Five Rs to a greener holiday

International recycling logo (Photo by Krdan, Wikimedia Commons)

International recycling logo (Photo by Krdan, Wikimedia Commons)

December 17, 2014 | by Wendy Ho

Last December, I had the pleasure of participating in a one-of-a-kind gift exchange dubbed the “useless” gift exchange. Truth be told, I’ve always hoped to avoid these kinds of party games because shopping on a budget to impress never quite works out well. But in the Christmas of 2013, a light-hearted suggestion revitalized the true spirit of giving and turned the activity from drab to fab.

On a lazy weekday afternoon, party plans were unfolding in an online WhatsApp group:

“Let’s have a gift exchange this year,” typed one friend.

Suddenly, the chat room activity halted; it went completely quiet. Perhaps because nobody was particularly keen about the idea. The next message that came through minutes later read:

“Why don’t we give each other stuff we have no use for in our own home but that someone else might need?”

Following that courageous suggestion, the chat room was flowing with conversations again. Friends teased each other about the useless gifts they planned to give. And so the inaugural recycled gift exchange was born. It was one small step for the environment and one giant leap towards a greener mindset.

Below, I’ve gathered some tips to help you trim unnecessary spending and curb holiday waste, using holiday planning as an example.

Portion sizes in holiday potlucks are often overestimated (Photo by Wendy Ho)

Portion sizes in holiday potlucks are often overestimated (Photo by Wendy Ho)


Reducing the holiday excess is a start. If you’re in charge of decorations, ask yourself what it takes to create that holiday look with the basics. Another consideration would be opting for durable, quality and sustainably made products. If you’re the master chef this season, are you able to go from preparing too much to just enough? The point is, determine what excesses and luxury you’re willing to let go of while still having a merry time.

We often overlook the carbon footprint of our holiday activities. In terms of visiting family, consider making fewer trips throughout the year but planning for a longer stay each time. The same principle in gas consumption applies; consolidating multiple shopping trips into one can help reduce carbon emission, save time and costs.


Using reusable dishware at the holiday meal sounds may sound like a no-brainer, but often the convenience of using disposable items gets the better of us. When packaging gifts, choose reusable material such as baskets or fabric. Have you considered buying second hand? Vintage and consignment shops often carry unique and less expensive gifts that are just as good as new.


Another factor to consider is the recyclability of the product’s packaging. You can find the meaning of those recycling codes on the municipality’s residential recycling guide with a click of the search button. Have something not accepted at roadside recycling? With more and more companies adopting corporate social responsibility practices, we can now recycle electronics and batteries at certain retailers without going to recycling depots; one step towards increasing residential recycling rates! Furthermore, programs like TerraCycle offer recycling for those previously non-recyclable or difficult-to-recycle objects such as snack wrappers and coffee capsules.

Traditional Japanese wrapping cloth (Photo by Katorisi, Wikimedia Commons)

Traditional Japanese wrapping cloth (Photo by Katorisi, Wikimedia Commons)


Along the lines of reusing, I challenge you to connect with your creative side and repurpose odds and ends around the house. Need inspiration? Check out our post on giving green and other blogs and Pinterest boards for DIY projects. You might be surprised that there are 18 ways to repurpose old greeting cards!


A novelty toy offered during our gift exchange (Photo by Wendy Ho)

A novelty toy offered during our gift exchange (Photo by Wendy Ho)

Finally, take pride in every little action towards a zero waste holiday and lifestyle. I’ve heard countless times when people can’t see the value in sorting organics or recycling. Perhaps one day we can be as successful as the small hillside community in Kamikatsu, Japan, which made headlines by achieving near zero waste through the sorting of rubbish into 34 categories.

Back to last year’s gift exchange. Everyone arrived with their hand-picked item from home and gathered around for the moment of gift unwrapping and inglorious stealing. And the funniest gift of all? A novelty toy that I gifted several years back, resurfacing to haunt me.

This year, I sheepishly proposed the “useless” gift exchange to another group of friends in an attempt to turn the tide in favour of a greener Christmas. I was utterly surprised by their enthusiasm. It goes to show sometimes, we can challenge the status quo for a good cause.

Wendy Ho (Photo by NCC)

About the Author

Wendy Ho is Nature Conservancy of Canada's digital content manager.

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