Written by Marta Olszewska
As someone who has been trying to reduce plastic from every aspect of my life, I often get the question:
What should I get you as a gift?
And I totally get why it’s challenging. It’s not easy to come up with unique gift ideas, let alone make sure that what we’re gifting is also good for our planet.
So without further ado, here is my guide to a more thoughtful and sustainable gift giving. I compiled my top 10 tips on how to be more mindful about the planet when thinking of presents this holiday season and split the guide up into sections for different people in your life.
Here’s a table of contents for you to skip to the chapter that’s most useful for you:
Chapter VII: Eco-friendly gift ideas for beginners and all who want to reduce plastic
Let’s start from the beginning. You might just have started reducing plastic from your life or have been doing it for a while now, and want it to reflect in your gifts this Christmas season. In this case, kudos to you! I’m happy to see you’re making changes also in this area!
If your friends and family are on this journey and you’re wondering why it’s so important to them, here’s what you might find interesting.
The truth is we produce an unbelievable amount of waste over the winter holiday season.
In the UK alone folks eat around 10 million turkeys during Christmas which leads to 3,000 tons of turkey packaging and to 125,000 tons of plastic wrapping that’s being disposed of.
And it goes far beyond food (and drinks). There’s miles of wrapping paper (227k miles of it in the UK to be precise, out of which 83km will end up in the trash), tons of ribbons, bubble wrap, plastic toys, cards, and Christmas trees.
Just imagine it on a global scale!
On average we produce 30% more plastic waste during the holidays than in any given time of the year. This also includes £42 million worth of unwanted Christmas presents that end up in landfills each year. And this is just the UK alone.
The consequences of this are catastrophic and include increased CO2 emissions, plastic floating in oceans, wildlife endangerment, rising temperatures, and natural disasters.
I think it’s wise to stop and think before we throw ourselves into the shopping frenzy. Also because, it IS possible to be more mindful. This guide is to show you how.
In simple words, it’s thinking about our environment and the impact our every buying decision has on our planet.
Green giving means being mindful and less wasteful when choosing our presents. There’s so much we can make, recycle (or upcycle) and experience, instead of going down the easy route and often buying unwanted gifts that end up in landfills.
So, let’s get started!
A little disclaimer: I’m not affiliated to the brands I mention. I admire, follow, or purchase from many of them because of their pledge to the environment. Ok, apart from Ecofiltro. They are our partners here in Refill Aqua, and I absolutely love their mission and product!
How about we try to reduce those 230,000 miles of wrapping paper used every Christmas?
Here are some alternatives:
Millions of unwanted presents are disposed of every Christmas, but it’s difficult to do so with consumables, especially if it's something your family or friends really love. If you’re not sure what people like, conduct a little research and ask your friends’ partner or kids’ parents to make sure what the best option is. Here are some ideas:
This is my personal favorite. Not only are you keeping things completely waste-free, but you’re also going far beyond physical objects. By gifting experiences, you’re actually offering memories, knowledge, and quality time which are priceless.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
I’ll give you some concrete ideas in the sections below, but there’s one more thing. You can make those sorts of gifts even more unique by creating handmade coupons. You can use online tools like Piktochart or do it by hand. See the wood workshop example in Chapter VIII: 10 concrete and ready-to-go green gift ideas.
The idea here is to figure out: “how can I help them grow or support them in meeting their objectives or new year resolutions?”
Here are a few inspirations:
Being a good gift giver means you’re thoughtful and you focus on the actual wants and needs of your loved ones. To me there’s nothing worse than going shopping last-minute and getting useless generic gifts. Those are the ones that end up in landfills, people!
Since I saw my unpacked presents from years ago in my family storage room, I’ve decided to always ask in advance. I know that surprises are special, but those work best if you really know someone.
If you aren’t sure, don’t shy away from asking your family or friends to give you a list of things they need. There are apps like Gifster which help you create and manage lists.
Don't be like Joey and Chandler.
If your family is open to trying a new approach this year, suggest that each person gets only one gift and organize a draw. This way, everyone focuses only on one person and might be able to put more thought into it.
As an organizer, you can create a simple spreadsheet listing all the family members and having them fill out their wishlist (it can include links to concrete presents).
You can also make rules about gifts:
This way you make sure gifts are thoughtful and waste-free.
