Many of us have received them: A snowman-shaped mug, fuzzy socks that will soon be pushed to the back of your dresser, earrings from Target that aren’t quite your style.
In other words, gifts that remind us that sometimes the holidays can encourage unnecessary consumption, said Brandi Hutton, Toward Zero Waste program assistant at Bellingham-based nonprofit Sustainable Connections.
“Every year you get one of those presents that someone was just reaching to get you. That stuff-y stuff,” Hutton said. “If you find yourself out shopping and just buying stuff-y stuff, you need to pause and say ‘Is this worth it?’”
For all the warmth and joy that the holidays can bring, they also encourage consumption, she said. And that has big impacts: Trash production in the U.S. increases by an estimated 25% between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, which equates to about one million extra tons of garbage per week, according to the National Environmental Education Foundation in Washington D.C.
Each year, U.S. residents discard about 38,000 miles of ribbon (more than enough to wrap around the planet), $11 billion worth of packing material and 15 million used Christmas trees.
Local waste haulers notice fluctuations in the types of materials discarded by Whatcom residents around the holidays. There’s a lot more compost, bottles and cans around Thanksgiving, as folks gather to share large meals, said Rodd Pemble, recycling manager at Sanitary Service Company, which serves more than 50,000 customers throughout the county.
Paper recycling shoots up around Christmas, Pemble said, as residents discard the boxes their gifts arrived in and throw away single-use wrapping paper. (Pemble notes that there is an increase in recycling waste around other holidays too, like the Fourth of July and Memorial Day.)
Just because much of this waste is compost and recycling doesn’t absolve it of its environmental impact — organic waste decomposition and the recycling process still produce greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change, according to the University of Colorado Boulder’s website.
Time for change
The message that excessive consumption is killing our home planet has been around for years, Hutton said, and she worries that while the problems of waste and climate change have only heightened, people have become numb to the importance of consuming less.
“It’s become old news for some people,” Hutton said. “That scares me a little.”
It can also be difficult for people to give up the traditions they grew up with, acknowledges Kate Stragis, executive director of Ragfinery, a Bellingham-based nonprofit retail store working to reduce textile waste. If your childhood holiday memories consist of giant piles of gifts in gleaming wrapping paper, then that’s what you might want to give your family as well.
But the world is different now, with the impacts of climate change becoming starker each year — think record-breaking heatwaves and smoky Augusts in areas that didn’t use to experience them. Adapting doesn’t necessarily mean giving the spirit of those traditions up, Stragis said.
“Keeping those things that give you those warm fuzzy feelings are important, but times are different now,” she said “If we want to live in a sustainable world, these are different traditions we can do that feel good in a lot of ways.”
Luckily, Bellingham and Whatcom County are filled with opportunities to celebrate the gift-giving spirit of the season while having a reduced impact on the planet, local waste reduction experts and advocates say.
Getting a greener gift
Bellingham is dense with secondhand stores that peddle all sorts of products worthy of gifting, said Delaney Skordal, community jobs training manager at The RE Store, a nonprofit building material reuse center in Bellingham.
Sure, you might need to start shopping a little earlier in the holiday season to find the right gift or shed the expectation of getting a certain someone a certain thing, Skordal said. But thrifting can often yield better gifts than your imagination could come up with.
“You might not find what you are looking for,” Skordal said. “Or you might find something that you didn’t know you were looking for that might be an even better gift.”
Thrifting has become trendier in recent years, said Jill MacIntyre Witt, a sustainability instructor at Western Washington University, but we still need to get rid of the stigma around gifting secondhand goods.
Shopping locally is deeply connected to shopping sustainably, said Hutton with Sustainable Connections. Shopping at businesses near you can reduce planet warming emissions from transportation. Plus, it means more money and jobs stay in Whatcom County: For every $100 spent at a locally owned business, $68 remains in the local economy, as opposed to $43 when it’s spent at a national chain, according to Sustainable Connections.
Hutton pushes back on the misconception that you can’t shop locally with the same ease you can shop online — many Whatcom businesses have online catalogs now, and you can either get gifts delivered or buy them online and pick them up at the store. (She recommends this as a good option to suggest to relatives who want to send you gifts from Amazon — ask them to order from a local store for you to pick up instead.)
The best, most sustainable gifts are the ones that go to use, Hutton said, which is why she loves giving gift cards so much. She recommends Sustainable Connection’s Think Local First gift card to Whatcom residents, which can be redeemed at more than 260 Whatcom retailers, restaurants, services and entertainment venues.
Sharing time, not things
At the end of the day, the motive behind giving a holiday gift is showing someone you care about them, Hutton said, and that’s what we should focus on in order to help the planet.
“Giving forward, getting into the spirit of generosity and compassion, is a great way to give without guilt and stress,” she said.
But as someone with children of her own, she acknowledges that it can be difficult to avoid purchasing material goods, particularly if a child has something specific on their list. But she has a simple tip for how parents can make the festivities last just as long with less gifts: Slow down.
“If the kid instantly wants to rip into that package, let them,” Hutton said. “Build that LEGO set with them. Stretch out the time with less stuff.”
If you’re concerned about sustainability this holiday season, you might be wondering not only how you can give low-waste gifts, but how you can receive them. It might feel awkward at first, but MacIntyre Witt, the Western sustainability instructor, recommends having kind, honest conversations with loved ones earlier rather than later.
“Change is difficult, change is hard, change is uncomfortable,” said MacIntyre Witt. “Say to loved ones ‘Let’s share things that we want and things that we don’t want.’”
She continued: “Be bold and brave. Stand up to consumer culture.”
Here are sustainable gift ideas from the Whatcom sustainability experts and advocates:
▪ Donate to a local nonprofit in the name of someone else.
▪ Bake or cook something. Better yet, offer someone a “subscription” — bring them a homemade food item (like a different-flavored pie) each month for a year.
▪ Shop secondhand. (If you’re shopping for clothing, Stragis at Ragfinery suggests letting people pick their own items, unless you are really confident that you know their style and size.)
▪ Use your artistic talents and make something, which is a sustainable option if you can repurpose other items as supplies. Some craft ideas include birdhouses, stuffed animals, paintings, a game or a knitted item.
▪ Grab a few used growlers from a secondhand store and give them with gift cards to local breweries or cider houses.
▪ Gift certificates to local restaurants or stores. If you want to accompany a gift card with a material item, find something small at a secondhand store that goes with the theme of the gift card. And remember that many stores allow you to reload gift cards, so don’t throw away that piece of plastic after you use the money on it.
▪ Give a fun experience, like concert tickets, cooking classes or the first month of a gym membership. Hutton at Sustainable Connections received a gift card for a haircut last year — a real luxury, she said, since the gift giver included money for a tip and some extra salon services.
▪ Offer to fix or improve something your loved one already owns. For example, repair that broken shelf or paint an item of clothing they already own (asking first, of course!).
▪ Dedicate a time to spend with a loved one. Go on a hike together or take them out to lunch once a month.
▪ Provide a service. Promise to give them two hours of gardening help or childcare every weekend for a certain period of time, for example.
▪ If you have young children, swap unwanted toys with other parents. You’ll have something to wrap, but it won’t require additional resources and will save you money.
▪ Purchase a craft made from a local artist who upcycles or reuses materials to create their art. Ragfinery sells upcycled crafts.
▪ Is it time to wrap the presents yet? Use old newspaper, paper bags or fabric — you can browse the internet for inspiration on how to make it look festive.