5 Steps to a Zero Waste Christmas
I’d never noticed garbage before, but once I plunged into the zero waste universe I started noticing. The piles of packaging tell the story of a birthday party, new laminate furniture or an Amazon Prime habit. You can tell by looking out the window on garbage day that Christmas just happened. Growing up I have memories of dividing the goods from the garbage and the garbage pile always dwarfed the good stuff.
It’s a favorite American holiday and despite what people think, it’s hardly a religious one (citation), instead it’s a ritual of consumption.
We’re trained from birth to consume. The average American will spend $1,000 this year on Christmas (citation). And while I couldn’t find statistics about debt and Christmas in the US, 33% of Britons go into debt to pay for Christmas (citation) – a rate that could be higher in the US.
I used to teach my kids how to consume also. When they first started doing chores we gave them a quarter per chore and then allowed them to save up and buy things at Walmart. I was so proud of this system – my kids deeply understood the value of money. They would ask how much something cost – like a lego set, and their eyes would get wide with surprise at how expensive they were. Then they would diligently save up and purchase it and come home with their spoils like they’d just accomplished something really fantastic. It was something I thought I had done right as a parent.
Then we watched Minimalism and I realized we were on the wrong treadmill. The kids were saving up to buy junk – even if they were buying legos (arguably not junk) it was more than they needed. I was spending a lot of time picking up, throwing out, or getting rid of toys they didn’t play with. Toys they spent months saving up for were getting tossed aside. Our house was filling up, and we were paying Walmart to do it.
We abruptly stopped allowance, something I never thought we would do. It was a drastic measure and they weren’t thrilled, but they understood that they did have a lot of stuff and yes they really would love to go snow tubing.
On having enough
I want my kids to understand the value of money but here is what I don’t want – I don’t want them to buy anything because they don’t need anything. Even this Christmas as I think about small things to get them, I hesitate because it feels a little like throwing money away.
This idea that consumption has gone off the deep end creates a huge dilemma for the average American who grew up with a tree full of presents on Christmas morning. Culturally it’s a requirement of the quintessential American childhood – you either have joyful memories of sleepness nights anticipating the game boy you were going to get the next morning, or you have negative memories of the presents you didn’t get because your family didn’t have the money, or you have stories of how some nice family gave you gifts on Christmas because you weren’t going to have any otherwise.
Entire organizations are based on this idea of giving gifts at Christmas. For example, Angel Tree who’s motto is no child should be forgotten at Christmas and Operation Christmas Child who’s motto is share God’s love with a child this Christmas.
Going off the Christmas deep end
I’m not dissing Christmas. I love Christmas. We have a tree and I give my kids presents and I’m looking forward to spending the day eating and present opening with my family. But I would like to suggest that it’s run away from us. Far have we strayed from the giving of oranges and chocolates into a world of bigger and more all the time. When does it stop? When do we say that our kids have enough toys and we want to take them to the library instead?
Last year, for the first time, we kept it small. And I mean really small. We had little gifts for them and then a promised activity per month. Some were big things – like going rock climbing at RocVentures, but some things were small, like decorating sugar cookies or going on a hike. They got it. They all got it – even the 3 year old. They understood that they have enough and they understood they don’t need more, and they understood that if we didn’t spend money on toys we would get to do fun stuff.
So what does this have to do with Zero Waste? The waste we produce is a product of what we consume, so if we consume less, we also produce less waste. So the first step in a zero waste Christmas is less stuff. Less of everything. Fewer toys means less packaging and less wrapping paper and the use of fewer resources.
The next step is to buy used. Used books, used clothes, used whatever. You may not be able to get away with this in some circumstances, but in many you certainly can. My kids totally expect to have used clothes (I also only buy used clothes for myself). I’ll sometimes buy used lego sets or used books, but recently I’ve even avoided books because we have an amazing library system and how many times do you really read a book anyway?
Experiences are the direction we’re heading. But if you do buy stuff, buy used when you can.
Use reusable cloth gift bags
And finally, the main zero waste thing after you’ve made these other two steps is to make or buy cloth gift bags. It takes two seconds to put your gift in the bag, you don’t have to throw anything out, and then you can reuse them every year. It avoids the giant bag of wrapping paper and saves money in the long run. I hate sewing but they were kind of fun to make (and I did a really shotty job). I think they look equally festive, or maybe more so since they make the Earth happy.
Create a treasure hunt
If you want to spread out your minimal gifts, kids also love finding hidden presents. My mom did this one year when she was strapped for cash and I loved it so much she continued it until I graduated high school. It prolongs the whole process and makes it much more special.
My kids are already talking about the “treasure hunt” and what activities they’re going to get this year. The lineup includes camping at Jellystone, a trip to Scotland, ice cream sundaes and go carting.
So to recap here are three steps to a zero waste Christmas:
– When you’re giving stuff, give less stuff
– Buy used
– Give experiences instead
– Hide gifts for kids so that it prolongs the process and creates a memorable experience
– Use reusable cloth gift bags
May you and your loved ones have a peaceful, minimal-consumption, zero waste Christmas!