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Tips for zero-waste holidays

First published December 2015.

Bea Johnson is so disciplined about reducing waste that her family of four, including two teenage boys, generates only one quart-sized jar worth of trash each year. The holidays — with decorations and gift giving and receiving — present a challenge for those trying to curb their landfill contributions. Johnson, a resident of Mill Valley, California, and author of the book and blog Zero Waste Home (zerowastehome.blogspot.com), offers her tips for cutting the crap:

Why is reducing waste important?

We started reducing waste for environmental reasons, for wanting a better future for our kids. But our zero-waste lifestyle today saves us a great deal of time and money, and they are the reasons why we could not envision going back to creating waste.

What is the most egregious holiday waste?

The most wasteful aspect of the holidays is buying material gifts that the recipient does not truly need. I did this for years before adopting the zero-waste lifestyle, to fill a space under the tree, to stuff a stocking and to meet the expectations that I had created for my kids. 

How do you cut down on waste in your celebrations and gift giving?

We realized that life is not about having more, but "being" more, so we give — and like to receive — the gift of experiences, instead of stuff (for example, zip-lining, karting, parasailing, etc.). We wrap our gifts, which come in the form of an entry ticket or a gift certificate, in a reusable cloth bag.

Instead of buying a Christmas tree, we use the largest houseplant/interior tree and whatever we have on hand to decorate it — paper cutouts, stringed popcorn, etc.

What about grandparents and others inclined to give waste-intensive gifts?

We have explained our lifestyle of voluntary simplicity to them. We let them know that our family has all it needs and we want to keep it that way. We do not wish for more stuff, but more experiences in our life. We provided them with specific examples to make it easier. 

Is there an aspect to your holidays that still feels too wasteful?

Our minimalism allows us to easily rent our home on the weekends and holidays. So each Christmas, we travel. People might see it as a waste; we do not. Travel has opened our kids' minds. It is not only the perfect occasion to offer activities as gifts, but it also brings our family closer and creates memories for a lifetime.

Last year, we went to Costa Rica. It was great for the kids to discover the jungle and animals that they had never seen before, and enjoy such gifts as surfing lessons, a snorkeling trip and a night jungle tour!

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