Eco-friendly entertaining and gifts

Experts agree: the holiday season isn’t just a drain on the wallet — it also puts a lot of strain on our energy consumption, waste disposal and recycling services.

Statistics are tricky to find, but a 2006 article in the Toronto Star has some startling numbers: On average, an extra 900 000 tonnes of garbage gets thrown away during the holidays, including 228 million cards, 900 tonnes of aluminum foil, 35,000 tonnes of plastic packaging and enough wrapping paper to cover 3,000 football fields — and that’s just in Ontario!

With all the entertaining and gift-giving coming up, how can you reduce your environmental impact this year?


Look for greener gifts. Make greener choices when you hit the store such as purchasing organic or fair trade items and products that have less packaging. You can also encourage eco-friendly habits with gifts like tote bags, composting sets, plastic or stainless steel water bottles and solar-powered gadgets.

Create memories. A gift doesn’t have to be something that sits under a tree — it can be an experience like an outing to a favourite place, a trip to the movies or teaching someone a new skill. And good news: those do-it-yourself coupons are back on the table. A free evening of baby-sitting, a dinner out and free house- or pet-sitting services are all valuable gifts — and ones which save money as well.

Donate instead. Make a donation to your recipient’s favourite charity in lieu of a gift. If you’re buying gifts for teachers, consider purchasing something for their classroom or for the school — like books or sports equipment.

Think big. More presents doesn’t always translate to greater happiness. Sometimes one more expensive item is more meaningful that a whole bunch of little ones that won’t get used. Chip in with your friends or family members to keep costs manageable.

Shop online for far-away gifts. If you’ve ever shipped a parcel across the country or the globe, you know that the costs aren’t cheap. However, many online retailers offer free shipping on orders over a certain amount, and the gifts won’t have as far to travel if they’re sent from local stores or distribution centres. You’ll end up spending less and saving on the emissions.

Don’t sweat the small stuff(ers). It’s time to be realistic about those stocking-stuffers. Many of the down-sized items have excessive amounts of packaging and they aren’t cost-effective. Try giving regular sized items instead (like a full tube of toothpaste) or items that don’t have a lot of excess packaging (like a deck of cards or package of loose tea).

Also, a return to the old-fashioned practice of giving fruit is a healthy choice — pomegranates and other exotic fruits are a tasty addition to the traditional orange.

Wrap smart. Should you put a stop to the wrapping paper? Yes… and no. There are many alternatives out there including reusable gift bags, clothe bags and gift boxes which also save time and money, but who doesn’t love a good rip once and a while?

The trick to going green with wrapping paper is to understand what can and can’t be recycled. First, find out if your municipality accepts wrapping paper in its recycling program (that may dictate how much you want to use). Second, remember that not all kinds of paper can be recycled — particularly those made with poor quality fibres, are metallic, coated in wax or plastic or decorated with glitter. When in doubt, keep it plain and look for papers made from recycled materials.

And think “reuse” before you recycle: this years scraps will work for next year’s stocking-stuffers or crafts.

Raid the recycling bin for wrapping ideas. Clean cardboard boxes (like cereal boxes) are great for concealing the size and shape of a gift. Colour comics and flyers are great for the under-layers of gifts destined for those who love to rip. Once you’re done, everything can go right back into the bin.

Make your own hostess gifts . Think twice before you pick up a box of candy or chocolates to take along to a party or get together. While the extra calories aren’t good for the waistline, the extra packaging won’t do any good for the environment either. Try some homemade goods like a bottle of raspberry vinaigrette or homemade chutney and muffins. (See Heart smart gifts from your kitchen for ideas and recipes).

Regardless of where you shop and what you end up buying, don’t forget to take those reusable bags. As a bonus, they’re ideal for concealing gifts are you bring them in the house.


Buy local when possible. It’s a little trickier to be a locavore this time of year, but the high proportion of imported foods that make up our feast translates to plenty of greenhouse gas emissions thanks to the shipping (up to 15 kg in fact, according to the Toronto Star ). Try a local turkey instead, and take advantage of your area’s great wineries and breweries if available.

Choose reusable and recyclable containers. Wash and reuse the foil and foil containers, or take the effort to recycle them. In addition, use glass or plastic containers to store and share food. (They can even be part of a gift). Alternatively, you can use a plate or inverted bowl to cover items in the fridge for a few hours.

Buy bulk. Waste management websites note that the amount that goes into our recycling bins significantly increases this time of year, and a lot of that is convenience packaging. If you’re going to use a lot of a product, buy the bigger size. For example, shop for the big bottles of soft drinks rather than small bottles or cans.

Do your own arranging. Those pre-made party trays at the store are tempting in a pinch, but you’ll save money and plastic by preparing and arranging foods at home using your own serving ware.

Use washable items. Use cloth napkins instead of paper ones, and keep some dish towels handy to mop up spills and messes instead of paper towel. Get your family to pitch in with the clean-up rather than relying on disposable dishes.

Have a plan to use leftovers . Don’t wait until the turkey is four days old — and everyone is sick of looking at it — to decide what to do. Prepare casseroles or freeze foods while foods are still at their freshest. (Hint: cook extra vegetables and make large, dressing-free salads to balance out leftover meals).

Practice safe food handling. Something as simple as putting food away promptly (and properly) not only protects against food poisoning, but it will also save you from having to throw out questionable foods that could have made tasty leftovers. (See Health Canada’s Holiday Food Safety web page for more information).

It’s difficult to avoid all of the excess and waste around the holidays, and not all green tips are practical or applicable for everyone. The good news is that thanks to the economy and environmental awareness, more of these strategies are becoming mainstream. The trick is to implement change slowly — like implementing one or two new strategies each year.

How do you keep the holidays green? Tell us in the comments.

Photo © Lisa Thornberg

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