Let’s face it, handmade and custom gifts are the ones you don’t easily forget. I still have the “official letter” congratulating me when I turned 17 and a toilet paper roll with a story written backwards with letters cut out from a newspaper. Yes, those were the actual gifts my group of friends gave me in high school. I revisit them every time I’m home for Christmas.
Does it take more time? Hell yeah. Does it give you more satisfaction and happiness to the person you’re making it for? Absolutely. You choose if it’s worth it.
Here are the top picks:
If someone from your family is at the beginning of this journey and wants to be more conscious about the environment but doesn’t know where to start, gift them something that can help them reduce plastic. Head to Chapter VII: Eco-friendly gift ideas for beginners and all who want to reduce plastic!
If your family and friends are aligned with your goals and love helping out, they might really appreciate the gesture of planting a tree, donating to a good cause (like The Ocean Cleanup), or supporting a Kickstarter campaign that helps fund an eco-friendly product in their name.
Unless you’re expecting 30 people at your Christmas dinner table, try to cook mindfully thinking about the amount your family is actually going to consume.
Just imagine that the brussels sprouts wasted during Christmas could power a home for 3 years. If all Christmas food waste was recycled into energy, it could power the average medium-sized home for 57 years.
If you do cook too much, pack it in a tupperware and give it out to your friends and family on the spot, freeze it for later, or take it to a homeless shelter. Someone will appreciate it.
Online shopping is easy and convenient, I get it. But did you know that Amazon Prime uses much more diesel fuel to get to places faster? So, consider:
Now, let’s get into the nitty gritty. Here are gift ideas for different kinds of people in your life, from a foodie, a nature lover, children, and beyond.
I’m starting with a foodie, because I think it’s a fairly easy one. There’s so much you can gift to someone who loves cooking or is curious about it and wants to master his technique, or simply enjoys eating. Here are six ideas:
There are a myriad of restaurants that do things differently and which provide not only food, but an entire experience that comes with tasting. You can gift:
This can be a class where they learn how to make something from scratch. For example, a complex meal they have never prepared before. In Barcelona, we’ve got paella making classes and tons of other food and drink experiences offered on Airbnb such as wine tasting and Spanish tapas making.
If there are no decent cooking classes in your city, it can also be an online masterclass. Look for it in the Chapter VIII: 10 concrete and ready-to-go green gift ideas.
Survey their partners or friends to find out what they might need, be interested in, and don’t have yet.
Are they interested in a specific type of cuisine which they’d like to explore? Or do they want to start a new diet (like keto) but lack ideas? Or maybe they need an inspiration for their weekly routine? Here are the top picks for 2019:
You can prepare something special like these raw vegan brownies (I’ve made them before and they are delicious!) or something that you’ve mastered (like a fig jam or apple sauce). But why stop there? You can also craft a handmade box that contains a handwritten recipe so that they can easily replicate it if they like it.
Good quality stainless steel tupperware set could serve a few purposes: to store food in the fridge, be used for grocery shopping, or getting takeout. You can also get a really big one to be used as an organic waste container. They can just fill it up, then dump it into the organic bin, no bags involved!
When I was doing a Plastic Free July challenge this year, one of the biggest difficulties I’ve encountered was avoiding plastic while traveling. If your loved one is a digital nomad or travels frequently, here’s what you can get them:
This is an absolute essential when on the go. There are hundreds of companies making reusable bottles like Chilly’s so make sure you get one locally (for a lower carbon footprint) and read up on their supply chain and materials used in the bottle production.
Another essential, a collapsible cup (like the one above) is great for any kind of beverage like tea, coffee, or a smoothie. It can also be used as a container for ice-cream to go, peanuts, or any other snack solid or liquid.
This one becomes really handy while hiking, or ordering takeaway on the go. There are plenty of eco-friendly bamboo sets like this one that come with a bamboo straw (plus a brush to clean it), and chopsticks, all packed in a cotton bag that can easily fit into any backpack.
Similar idea to a collapsible cup, but it can store more food. You can get a set of stainless steel containers like those above which don’t take a lot of space and are helpful for storing snacks or takeaway food.
If they’re in the need of a new backpack, Hemper offers one made sustainably in Nepal by a community located in the neighborhood of Budhanilkantha in Kathmandu. You can learn more about their mission, materials used, and packaging here.
