8 zero waste gift-giving suggestions for the holidays

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Did you know that Canadians throw out about 540,000 tonnes of wrapping paper and gift bags each year?

This is equivalent to the weight of 100,000 elephants!

Zero Waste Canada, a Vancouver-based advocacy group, estimates that each Canadian tosses about 50 kilograms of garbage over the holidays, 25 percent more than the rest of the year (How much Christmas wrapping paper, tape and gift bags do Canadians throw out each year?). This includes 3,000 tonnes of foil, 2.6 billion Christmas cards and six million rolls of tape.

What’s worse is that a bulk of this garbage are non-recyclable waste, like wrapping paper and gift bags. These are dumped in landfills or shipped overseas. A percentage of the trash is burned (in the landfills), or end up polluting the ocean.

Waste and pollution are bad news. So why not start an earthy-friendly tradition this year?

Gift-giving without waste:

  1. Plan ahead

    Be organized about gift-giving and shopping. Make a list, start shopping early, or do it gradually. Last minute shopping often results in producing more waste. When you’re in a rush, you buy unplanned gifts that could end up just being thrown away. It’s not only wasteful, it can also cost you more.

  2. Shop wisely

    We generate trash even before we start wrapping gifts. Avoid this by bringing reusable bags when shopping. Don’t buy items with tons of unnecessary packaging like decorative plastic cases (that will be discarded anyway), bubble wrap (unless the gift is fragile), foil wrap, etc. When buying shoes, I’ve started leaving behind the shoebox in the store opting instead to put them in the cloth bags they sometimes come with. Otherwise, you can just put them in your reusable bag.

  3. Creative gift-wrapping

    Think of innovative ways that don’t use wrapping paper, boxes, ribbons, bows and tape. Some examples:

    • Use fabric or cloth gift bags.
    • Use biodegradeable or reusable containers like bottles and jars. These are great for food gifts like jams or for body care products like lotions. Mesh bags can be used for almost any type of gift. They look great too!
    • Wrap gifts inside another gift. For example, a perfume bottle inside a colourful scarf, t-shirts in a knapsack, or cooking or baking utensils wrapped in tea towels.
    • If you really must use wrapping paper, get those that are made of recycled paper.
  4. It’s the thought that counts!

    Although Christmas cards can generally be recycled, those that have glitter (by the way glitter harms marine life when they are washed into our water systems), glue, over-printed in foil or have 3D images are not. Why not send e-Cards instead? They’re free and they arrive immediately. Try Hallmark eCards or 123Greetings. If this seems impersonal to you, make sure that the Christmas cards you buy have simple designs and are made of recycled paper.

  5. Give the gift of experience

    Give gifts you don’t need to wrap:

    • Hosting a dinner or night out
    • Concert tickets or plane/vacation tickets
    • Music or arts lessons
    • Online magazine/newspaper or podcast subscriptions
    • Donating to a charity under the giftee’s name
  6. Go natural

    Make a statement and influence others to go natural and organic too. Give gifts of seeds, plants or bulbs or products that don’t produce any waste (like shampoo bars, reusable wipes, reusable straws and cutlery, water bottles, mugs and other eco-friendly products). Of course, edible homemade gifts like jams, sauces and preserves, as well as cakes and pastries (especially gluten-free ones for your gluten-intolerant friend) are extra thoughtful and will be appreciated.

  7. Get durable gifts

    Buy gifts that last a long time. High quality, durable gifts may cost more but you are assured that they won’t end up in the trash a few months after the holidays. And if you’re giving someone an appliance or gadget, consider adding rechargeable batteries to your gift.

  8. Know where it should go

    Put waste in the proper place. Use our suggested tool below (Community Resources). Putting waste in your recyclable bin adds to the work in recycling depots. Re-sorting trash trips up the system and limits the amount of materials that are accepted at a given time. Also, while you may decide not to use wrapping paper this year, others may not. If you receive heavily wrapped gifts, do you best not to damage the wrappers and ribbons. Fold them gently and store them for use next year.

Updated December 6, 2022.
Sources: 7 ways to reduce waste this holiday season, Ari Patel, Global News; Which bin does wrap go in? Winnipeg trash tips for the holidays, Timm Bruch, Global News; This is why Canadian waste keeps ending up in Asia, Christy Somos, CTV News; and How to make your Christmas more environmentally friendly, Sophia Harris, CBC. Accessed December 2, 2019.

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Community Resources

Don’t know what goes where? Go to this page: What goes where? Milo of the Water and Waste department will figure it out for you. Just write in the name of the item on the blank.

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