Friday, December 19, 2014

gifts that keep on giving

Since greening up food and decorations were explored in my Halloween and Thanksgiving posts, let’s focus on something unique to this holiday season: presents. Here are 5 tips to make your gift giving a bit more earth-friendly.

1. Because giftwrap and tissue paper are NOT recyclable, consider forgoing wrapping paper for reusable options. Gift bags, decorative tins, cloth bags and scarves give your gift recipient a twofer: a gift-encased present. The thrift store is gold mine of those items. If your littles like to draw, wrap presents in recyclable paper bags then let them pretty up the plainness with their imagination. Another twofer for the recipient.

2. Recycle your old holiday cards into gift tags. Another opportunity to enlist your littles and work on their fine motor skills as they practice cutting the cards and ribbon, tying as well as using a hole punch. Here’s a bunch of other super creative ways to reuse holiday cards.

3. Instead of buying physical gifts that may be forgotten in a month, consider buying yearlong experiences like memberships to the Nelson or Science City. Another bonus of such gifts is oftentimes your hometown membership will get you a discount (or even free admission) at similar establishments in other cities.

4. Akin to the above, consider gifting your child-or anyone, really-with a month’s worth of classes in something he or she has shown interest in. I like to give these gifts to our children so they learn to value what we do together and the opportunities they’re exposed to. I don’t know about you, but when I reminisce about my childhood, I’m recalling experiences, not specific toys.

5. You may have noticed I avoid buying new anything. This has turned into a quirky family tradition. We go to the thrift store then split up to find gifts for each other. The challenge is getting the gifts into the cart and through checkout secretly. It’s silly, funny and since we trash an extra 5 million tons of resources during the holidays, I feel ok about this indulgence because we don’t have the packaging of new products to landfill.

6.  OK so maybe that last tip isn’t for you. Here’s a bonus, then. How about gifting the atmosphere? If you must put up holiday lights, please use LED bulbs. They last longer and use less energy thereby saving you money. Plug them into a timer so they turn off in the wee hours when no one’s awake to enjoy them anyway. This saves you even more money and extends their lifespan. Then recycle them when they’ve expired.

 Whether for secular or spiritual reasons we celebrate the holidays because they give us an intangible something. But we engage in concrete actions in the particulars of how we go about accessing that intangible. These concrete details are very much gifts that keep on giving: through fossil fuel emissions and resources consumed then thrown away. Holiday choices that sustain the planet rather than degrade it are the best gifts we can give one another.

practicing gratitude

Growing up Thanksgiving was a big deal. Each year, we would have at least five or six families over. Extensions went into the dining room table and even the Ping-Pong table was dragged out to accommodate everyone. Being immigrants, we were grateful for the life this country allowed us to create. My family channeled this gratitude into lavish Thanksgiving decorations and an extravagant spread.

I never thought about the environmental cost of these celebrations.

In my Halloween post I suggested selecting a category to green up: decorations, costumes or treats. The same applies for Thanksgiving. Pick one category, then next year or even Christmas, expand to include another. For Thanksgiving, the environmental toll comes from waste and food. Obviously traveling takes an environmental toll but if that’s nonnegotiable, here are things you can control.

WASTE

 Between Thanksgiving and New Year's, Americans produce an extra 5 million tons of household waste each year including three times as much food waste as other times of the year.

What can you do about that?

1. Before purchasing anything new, particularly if it’s just for a holiday event, ask yourself if you really need it and if so, can you borrow or get it used? Encased in wasteful packaging, new items consume resources and fossil fuels to manufacture and ship.

2. Buy in bulk. Shop at stores that have dispenser bins from which you take what you need and eliminate unnecessary packaging. If you take your own bags-cereal box sleeves, bread bags-that’s even less wasteful.

3. Use real plates. Although it seems like a hassle to wash dishes, doing this chore with a friend or relative rarely seen is an opportunity to connect. To this day I have a deep affection for one of my mom’s friends because we always did the Thanksgiving dishes together. Besides, you’ve just expended time and effort cooking something delicious. Don’t dishonor it by putting it on a disposable plate.

4. Use real napkins. I’m not giving stats on how wasteful it is to use trees as napkins. Consider this instead. We’ve just spent the last month or so admiring fall trees. Why would we then want to destroy them to wipe our mouths? You know they absorb carbon and produce oxygen, right? Seems like we ought to practice gratitude for trees by letting them do their beautiful, live giving work. It’s worth a little extra laundry.

5. While preparing for the big day, enlist your children to create recycling stations. Assign them the important job of making sure things end up in the right bins.

6. If you buy food in plastic or glass containers, wash and save them for giving away leftovers. You can also ask your guests to bring their own reusable containers. That way you’re not wrapping leftovers in foil or plastic wrap, which end up in a landfill.

7. Reuse your kids’ artwork. Have them repurpose it into place cards and decorations (unless you’ve already buried it in the recycle bin).

8. You know neither plastic nor paper is a good choice as the store, right? And you know you can take your own bag into any store, not just the grocery? And by the way, when you buy produce, you don’t need to put it in plastic bags. Those apples or whatevers can go directly into your cart, eliminating even more waste.


FOOD

9. Most food travels hundreds of miles to get to grocery stores, gobbling up fossil fuels. Instead seek local sources for your holiday meal. KC Food Circle is the yellow pages of area farmers, detailing what and where they sell. It’s a satisfying experience to purchase from a farmer at market or directly from their farm than to deal with grocery store craziness. Besides, farm fresh anything tastes SO much better.

