, chutneys, exotic sauces, and honey all come in glass jars. You can also consider keeping your friends and family hydrated:
- Alcohol is a popular gift for a reason: most people seem to enjoy it. A bottle or three of your recipient’s favourite tipple could definitely put you in their good books for the New Year, and these are the type of gifts that gift bags were made for.
- For the teetotal, tea (or coffee) could be a good choice. If you know that they’ve made the switch to loose leaf tea, a refillable tea caddy with an interesting blend could hit the spot. Locally, I use the Bath Tea House Emporium to stock up. There are also various types of diffusers available (and yes, that’s a manatee, er, manatea), teapots, and plastic-free tea bags.
FOR THE BATHROOM:
I debated about whether to include this in the plastic-free section but it grew so long that I thought it deserved its own place on the list, especially as bath sets tend to be a popular Christmas gift (in the UK at least). Perhaps a DIY gift basket with a few new products and a loofah or flannel could replace the traditional plastic-encased sets?
- I have a colleague to thank for making me aware of the Funky Soap Shop, a London-based company that produces various lotions and potions in mostly plastic-free and refillable containers. Their olive oil and moringa moisturiser has become a fast favourite for both me and MrElaineous, and I love that they offer an eco-checkout option: the packaging is all recyclable. My only quibbles are that the online checkout feels a bit clunky and the capital letters do my eyes in, but stick with it—the products are lovely.
- There is also Herbfarmacy, who make an incredible collection of products that are organic, vegan, and cruelty free. I’m a fan of their calming face cream, but everything I’ve tried from them has been lovely (bonus: you end up smelling like a summer meadow). The only downsides are the price and the free samples they include in every order—they’re in plastic containers. However, they are at least the perfect size for travel so can be repurposed once you use the original product.
- A High Street staple in the UK, most of Lush’s products are in their distinctive black pots that can be returned to the shop for recycling. They also carry a selection of “naked” (i.e. packaging-free products) as well as offer knot wraps: scarf gift wrapping. And gift cards are also available if you can’t decide what your recipient will want (or what scents they can tolerate).
- Who Gives a Crap produce a range of forest-friendly toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels. I made the jump to WGAC this year, and it is a simple way to cut down on plastic while also supporting a company who is trying to improve the world one loo at a time. One of the most eye-opening books I’ve ever read was Rose George’s The Big Necessity. Quite simply it’s a book about toilets … and how nearly half of the world doesn’t have proper sanitation. The health and social problems this causes cannot be understated, which is why Who Gives a Crap and their promise to use half their profits build loos in developing countries caught my eye. As an extra bit of reusability, each roll comes wrapped in brightly coloured paper that can be used to wrap gifts (provided your recipient doesn’t mind a bit of WGAC branding).
- In addition to my passion for making the environment a better place, I am also a firm believer in gender equality. While culture is slowly (ever so slowly) changing, one place where we have more direct control is the toy box. Please consider the gifts you give your children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and any kids you shop for: do they perpetuate gender stereotypes? Chemistry sets, Legos, superheroes, and dinosaurs are not just for boys. Cooking, kitchens, cuddly toys, and crafts are not just for girls. While it’s important to consider if a gift is age appropriate, the gender of the recipient shouldn’t factor into your decision. When giving gifts to children in particular, a big question to consider is whether the item can easily be handed down or taken to a charity shop once it’s outgrown (in other words, try to avoid the plastic toys that break if you look at them the wrong way). In Chippenham, Hall’s Emporium of Fancy Goods has a great selection of children’s gifts. Please just consider breaking out of the pink-and-blue prison.
FOR THOSE WHO NEED TO RELAX:
- Vouchers to a local spa or beauty treatment are always welcome (at least in my household!). If you can support an independent business as well, then so much the better.
