Sustainable Gift Giving

On December 2, 2022, Laura Marston, owner of GoGo Refills (a store offering product refills and earth-friendly products), shared tips on sustainable gift giving, why sustainable products and lifestyles are important, and practical advice on how to approach efforts to live more sustainably. You can watch her presentation here or at the end of this summary.

She opened by describing her own journey toward prioritizing sustainability, which started with a New Year’s resolution to stop using plastic. The more she learned, the more she wanted to do—which eventually led her to open a store that would help others reduce their use of plastics. She wants to make sustainability fun and accessible to more people.

We’ll get to the holidays in a minute, but first, why is reducing our use of plastic important?

  • Think about the entire life cycle of plastic, from extraction (high environmental impact of oil drilling) to transportation and manufacturing (energy consumption, chemical use) to disposal (land consumption). If we use less plastic, we reduce all the impacts associated with its production and use.
  • Most plastic doesn’t get recycled—only 5-6%. We can’t recycle our way out of the plastics problem.
  • Unlike glass and aluminum which get remade into the same products over and over, most plastics are downcycled, i.e. made into other things (car parts, carpet) that can’t be easily recycled. So recycling plastic is only a temporary approach to its disposal.
  • Plastics recycling is confusing. There are many different kinds of plastic, some of which can’t be recycled, and every town has different recycling procedures and markets.
  • In the environment, plastic breaks down into microplastics which get consumed by animals and eventually, us. There’s a lot of plastic in us.

So, the best thing we can do as individuals is REDUCE our use of plastics. In the first three years of running GoGo Refills, Laura enabled her customers to eliminate 120,000 plastic containers! So think big, but start small. Start at home:

  • Do a waste audit – evaluate what you’re throwing away.
  • Use up what you have.
  • Go slow and steady – Rome wasn’t built in a day!
  • Set rules for yourself to avoid on-the-spot decision-making. Laura set this rule for herself — No buying coffee out unless she has a reusable mug with her.

What does a low-waste lifestyle look like?

  • Using shampoo bars instead of liquid shampoo (removing the liquid reduces the size so the carbon footprint of shipping is lower).
  • Choosing products made of renewable materials (natural fiber/wood dish scrubbers, cloth paper towels, beeswax wrap, etc)
  • Refilling bottles of dish liquid, laundry detergent, shampoo, etc at a bulk supply store.
  • Choosing package-free produce (shop at co-ops, farms) and glass jars instead of plastic (peanut butter, jam).
  • Composting your food waste. Organic waste (e.g. food) in landfills generates methane, which accounts for about 30% of the increase in global temperatures. Compost does not. Many communities have drop-off sites for food waste or private companies that pick it up.
  • Having grocery bags, reusable produce bags, water bottles, utensils in your car. Plastic cutlery is not recyclable!
  • Learning how to recycle appropriately – do some research (take the ecomaine facility tour or visit their Recyclopedia page). Wishcycling (putting things into the recycling bin that you think/hope are recyclable) contaminates the waste stream and impedes recycling efforts. Did you know that aluminum has to be softball sized to be recycled? (So, make a ball and ‘grow it’ until it’s ready!)

Now, the holidays. We generate 25% more trash during the holidays. 25%! That’s a lot! Consider giving the gift of less. Here are some ideas Laura shared:

  • Communicate clearly and kindly with friends and family about your preferences. Suggest Secret Santa or a Yankee swap instead of individual gifting.
  • Give an experience instead of a thing (e.g. treat someone to dinner out together, give movie or theater tickets)
  • Give something re-usable, that will save them money (e.g. cloth paper towels, re-usable sandwich bags, stainless steel water bottle)
  • Give homemade gifts
  • Give second-hand (vintage clothing, quality outdoor gear, so much cool stuff out there!)
  • Give food (homemade pancake or brownie mix in a mason jar with instructions – “Just add _______”)
  • Give locally produced products
  • Avoid fancy and glittery wrapping paper, which is not recyclable. Re-use this paper when it comes to you on gifts.
  • Make and decorate your own wrapping paper using paper bags
  • Use natural materials for decorations – evergreens, etc.
  • Bring a compost bucket to a party. Help with clean up and take the food waste home to your compost.

A few more great holiday ideas came from folks who attended this talk:

  • Give a fancy ‘scroll’ listing a service you will do for the recipient (help out in their garden, babysit their children, cook dinner for a friend with the guests of their choice)
  • Give a donation to a charity they support

Finally, avoid judging people who are trying to make the holidays special in their own way. We learn in our own time, and as others are learning, we can be positive role models for creativity and sustainability.

To close with good news — Maine is a leader in the realm of sustainability, banning plastic bags and Styrofoam food containers. The recently passed Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) law will soon be creating incentives for businesses to reduce packaging and create more sustainable packaging. Amazon and other packaging generators will soon pay into a fund based on how much packaging they generate. The funds will be used to help Maine towns with waste disposal and recycling costs. Many countries have had similar laws, but Maine was the first state to pass it in the U.S. Dirigo Maine!

Be an ambassador for sustainability. Talk about plastic pollution with friends and neighbors, keeping your message positive and thanking businesses that are working to reduce waste and use less plastic. Think big, start small!