Zero Waste Gift Ideas: Thinking Outside The Gift Box


Los Alamos, New Mexico— It’s November, and that means the seasonal food- and gift-based holidays are right around the corner! Every year at this time, I walk through stores crammed with festive lights, oversized toys, and decorated conifers, and it reminds me of the extent of consumerism.

Many of us are unaware of how much our gifts cost – not to our wallets, but to our planet. Manufacturing and transporting goods has become so efficient that most of us are blind to it. Things magically appear at the store for us to buy and take home. Online shopping provides another level of disconnect. Some estimates say that for every garbage bag we put on the curb, 87 more were produced in making the contents. There is a huge carbon footprint just in making our stuff.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t buy each other gifts just that, perhaps, we should think outside the gift box. Below are a few gift ideas that are environmentally friendly, mostly local, and will give the recipient just as much joy, and possibly a new unforgettable experience.

The Gift of Knowledge:

  • creative classes, such as visual arts, music, cooking, or woodworking    
  • physical classes, such as swimming, skating, skiing, Zumba, or martial arts lessons    
  • continuing education, such as Master Gardeners, UNM-LA, online classes, or languages

The Gift of Adventure:

  • rafting, balloon rides, bungee jumping
  • concert, opera, theater, or sport event tickets    
  • museum, zoo, National Parks, movie, or PEEC event passes
  • extracurricular activities/classes

The Gift of Service:

  • massage, spa, float, or manicure/pedicure
  • housekeeping, laundry service, meal delivery
  • child care, pet sitting    
  • help with home projects
  • snow shoveling, weed pulling, lawn mowing

The Gift of Membership:

  • gym, Sportsmen’s Club, Ski Club
  • organizations or interest groups, such as PEEC, professional organizations, photography club, Los Alamos Historical Society, Sierra Club, League of Women Voters, or other local or national groups
  • e-reader subscription for unlimited ebooks, or music streaming subscription
  • donations to a favorite cause

The Gift of Time:

  • fancy date night    
  • vacation or weekend getaway
  • volunteering time together    
  • a visit to a far-away or elderly relative

Sometimes, a physical object is what you want to give, and there are ways to cut down your waste here, too. Look for items that aren’t excessively packaged, especially in plastic. Buy clothes made from natural fibers. It is okay to give second-hand gifts! Just because something has been used does not mean it is useless or unwanted. Be creative and make an upcycled gift out of repurposed materials. There are instructions for many projects on YouTube and other web resources.

Finally, get creative with wrapping. Wrapping paper and tissue paper cannot be recycled due to their short fibers, glitter, and metallic designs, so look for alternatives. Gift bags are reusable many times over, and tissue paper can be reused until it is ripped or worn out. Once it is worn out, you can use it as packing material or stuffing for crafts. To make your gift look extra special, try wrapping in cloth using the Japanese art of Furoshiki (Google it for simple, free instructions). The wrapping cloths are washable and reusable, and you can make your own. Bonus: no tape required!

Here are some other tips for environmentally-friendly holidays.
Run the dishwasher – it saves water versus hand-washing (as long as it’s full) – and let it air dry.
Turn down the heat. An oven running for hours and a house full of guests will make up for it.
Minimize travel by planning ahead and consolidating errands. Double-check your shopping list so you don’t have to run out at the last minute.
Stage recycle bins next to your trash can for your guests to use as a convenient alternative to trash.

With some extra forethought and planning, we can all make the holiday season a little easier on the environment while still enjoying ourselves.

Happy Holidays!