FOR THE READER:
- If you know that your intended recipient has a favourite magazine that they splurge on at the newsstand, consider giving them a 6- or 12-month subscription to it. Even less waste: can it be converted to a subscription that can be read on their tablet or eReader? One of the best gifts I ever received was an eReader and I am never without my Kindle. If you know what type of eReader your recipient has, vouchers for books are always welcome (hint, hint).
FOR THE MOVIE BUFF:
- There are so many ways to enjoy television programmes and films today, whether your recipient prefers watching from the comfort of home or wants a night out. You can purchase a gift card for Netflix, or consider a monthly or annual membership to the cinema through something like Odeon Limitless, Cineworld Unlimited, or Picturehouse (check which is closest to your friend or family member).
FOR THOSE WHO LIKE FUNKY FEET:
- A fashion for brightly coloured socks has swept across the nation over the past several years and you don’t have to look far to find fun socks made out of bamboo, silk, or even merino wool. If you want your gift to go twice as far, consider supporting Stand4Socks: each pattern helps support a different topic such as safe water, homelessness, and gender equality.
- I debated about including this because it’s slightly NSFW (not safe for work … or those who dislike swear words—you have been warned before you click on the link), but I stumbled across Blue Q socks and they made me giggle. The company also donates 1% of the profits it makes from their socks towards Doctors without Borders, so they’re rude with a heart of gold. Or at least bronze.
Still looking for that certain something?
- Gift Cards:
Maybe I’m jaded, but I think one of the reasons Christmas has gotten a bit out of hand is because people want the social media friendly image of a tree surrounded by piles of presents. A gift card in an envelope doesn’t make quite the same impression, but it almost completely reduces packaging waste, doesn’t take up space or need to be dusted, and in many cases lets the recipient choose exactly what they want. I understand wanting to give children something to open, but I would hope adults can get a bit of Christmas joy without the wrapping paper and bows.
Besides gifts of annual memberships, there are so many other days out that you can treat friends and family to, from hot air balloon rides to afternoon tea to a day at the races. Virgin and Woodmansterne offer packages, or you can put together your own custom surprise (MrElaineous is very good at this!).
- Learning: Whether blowing glass, sewing, or decorating cakes, there are enough how-to courses out there to tempt even the pickiest of recipients (chocolate making perhaps?). Just visit Google for the nearest class.
- Charity: The musical Avenue Q said it best: “When you help others, you can’t help helping yourself.” There are so many worthwhile charities that you can donate to in the name of your recipient. Besides the Adopt-an-Animal schemes already mentioned, you can have a tree or two planted by the Woodland Trust, purchase a goat (or chicken or school books) through Oxfam Unwrapped, or even subscribe someone to the Big Issue. Check out Guide Star to see how funds are spent.
- DIY: Don’t overlook making something yourself: if you have a bit of spare time and a favourite recipe, a homemade treat is always welcome. Or consider actual DIY—is there something that a friend or family member needs done around the house that you can help with?
And finally … I admit I’m a big fan of online shopping with regards to convenience, but when it comes to gifts I think shopping local as much as possible is a great way to help businesses within the community. And don’t overlook supporting independent artists at seasonal craft fairs. While I’m not doing much with my own products this year, there is bound to be something near you. (This also cuts down on unnecessary packaging waste; buying eco/plastic-free products that come swaddled in bubble wrap is a new bugbear of mine.)
For UK readers, the Bath Christmas Market is probably of the largest in the south, but Salisbury is also worth considering if you want to avoid the crowds. Also in Salisbury is the wonderful Fisherton Mill; I enjoyed visiting here during my summer trip, and it combines two things I love: beautiful handmade products and delicious cakes. And if you want to venture further afield, then I can also recommend Chester’s Christmas market: far fewer people than Bath but in an equally historic setting.
If you made it all the way to the end of this list: well done and thank you! Please don’t forget to drop me a line or share your thoughts on social media about products that worked well, those that didn’t, and new things you think should be added for next year.
Looking for other ways you can reduce your “wasteline”? Check out more on Off the Ground: