Giving green: Sustainable, upcycled (and sometimes handmade) gifts

Upcycled Pac-Man coffee mugs (Photo by Kyla Winchester)

Upcycled Pac-Man coffee mugs (Photo by Kyla Winchester)

December 10, 2013 | by Kyla Winchester

December can be a very “stuff”-heavy month. Though many of us exchange gifts in and around this time of year, bestowing our loved ones with tokens of our affection can create a lot of garbage. We buy a brand-new item, usually wrapped in plastic, then wrap it in paper, then sometimes we even wrap it again so can put it in the mail. If you’ve ever woken up at three a.m. wondering where on earth (literally) all this waste goes, gift-giving can be both fun and worrying.

A few years ago, I considered this predicament. While I had already been giving primarily handmade gifts to friends and family, I discovered upcycling could reduce my environmental impact further. Upcycling is repurposing or remaking something to give it new life. This made my little green heart happy, since it not only saves an existing object from being discarded, it saves a new item from being purchased in its place. If you’re an environmentalist, a crafter or someone just wants to live a little more simply this holiday season, consider these gift ideas. All of these suggestions will help reduce your environmental impact so you can rest easy this season, sipping hot chocolate and watching the fireplace channel with a clear conscience.

A shrug from an old sweater

Perfect use of a well-loved sweater that is frayed near the bottom or cuffs, or has a stain that can be cut off.

Sweater slippers (Photo by Jennifer Brooks)

Sweater slippers (Photo by Jennifer Brooks)

Cosy slippers from a sweater

Another sweater upcycle, this can again turn an old favourite into a new joy. And who doesn’t like receiving warm things in the winter? If you’re really ambitious, pair it with an upcycled denim blanket  for true winter warming.

Chalkboard mug

 You can buy old mugs at Goodwill for a dollar, but to be honest, we all have a couple mugs that have seen better days. Anything with a smooth surface can be used to make a chalkboard mug. And writing silly messages on your roommate’s/dad’s/significant other’s morning coffee seems like a good way to start the day.

Monogrammed mugs

Finding a mug suitable for this tutorial can be trickier, since you really need a solid-coloured, smooth-sided and relatively nice-looking mug. However, I like this upcycle because you can find a font that reflects the recipient’s personality. I gave one to my friend Colin last year, and found a font in which the capital C looked like Pac-Man. When he opened his gift, he commented on the awesomeness of his Pac-Man monogrammed mug, as I knew he would.

Decoupaged map tray

No tutorial on this one, but if you’re familiar with ModPodge you can probably guess how it’s done. Buy a glass tray or plate from your local used goods store and you can add a map, a vacation photo, a page from a magazine or a calendar — or a picture of yourself to remind your loved one how thoughtful you are.

Frosted whiskey bottle (Photo by 52 Weeks Project)

Frosted whiskey bottle (Photo by 52 Weeks Project)

Frosted whiskey bottle

If anyone in your life appreciates a glass of Scotland’s finest, this would make their day. You can buy glass frosting kits at craft stores, and if you’re ambitious, you can even monogram the bottle. If you need to make up for 10 years' worth of bad gifts, you can frost four or six glasses too and give a matched set.

Folded paper wallet 

You can certainly use repurposed paper for this gift, but even if you buy paper for it, when its lifespan is over it is compostable and recyclable.

Fabric puzzle blocks

For the toddler in your life, fabric-covered blocks can add a bit of whimsy to their toy chest. For adults, you can cover blocks with treasured photos and a give a photo display with a difference.

Denim play roads

Another idea for a young child, though I can’t imagine handmade gifts get any easier than turning old jeans into “roads” with scissors and paint. If you wanted to overachieve, you could reinforce them with a sturdier material, since I imagine a single layer of denim might shift and curl when being played on. But hey, I’m not sure shifting denim roads is a top concern for most toddlers, so you could whip this up pretty quickly.

Upcycled cat tree (Photo by Kyla Winchester)

Upcycled cat tree (Photo by Kyla Winchester)

Upcycled cat tree

It’s important to keep our pets happy, so they don’t "accidentally" knock over all our plants while we sleep. Make your feline friend a cat tree out of cardboard boxes, and keep it green by covering it with scraps of wrapping paper, worn-out paper gift bags or even the comics or magazine pages. Kitty will have a place to sleep that’s not right next to your favourite vase, and maybe she’ll let you sleep in instead of pawing your face for food. At six a.m.

Need more ideas?

Still can’t think of the perfect gift for that hard-to-buy-for person on your list?

Try searching variations of “upcylced gift for mom/teenagers/men” in Google’s image search and yes, on Pinterest. I have saved way more Pinterest "pins" than I could make in the next three years, so there is no shortage of ideas. Even if you can’t find a tutorial, just finding a picture is often enough to get you started. I’m sure your friends and family will love the care you’ve put into your gifts, even if they start lovingly referring to you as the "hippie."

Kyla Winchester (Photo by Theresa Winchester)

About the Author

Kyla Winchester is the former development officer for NCC's Ontario Region.

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