Those are super helpful when grocery shopping for fresh produce and they don’t take up a lot of space. Make sure you get the ones made from organic cotton like those to avoid synthetic, plastic-based materials which pollute our oceans.
I’m a nature enthusiast myself and one of the things that makes me most happy is an outdoor experience. Best thing about it is that it’s a non-physical and also a waste-free gift (if you stay away from plastic water bottles).
Here are a few ideas:
You can create a handmade coupon for a hiking trip together. Just pick a date and place and plan the route in advance. You can use Wikiloc to find hiking trails near you. When packing for your excursion, don’t forget your reusable water bottle, homemade snacks or nuts, and an extra bag for any waste you might produce on the trail.
Depending on where you’re located, you might be able to book a paddle board class like this one in Barcelona, a 1:1 ski training session, a kayak cruise, and any other activity that’s available near you.
This is one of my favorites. I often scout beautiful locations near me in Catalunya and book a beautiful rural home on Airbnb for a night or two as a surprise. Then I make a coupon and pack it as a gift.
Many of us are overworked and dream of a weekend away, but never actually get to book it. Here’s where you come in. You can gift your loved one a yoga or meditation retreat where they are “forced” to focus only on their body and spirit for 48 hours or more. There are platforms like Book Yoga Retreats that help you find such getaways by location.
This is a unique way of exploring new places and enjoying nature around you. In Barcelona, you can ride through medieval landscapes on horseback and book this experience through Airbnb. Depending on where you are, you can look for a Nature or Sports experience near you on that platform.
Recently I’ve gone on a free walking tour in Granada, Spain, and it was fantastic! The good thing is that you can book one in your hometown too. We often know very little about the place we live in. On those tours, your loved one can learn about local legends, little known facts, and stories they’ve never heard before. They will see their own city through a different lens. On Free Tour, you can book a tour in one of 120+ countries.
I think what makes gifting plants special is that they last for a long time (unless someone is excellent at killing plants) and they’ll always remind your loved ones of you. If you have a plant like Monstera (which grows like crazy), you can easily split it up into parts and replant it in a lovely pot like this one from Casa Atlantica or this one made of cork from Xianna. You can also attach handwritten plant care instructions, ideal for plant killers.
For years I’ve been known in my brother’s house as the Speculoos auntie. Sometimes it was the first thing my niece and nephew would ask me when I stepped through the door. Getting kids foodstuffs is a great idea, but an even better one is to make them yourself (and ensure they’re healthy and nutritious).
Here are a few ideas for snacks and beyond:
Those can include peppermint marshmallows, ginger snaps, or gummy bears in their favorite flavours.
You can buy a fair trade cocoa mix like this one from Ecolectia and transfer it into a jar with a homemade label. You can also get a mug with their favorite character on it.
Kiwico offers subscription-based wooden kits for all ages. You choose the age range and get a new box every few weeks. Boxes contain things like wooden clocks, color-blocked candles, rubber band powered rockets, and more. All to be assembled at home.
You can easily make a memory game from photos. You could order squares like these ones from Social Print Studio and print each photo twice.
You can get them supplies to make their own stuff including handmade jewelry, scrapbooks, photo albums, paintings, pottery, puppets, or unfinished wooden holiday ornaments.
Those can be handmade and offer activities such as: 3D movie tickets, trampoline park entries, road trip to their favorite theme or water park, Disney on Ice or other holiday show tickets, or an interactive museum pass.
This is a great idea for the smaller kiddos. Indy Plush, for instance, stuffs their animals with recycled plastic bottles. Olokuti produces theirs locally - they are made of 100% organic cotton and use non-toxic dyes.
You can make a bunch of different ones and set up a puppet show when you’re all together. Alternatively you can organize a paper puppet making workshop and create them together.
You can buy cotton pillow cases and use fabric scraps to sew their favorite movie or book characters on them.
This is perhaps one of the most important chapters. Why? Because by gifting things that are environmentally friendly we help shape new habits in those who have not started with their plastic-free journey yet or might not know how to begin.
This is the longest list of all, and hopefully it helps source some ideas not only for beginners, but those who have already been trying to reduce plastic for a while:
Those are great essentials to get started with. Look into a locally produced, plastic-free water bottle, collapsible cup, bamboo cutlery set and straws, and tupperware for takeaways or storing food. They are all listed with examples in Chapter IV: Eco-friendly gift ideas for travelers
The Cora Ball offers an innovative solution to the microplastic pollution problem. It catches microfibers shedding off our clothes while they’re being washed and prevents them from entering our waterways. There’s also a washing bag from Guppyfriend which aims to reduce micro-waste in a similar way.
