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    4 Ways to Give Without “Stuff”: Zero Waste Alternatives

    I always loved giving gifts. I loved picking something special out, wrapping it up pretty (I love curling ribbon), and then watching the giftee’s face light up with surprise and happiness.

    But now, in my quest to produce less waste, I’m anxious leading up to celebrations that involve gifts. The wrapping paper just means more trash. Amazon wish lists mean no more surprises. And of course, gifts typically just mean more stuff (and remember: I hate stuff).

    I started to hate celebrations AND tried ignoring requests for gift ideas for my birthday. I decided not to have a baby shower. I gave up buying gifts for my husband all together. I even tried to just avoided gift-giving events.

    Despite my best efforts, I still got gifts. And I was still buying stuff for other people, and therefore, still contributing to our culture of consumerism. All these well-intentioned gifts just led to more stress and plenty of guilt over being an environmental hypocrite.

    So my husband and I decided to teach by example, and we declared 2018 the Year of No Gifts, no stuff gifts, that is. We didn’t stop giving gifts, and we haven’t avoided any celebrations.

    But we are only giving “non-stuff” gifts. With friends and family spread out over many states, this wasn’t easy; it took a lot more time and energy. But we got to spend more quality time with family and friends, we added some great things to our bucket list through all our research, and there is less stuff rolling around in all our collective houses.

    Here are some categories of gifts we purchased along with some helpful hints to get you started.

    4 Ways to have a Zero Waste Holiday

    1. Activity: We purchased vouchers for art classes, amusement park passes, memberships, and even an extra add-on for my niece’s birthday party with all her friends. Determine your budget, think of hobbies, sports, and activities the recipient likes and then search the internet.

    Coupon deal sites (like groupon) are great for idea generation. Try searching with google maps if you don’t know the area or talk to friends and relatives that live there. Always check the fine print and details before buying.

    If you want it to be a surprise, stick with gift cards for on-going activities versus tickets to single day events. Check the class schedule to makes sure there is enough flexibility to let the giftee pick a time that works with their calendar (i.e. weekend and evening times for working parents). Check the expiration date. Consider buying enough for the recipient to bring a friend (or parent).

    2. Food: Who doesn’t love home-made food?!? If you aren’t a chef, try a mason jar recipe for pancakes, cookies, or soup mixes (and shop for the ingredients in a bulk department for extra green points). Olive oil stores are a great way to customize a hostess gift.

    Make sure its something special that the recipient can’t or doesn’t get very often. My dad loves chili, but my mom doesn’t make it. So we cooked a large crock pot of chili for his birthday dinner and then let him freeze the leftovers for another day.

    3. Quality Time: Plan a special day of quality time. If you don’t know what is on your giftee’s bucket list, pick something off your bucket list.

    It’s hard to make a surprise out of this type of gift, but in-person, undistracted, quality time can be a rare commodity these days. When my mom’s birthday came around, I was ready to give up on our year of no gifts. I was running out of time and had no good ideas. My husband remembered how she always talked about going to the Atlantic City Air Show. Coincidentally, it landed on her birthday this year. We offered to drive her and deal with all the logistics. Our whole family spent the day on the beach and we got to see a cool air show: memories that will last longer than any stuff we could buy.

    4. DIY: While homemade things or craft supplies aren’t exactly “non-stuff”, I give these types of gifts a pass because it teaches an activity or skill. In many cases, a craft project can also use upcycling allowing things to be turned into something new instead of being thrown out.

    Try making something yourself or helping to foster a skill your recipient might already love: building, sewing, crocheting, or knitting. I bought a beginner how to crochet kit one rainy day years ago and within an hour taught myself to crochet. I now make blankets, stuffed animals, sweaters, and costumes, among other things.

    As the season of giving is upon us, it’s very easy to make choices that counter own values in order to fulfill an obligation. Try changing the celebration and focus more on the people and less on the stuff.

    What non-stuff gifts have you given?




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    Dr. Chris Arnott

    About Dr. Chris Arnott

    Dr. Chris Arnott is a local environmental scientist who is passionate about zero-waste and sustainability. She has worked for government, academic, and non-profit organizations researching a variety of ecological issues and advocating for common sense environmental policies. Chris lives with her husband, her one-year old son, dog, two cats, and 2000+ worms (for vermicomposting) and enjoys traveling, playing volleyball, hiking/ backpacking, and flying trapeze/ circus acrobatics.

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