Technology & Science

A giftless Christmas? How some families are cutting waste one present at a time

Holiday celebrations generate a lot of trash. In their quest to reduce waste, some Canadian families are cutting back on more than just wrapping paper and disposable dishware — they’re also cutting back on presents.

Cutting back on gifts can lead to more fun, more meaningful and less stressful holiday, they say

According to Zero Waste Canada, the average Canadian family throws out 25 to 45 per cent more garbage over the holidays. In an effort to reduce waste, some Canadian families are cutting back on gifts. (Metro Vancouver)

Christmas celebrations generate a lot of trash. In their quest to reduce waste, some Canadian families are cutting back on more than just wrapping paper and disposable dishware — they're also cutting back on presents.

Those that do it say that's key to reducing waste. They acknowledge it's a challenge in a culture where Christmas is often about lavish buying and spending and can lead to conflicts with extended family. But they say it also comes with rewards — including a more fun, less stressful and more meaningful holiday.

According to the nonprofit group Zero Waste Canada, the average Canadian family throws out 25 to 45 per cent more garbage than usual over the holidays. 

Viviana Ramirez-Luna, the group's Newfoundland and Labrador representative, says the holidays are a good time to think about cutting back on waste because "everyone is in the mood of buying, giving, getting, receiving, and … buying is when we really need to stop and think."

People do their Christmas shopping at the Pentagon City Mall in Arlington, Va. Viviana Ramirez-Luna says that in order to reduce waste, the moment of purchase is when we need to think about whether we need something, whether there are alternatives and whether there's too much packaging. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

In order to reduce waste, she says, the moment of purchase is when we need to think about whether we need something, whether there are alternatives and whether there's too much packaging.

With that in mind, Ramirez-Luna, who lives in St. John's, avoids buying physical gifts for her own family, including her three-year-old son Nathan. 

"My husband keeps saying, 'What are we going to give him?' And I say, 'Nothing. He doesn't need anything.'"

Instead, she proposed giving her son a gift certificate to a trampoline park. 

Similarly, she has encouraged her extended family to give experiences. To her husband's family in Lewisporte, N.L., she gives gift certificates for workshops on making traditional foods, and to her own family in Colombia, she gives things like concert tickets. She has also convinced them to do a Secret Santa draw so each person only has to give a gift to one other person instead of buying gifts for everyone.

Second-hand gifts a growing trend

Josee Gauthier, right, poses with her husband Keke Glezil and their children, Kendji and Kedja. Gauthier doesn't buy gifts for the kids except for stocking stuffers and asks relatives to give them used toys and clothes as presents. (Submitted by Josee Gauthier)

Josée Gauthier of Earlton, Ont., doesn't buy gifts for her three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son, either — just small stocking stuffers. For other relatives, she wraps gifts in reusable cloth rather than paper.

She's particularly concerned about the environmental impact of plastic waste. As soon as her daughter was born, she told her family she won't accept plastic toys as gifts unless they were second-hand, and also preferred her children's clothing to be used.

Her family told her she was being complicated.

"They didn't like the idea," she said. 

They've since managed to figure it out and have come around to buying second-hand gifts.

"They make that effort to make me happy."

Right now, her kids don't know the difference between new and previously-owned presents. As they get older, she says, she hopes they will see second-hand gifts as normal.

In Vancouver, Jinny Yun, a self-described former shopaholic, echoes the idea that the key to reducing waste is buying less, and is also a proponent of buying second-hand.

"Not buying new helps reduce packaging," she said.

She adds that she often buys second-hand gifts for friends, and they don't mind.

Yun and Gauthier are actually part of a growing trend. A recent online survey by the business consulting firm Deloitte found that of 1,200 adults surveyed, 27 per cent planned to give resale gifts, including 61 per cent of Gen Z respondents (aged 18-22) and 43 per cent of millennials (aged 38 and under). Most said it was to save money (50 per cent), but 13 per cent cited environmental concerns.

Some pressure and pushback

Yun also advocates for homemade gifts. She makes natural deodorants from ingredients, such as coconut oil and arrowroot powder, and her young daughters, Emily and Alice, make biodegradable Christmas decorations with cookie cutters using a dough made from flour, water and salt.

"It's fun doing this," Yun said. "And it's nice for someone to receive a gift like this because it's homemade.… It's a more meaningful gift than buying new things at the store."

Jinny Yun makes homemade, biodegradable Christmas decorations with her two daughters and her husband Joel Massey. She says homemade gifts are more meaningful than ones purchased at a store. (CBC)

In spite of the benefits, no one interviewed for this story thought giving less or cutting back on gifts is an idea that's starting to take off. In fact, most felt some pressure and pushback from their families.

Gauthier recommends starting by suggesting small changes to traditions: "You really have to take baby steps.… Then if they're on board and they're willing to make bigger changes, that conversation can happen."

Ramirez-Luna says she accepts that given all the pressure of consumer culture, some family members won't take any of the greener options she suggests. 

"The holidays is just a time when people go crazy about buying, and they love giving things and seeing the faces of people receiving things," she said. "If they decide to give stuff, I'm fine with it.… I've done everything in my hands."

But both Ramirez Luna and Gauthier say buying fewer gifts can make the holidays more meaningful and enjoyable.

"We change our focus to something different — spending time together, doing things together," Ramirez-Luna said.

Gauthier added that she thinks receiving one thoughtful gift can have a bigger impact than getting 10.

Other ideas for greener gifting

Living Green Barrie demonstrated how to wrap gifts with cloth, newspaper or scrap paper to reduce Christmas waste. (CBC)

Of course, one other obvious positive impact of buying fewer gifts is saving money — a benefit highlighted at a recent public workshop in Barrie, Ont., about reducing waste over the holidays. The workshop, given by the local nonprofit group Living Green Barrie, offered suggestions like:

  • Having a cookie or book exchange instead of a gift exchange.

  • Exchanging services instead of things.

  • Giving reusable items that can reduce the use of single-use items, such as straws, water bottles and beeswax wraps.

The workshop also shared suggestions about how to get other family members on board.

The ideas for alternatives to traditional gift giving resonated with Alexa Pompilio, one of the attendees.

"I think the holidays can be pretty stressful with trying to find the perfect gift for someone," she said. "By incorporating more eco-friendly gifts into your Christmas traditions, I think that can cut down on stress."

Sarah Herr, one of the workshop facilitators, said making holiday traditions less wasteful can also reduce the eco-anxiety that many people feel these days: "It's giving back power to the individual, letting them know they can make a difference."

With files from Chris O'Neill-Yates

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