This is an awesome alternative to the aluminum foil or saran wrap. You can get a set of those in different sizes. They are great for wrapping pieces of fruits and veggies, or simply for covering plates with leftovers. Make sure to investigate the provider, there’s a lot of green-washing going on in this area!
Guys from Beeswaxwraps make theirs using GOTS certified cotton (in super funky patterns), pine resin, organic jojoba oil and locally sourced UK beeswax.
Green Up Box offers curated sustainable goods delivered to you six times a year. It's meant to inspire, and empower you to create your new plastic-free life. There's the Morning Routine Box including bamboo toothbrush, biodegradable dental floss, and natural fiber bath mitt among other products. You've also got The Work Day Box, The Grocery Haul Box, The Clean & Purify Box and others.
These were the first switches I’ve made in my bathroom. Imagine the amount of reduced plastic if you can get your friends or family to switch to just one of those products!
This one is for all the DIY enthusiasts. You can make:
If they’re interested in making their own home products or cosmetics, you can sign them up for a class. In Barcelona, there’s a soap making one available on Airbnb experiences.
Books help dive deeper into the topics of plastic pollution, or fast fashion, for those who would like to explore these topics and understand why it is important to drive change. Here are some top picks worth checking out:
Yes, you guessed right, I mean toilet paper. Ok, it might not be the most popular choice but you can get one from Who gives a crap that builds toilets for people who need them most. That's a pretty awesome goal to support if you ask me.
RainForestSite offers gifts that support charitable organizations and concrete causes such as helping protect elephants in Kenya or plant trees. You can also find a local project close to you heart, and ask if they offer gift cards.
And here are ten specific ideas you're free to use:
Single-use plastic bottles are one of the top ocean polluting items. In Spain alone, we use around 3,500 million of them every single year. For me, getting rid of the single use bottles is the easiest switch if you’re thinking of reducing plastic and it’s also a great direction to point your loved ones to. Tap water might be drinkable where you’re from, but it is not in Barcelona, so if you’re friend or loved one is still buying plastic water bottles, a filter for their home will save our planet from hundreds of them.
Ecofiltro is a ceramic filter made in Guatemala where it provides less privileged families with access to drinkable water. It’s a social enterprise with fair and generous policies towards its employees and it’s now available in Europe too. Plus it looks elegant and beautiful in any space.
P.S.: soon you will be able to refill your bottle on the go in Barcelona via Ecofiltro and Refill Aqua.
This is a gift I gave my fiance for one of our anniversaries. I’ve ordered these square prints of our photos together and wrote a story which I divided into all the photos. He then had to find the correct order of the photos to put the story together. He loved it!
There’s wood workshop in Barcelona where you can gift spoon carving or beer tote and cheese board making class. Your loved ones get a chance to work with their hands and learn woodworking. I’m sure you can find one in your city too! This is something I gifted last year and I created a little flyer to go with it (pictured above) at Piktochart using this template which I then printed on a thick matt paper.
Back in high school, my best friend wrote a diary for several months. It captured her every day of school which featured me as her desk-mate and someone who picked her up on the way to school every single day. She kept it a secret and gave it to me on my birthday. It was one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten. It portrayed our shared reality from her unique perspective.
Years later, I stole this idea from her as an artist and I did something similar - it was a journal of one month of my life featuring my boyfriend. He could then read it as a book. He keeps it in his chest of presents now.
This one needs some preparation in advance, but you can also limit it into a 2-week journal.
Plastic is present in every single aspect of our lives, also in the home cleaning products. If your family member is still not on the stage of creating their own cleaning products but would like to reduce plastic in their home, you can gift them a plastic-free cleaning kit.
Guys at Blueland offer sets of glass bottles and tablets for different uses. You just need to place a tablet in the bottle and it dissolves within minutes creating a multi-surface cleaning detergent, or a hand-washing gel. Great thing about it is that you don’t have to buy new bottles ever again. You just reuse what you have and buy only the refills which are made of natural, non-toxic ingredients.