10. Americans throw away 40% of the food they purchase. Plan your menu carefully so that you’re accounting for volume of food per number of guests. Love Food, Hate Waste has a helpful planning guide so you buy just what you need. It also provides creative recipes for leftovers.

11. If you use smaller plates, guests are less likely to overload them. If they want more they can go back but uneaten food left on a plate will likely be discarded. Also, pay attention to how high the littles pile their plates compared to what they actually eat.

12. Most uneaten food can be composted. If you don’t compost, ask a friend or neighbor if you can contribute to their compost. Several neighbors add to our pile regularly. If that’s not an option, check out Bad Seed, which offers composting at their market. You could inquire about adding your scraps to community or school garden compost piles.


As a kid, it didn’t occur to me to consider where everything-decorations, floral bouquets, food-came from, how it got to our house or what happened to it after we were done with it. But as an adult I am becoming more mindful of the trajectory of materials beyond my point of contact. After all, everything we have, including our health, comes from the earth. Since Thanksgiving is a time to express gratitude for what we have, shouldn’t we also pay attention to how that expression of gratitude is manifest? Taking care of the planet that sustains us is a practice in gratitude.

lifelong treats

I love Halloween. Not only does it happen during my favorite season, it involves presenting yourself to the world as creatively as possible. And I have to admit a mom perk is enjoying candy I normally don’t have in my house. Unfortunately, the way we celebrate Halloween can be a nightmare for people and the planet.
Think about it. Yearly, about 35 million kids go trick or treating. That means a lot of candy individually encapsulated in non-recyclable petroleum based plastic that’s been manufactured and shipped via fossil fuels to your grocery store. More than likely, that candy is made with high fructose corn syrup, which threatens your health as well as the planet’s and palm oil, which threatens rainforests and the creatures that live in them. And if it contains chocolate, it’s likely to be a product of child labor. I know. Scares the Twix bar right out of my hand.

Halloween also means dressing up. Most store-bought costumes are made from non-recyclable petro-chemical based plastic and synthetic fibers. These Halloween costumes can include the horrific polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a soft plastic and known carcinogen that releases harmful toxins in its creation and breakdown. And if that doesn’t spook you, many face paints contain the neurotoxin lead and other ingredients that aren’t tested for general human safety, let alone specifically for how they’ll impact a developing body. I know. Makes me want to put a white sheet over my head and call it good.
And I haven’t even touched on trick-or-treat bags, decorations or pumpkins.

The good news is you can celebrate Halloween without terrorizing the planet and its inhabitants. Here are 12 tips to green your Halloween.

1. Start by picking one category for this year: costumes, decorations or treats. Then next year pick another. Or select another category for another holiday.

COSTUMES

2. Start at the thrifty. You will be amazed at the plethora of costumes available. You know what’s even better? Taking your kids to the thrifty and having them rummage through the costumes, especially the odds and ends. They use their imaginations to create one-of-a-kind, unique ensembles and identities for Halloween. Thrift stores are a great resource for Halloween decorations too.
3. Host a costume swap: http://www.ecomomalliance.org/NationalCostumeSwapDay. If that’s more than you want to take on then use FB or other social media to share what you have and what you’re looking for.

4. Go the old fashioned route and make costumes. Better yet, host a costume making party. Everything is less daunting with friends and wine.

5. Consider making your own face paint: http://greenhalloween.org/blog/?p=235.

DECORATIONS
6. If you and your kids like crafts, make decorations from recycled products: http://www.pinterest.com/donttrashaz/diy-halloween/.  Just like with costumes, a lot of natural resources were used and fossil fuels burned in manufacturing and shipping all that cute stuff. Increasingly I feel uneasy buying something without knowing the working conditions of those on the factory floor. Besides, each American generates about 5 pounds of trash a day. Surely we could divert some of that into decorations.

7. Take a family hike and collect natural decorations-pinecones, pine needles, acorns, fallen branches, leaves. Let your kids take charge. It may not look like BH&G when they’re done but it will look like a home with kids. The great thing about natural decorations is they can be composted or returned to nature rather than landfilled.
8. If you’re going to decorate or carve pumpkins, please buy from a local farmer. You’ll be helping the local economy and again, reducing your carbon footprint. Then make sure you roast the seeds and cook something yummy with the pumpkin; seeds and pumpkins are super healthy antidotes for all that Halloween candy. Again, you can also compost pumpkin rather than trash it.
TREATS
9. Pass out candy that comes in paper or paperboard packaging that can be recycled rather than plastic wrappers that can’t.

10. Reuse candy wrappers to make crafts: http://www.artistshelpingchildren.org/kidscraftsactivitiesblog/2012/03/how-to-make-paper-strip-belts-and-bracelets/.
11. Consider buying these rainforest friendly candy choices: http://www.cmzoo.org/docs/palmOilShoppingGuide.pdf and child labor free choices: http://grist.org/food/2011-10-25-scare-trade/.
12. Maybe don’t pass out candy but give other treats kids will enjoy like seashells, dragon tears, mini duct tape rolls or temporary tattoos. Again, enlist your littles in coming up with alternatives.


When I started making the connection between my choices and their environmental impact it felt like I couldn’t do anything fun anymore. But nothing could be further from the truth. Involving my family in the changes, engaging everyone’s creativity, resourcefulness and intentionality is how we do life. Mindfulness is a practice that deepens fun. It’s the best treat I can give my children.