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Last Minute Sustainable Gift Ideas, What to do with Unwanted Gifts, & Christmas Tree Recycling

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

The holidays are upon us, and during the most consumerist time of year, I’m sharing tips on how to navigate this season while still minimizing your waste and impact.

It’s suggesed that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, the amount of trash produced in the United States increases by an estimated 25%. A lot of that waste comes from wrapping paper, ribbon, holiday cards, and used Christmas trees.

Although the holidays may look different for most of us this year, some things always stay the same. There’s no denying that gift-giving is a major focus during the holidays, and there are pressures to not only give the perfect gift, but to also love the gifts that you receive.

Some people take great joy in the act of giving and receiving gifts, and naturally know the best gifts to give their loved ones. While there are those of us who often struggle with finding the perfect gift.

Gift Ideas

When selecting gifts for your loved ones, I think the most important questions to ask yourself are, can they use this, and does it match their lifestyle?

By pondering on these questions, you should be able to determine if the gift is useful, or if it will be collecting dust in a couple of weeks.

If you’re short on time or ideas, there’s nothing wrong with giving a gift card. That’s often my go-to gift for the picky people in my life or those who already have everything.

If you’d prefer something more personal and are the crafty type, use those creative skills to make a practical gift. Something that can be used again and again, or a decor item that is an absolute style match, or even bake some tasty treats. This year I’m making soy wax candles in upcycled glass jars to give to a few friends.

If you want to buy something for the special folks in your life, of course I would recommend shopping woman of color owned businesses. Since there are only a few days left until Christmas and USPS is backed all the way, buying online isn’t really feasible. So if you can shop locally owned businesses, that’s also a great option. Some of my favorite gifts to buy from locally owned shops are plants, books, loose leaf tea, fair trade coffee, regional snacks, wine, and pretty anything from the farmers market, including jewelry, soap, and other handcrafted items.

Another great low waste gift that most people would enjoy are experiences. Last year, my husband and I were given tickets to go indoor skydiving, and we gave concert tickets to my mother in law.

With social distancing orders in place for the foreseeable future, options for in-person experiences may look a little different, but perhaps your loved ones could enjoy virtual dance or music lessons, a course about how to become an influencer, or a national parks yearly pass. Think about a hobby or interest that your loved one enjoys and plant a seed for it.

A gift that I’m really excited about giving more of this year, are sustainable products. For example, I’m giving my sister a reusable showercap so that she can ditch plastic showercaps.

My mother in law loves drinking tea, so I’m giving her a set of various loose leaf teas and a strainer to help her transition from tea bags.

For my friend who is a skincare junkie, I’m giving her some reusable cotton rounds and a few bars of natural soap.

These gifts are to help my family and friends see how easy and useful making sustainable swaps can be, and hopefully pique their interest to make more swaps. Think about something that your special someone uses often and find a sustainable swap.

One of the benefits that I see in this unprecedented holiday season is that there is less pressure to exchange gifts with people you don’t care about. No company holiday gatherings, no white elephant parties, no awkward obligations to share gifts with someone you barely have a relationship with. That alone will reduce the amount of wasted money, time, and influx of clutter in our homes.

Unwanted Gifts

Receiving gifts that you don’t particularly like or need, is just as common as gifting those items. To prevent awkward moments, it’s always best to have a wishlist ready when someone asks what you want - this goes for holidays and birthdays. I have folders in my internet browser and on Instagram for products that I eventually want to buy, so I’ll share a few of those items with whomever is asking.

Most people have no idea what to get us, and when put under pressure or in a time crunch, you could end up with something you wouldn’t have gotten for yourself.

You can also tell your family and friends that you don’t want anything, but some people don’t understand that decision, so it’s probably best to give them a few ideas rather than ending up with something useless.

If you do indeed receive a gift that isn’t useful for you, girl, I feel for you.

Recently, someone I’m close to bought me some body wash and lotion from bath & body works, as a thinking of you gift, no special occasion.

I of course thanked her for thinking of me in that moment, but told her that next time, she didn’t have to buy me anything. I also explained that I’ve been using natural soaps and moisturizers because of the chemicals in products like this. I told her I would keep it and use it, and again emphasized that it was appreciated, but wasn’t necessary.

I could tell that she was a little offended, and I felt so bad for not being excited about it like she was, but I don’t want her to waste her money on something that I won’t thoroughly enjoy.

Maybe that was harsh, but she knows I’m on a sustainable journey and we’ve talked about beauty products before, so it wasn’t completely out of the blue. I wouldn’t react that way with every unwanted gift.

So if you receive a gift that just absolutely will not work for you, there are a few options other than chucking it in the trash after faking a smile. Ideally, a gift receipt is included, so that way you can exchange the item for something that would suit you better.

If that’s not possible, perhaps it can be upcycled into something more useful for you. If that doesn’t work, a good old re-gift might do the job. Just make sure it’s going to a home that truly needs it. You don’t want to burden someone else with the task of removal.

If you want to make a quick buck, try selling it on a local Facebook group, eBay, or a secondhand shop (online or local). If all else fails, I guess you can donate it to Goodwill. ;p

As with anything, being prepared and intentional when selecting gifts for loved ones and receiving gifts, can make the act of gift giving more enjoyable for everyone.

Gift Wrapping

Now when it comes to wrapping...there are so many fun ways to wrap a gift without traditional wrapping paper.

This year, I’m mainly going to be using recycled paper bags. I’ve been ordering grocery pick ups a lot and they use paper bags so I have an abundance of that to use up. Bound with a simple string of yarn and a sprig of pine from the tree, the wrapping is complete.

You could also upcycle those nice boxes, gift bags, and tote bags that you’ve been holding on to. Or if you have pieces of fabric or scarves you don’t mind parting with (or requesting back), you could wrap the gift in traditional Japanese Furoshiki style. There are probably several incognito wrapping utensils lying around your home - just be creative!

If you receive gifts wrapped in traditional wrapping paper, it can be recycled if it’s without glitter, foil or plastic coatings. If the paper, ribbon, or bows are not completely demolished, you can reuse it to wrap another gift.

Christmas Tree Disposal

After Christmas, about 15 million live trees are disposed of, mostly at the local landfill, where the trees are unable to properly decompose and will release methane gas into the atmosphere.

No one wants that. So here are a few recycling and upcycling ideas to avoid tossing your tree in the trash, starting with the most basic.

If you live in an area that offers Christmas tree recycling, be sure to look up the collection window of tree removal. They usually collect within the 2 weeks following Christmas, and they typically chop them into mulch for residents to use free of charge. If that’s not an option, Home Depot, Lowes, and other stores that sell trees will also collect them for mulching.

If you’d prefer to keep the tree closer to home and want a DIY project, you can remove the branches to use as décor for the remainder of the season. You could also remove the green needles and put them into sachets or paper bags to use as air freshener. Try infusing the needles into cleaning solutions, handmade candles, or use them as mulch on your plants.

If you’re a badass who has access to a hacksaw, you can make drink coasters from the tree stump or cut up the tree for firewood. There are so many options to give your tree another use.

And if you have an artificial tree, well just pack it up and store it until next year. :)

On that note, we are at the end of this post I wish you all a happy holiday season. I hope you can safely spend time with a few loved ones, even if it’s only virtually. Much love and I’ll see you next year!

- Ariel

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