In the UK, there’s Splosh where you can also buy laundry detergent and softener among other products - all of which are refillable.
Fast fashion comes with an incredible cost for our planet and local communities that produce it. Microplastics from fabrics such as rayon or polyester end up in our oceans and find their way to our food chain. Not to mention the conditions endured by those who make our garments.
Instead of buying another discounted piece of clothing from an Inditex brand, why not to invest in a garment that will not only last longer but one that is produced sustainably with care for those who make it and the planet?
One idea is this beautiful Trees Please tee from Tamga Designs. All Tamga pieces are created using eco-friendly fabrics and low impact dies. The Trees Please t-shirt is even more special because for every tee sold, Tamga donates $10 to the Sumatran Orangutan Society to help re-plant the Sumatran rainforest.
Here’s what’s great about non-physical gifts: they have a low (or none) carbon footprint and they create memories that are often far more precious than any product.
If you’re loved one’s New Year resolution is to be more mindful and fit, why not give them a one-month subscription to a yoga studio near them? In Barcelona, there’s Grow Estudio where they offer all kinds of yoga classes and mindfulness sessions, also for the beginners.
If you’re into DIY gifts or you want to learn something new, you can try this homemade body scrub made from coconut oil and brown sugar. You could also use avocado oil, jojoba oil, grapeseed oil, or any other neutral-smelling oil.
You can then store it in a nice glass jar and decorate it with a handmade or printed label. Additionally, you can add handwritten instructions for your friend to make the scrub themselves after it’s finished.
If your loved one likes giving back to the community and you know they’d be happy about supporting a good cause, you could donate in their name to a crowdfunding campaign which supports an environmental cause.
NOICE is my latest find. It’s a botanical, zero waste toothpaste that comes in glass bottles and offers refills. When you pledge $20 or more to their Kickstarter campaign, you will receive a 3-month refill pack. Plus they’ve done an excellent job with their campaign video. Who can resist a French naked guy called Clement? ;)
Last but not least, if you’re looking for a gift for a foodie and you have a decent budget, you could get them an online master class like this one with Thomas Keller where your loved one can learn the secrets of blanching, glazing, braising, roasting, confiting, and pasta making.
That's it for the ideas! Now, here’s a little gift from me that might help you convince your family to be more mindful this Christmas:
What if you’re the one who has been trying to reduce plastic waste from your life and need to explain it to your family? This one can be tricky because some people simply don’t accept your I don’t need any clothes or body lotions or Please no plastic requests and still keep gifting you whatever they like.
There’s a remedy to that though.
I think it: a. requires some extra patience, b. a clear communication plan. And here’s where I can help.
If confrontation is not your forte, you can send an email or a message to your family and friends:
If you’re not so good at putting your thoughts into paper, here’s a draft which you can shamelessly copy-paste or as I like to say it - steal like an artist:
Hey [friend, family member]! Ready for the holiday season? I can't wait for us to spend some quality time together at last! About that, I'd like to make a suggestion for this Christmas and I hope you like it :) As you know I've been trying to be more mindful about the environment lately and to reduce plastic from a few areas of my life. I've realized how wasteful holiday season can be (from packaging to unwanted presents going to landfills) and I'd like to propose for us to do things a little differently this year! So, here are a couple of ideas we could try out: - Let's organize a Secret Santa so that each person only gives one gift. This way it's going to be even more thoughtful. We can create a wish list spreadsheet where everyone writes down what they need or want. - Let's establish a rule that gifts need to be either handmade or non-physical. It could be consumables, experiences or digital gifts. Here are some ideas: [link to this guide] to get us started. - Let's agree that all the packaging needs to be recycled. I've already got started on my wishlist [link to your spreadsheet] and made it editable so that you can add your ideas. Let's make this Christmas a bit more friendly for our planet. What do you say? Lots of hugs, Marta
And here it is - your ultimate guide to eco-friendly gift giving!
I hope it was useful but most of all I hope that all the little steps we make collectively help reduce waste this holiday season. That’s my wish for this Christmas.
Happy Holidays from Refill Aqua!
Co-founder of Refill Aqua striving to reduce single-use plastic waste. Marta is also a marketing consultant and growth mentor helping startups tell better stories through content.
Located in the heart of Gracia, Les Tres a la Cuina offers comfort and inclusive food. It's also our first water refill station in Barcelona.
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