Bea Johnson lives waste-free with her family since 2008 and is the author of the bestseller Zero Waste Home (Zéro Déchet en francais)
"Since embarking on the Zero Waste lifestyle, our lives have changed for the better: We feel happier and lead more meaningful lives, based on experiences instead of stuff. My goal is to share its incredible health, financial and time saving benefits!"

a Zero Waste Christmas or almost...

Well, my most dreaded day of the year is over: Christmas day and all the potential waste and extra consumerism that it entails. We did pretty well this year (better than the last), but there is also improvement for us to work on (it will be part of our new year's resolution).

Here is what we did:
  • We've used our patio topiary as a Xmas tree for the last 2 years (it looks great in our minimalist modern home), lit with LED lights on a timer and decorated with mostly vintage ornaments from the Alameda antique market. We did not buy any ornaments or new light strings this year (yeah! that's a 1st)
  • For greetings cards, I made homemade plant-able envelopes (thyme seeds) with a picture in it (that part and the stamp need improvement). The greeting was handwritten in a folded envelope, which eliminated the need of a greeting card and reduced the amount of paper and labels used.
  • We gave homemade consumables in a returnable or reusable jars (jams, pickles, quince paste...)
  • We gave gift certificates for services (manicure, movie tickets...): My personal favorite present this year came from my husband who gave me coupons for dinners out and undivided time with him (much needed for decluttering)
  • We mostly gave used items: I like to label these "vintage", it is better accepted than the words "used" or "from a thrift shop"...handkerchiefs, brand tee shirts or jeans, board games, sports equipment
  • If we had to buy a new product we chose one with minimal or no packaging: A converse shirt with a cardboard and jute tag (both compostable) - but a plastic sleeve with 3 buttons in it... I miss the days when buttons were always sewn onto your garment (it is easier to find when you need them and you don't have that extra wasteful bulk on the tag), socks with a cardboard wrapper (but a small plastic hanger), a bike and engraved luggage tags (both naked and free of tags! yeah!)...
  • I have kept all cardboard boxes/sleeves that I received from eBay shopping, I reuse them when I sell on eBay, Amazon or ship presents
  • We did not use any virgin wrapping paper: We used newspaper cutouts (my son loved the USC player pictures I chose for him), our Xmas dinner meat wrapper (see item to be improved below :(, paper bags that have made their way into our home (could not stop the neighbor from giving me a full bag of fruit last month), shipping packaging (we received a used book from amazon in a plastic envelope, it was white and a red ribbon made it pretty), packing paper from a UPS delivery, and this year Santa did not wrap his own presents (Santa is trying to be greener, I told the kids)
  • I am making paper cards (hostess gifts) from some the used paper wrappers, we recycled the rest
  • We used ribbons and twine that we already had and kept them for next year
  • We used paper tape if needed
  • In January, we will send the greeting cards we received to: St. Jude's Ranch Card Recycling, 100 St. Jude Street, Boulder City, NV 89005.

What we should and will improve on (our to do list for next year):
  • Vouch to only buy used: with planning we could have found a used bike for our son on Craigslist
  • Let the kids shop for all of their cousin's presents at our church Xmas boutique (used items donated by members of the church), it reuses stuff and donates money to a good cause at the same time
  • Request minimal packaging when purchasing used on eBay: I received a tee shirt that was wrapped in a zip lock bag (people still use these?) and wrapped again in an envelope for shipping... A BAG IN A BAG
  • Make sure that an item is used when buying on eBay (I bought a wooden monopoly game, I thought that it was used and it came all shrunk wrapped)
  • Not use any papers mentioned above to wrap our presents, I will make reusable gift bags from pretty fabrics/cloths from the thrift shop to encourage friends and family to not use store bought wrapping paper
  • Let friends and family know about our zero waste efforts (this blog will help I hope), so they know not to give us any packaging or item that is not compostable at best or recyclable at worst (i.e, plastics)
  • Talk Grandma into giving used
  • Get my duck and rabbit meat (Xmas dinner) in jars, my husband went to the store and came back with a wrapper. Both were cut up at the counter and could have fit in 1.5L jar.
  • Find an alternative to landfill for hard meat bones that my dog can't chew
  • Find an alternative for the non recyclable picture of the kids in my greeting cards, I love getting and participating in the greeting cards exchange each year and love to see how kids have changed. But perhaps I will be ready for electronic next year...
  • If I send out another greeting card though, I shall choose for a minimal stamp. I did not think much it when I bought mine this year, but I ended up with HUGE stamps. what a waste

So, what's in my trash this week?
  • Plastic cork from Beaujolais Nouveau (damn it!), the wine was good though. Note to self: email Georges Duboeuf for alternative to their plastic corks... screw top? and double check wine bottle corkage before buying
  • Duck and rabbit bones (they would kill my chihuahua) wrapped in the meat counter wrapper. Note to self: That's the last one
  • Lego packaging: the boys each received a brand new set from grandma, the box and baggies (#5) seemed recyclable but the sticker sheets and plastic accessory holder did not. Note to self: Call recycling center and ask if the sticker sheets (and USPS stamp sheets) are recyclable
  • Wrappers of cough lozenges. Note to self: find a recipe for honey candy for the kids coughs
  • Dirty wax paper wrapper of a breakfast roll. Note to self: Husband needs additional training

Not too bad considering that the average American fills their trash cans 25% more between Thanksgiving and Xmas than a typical 5-6 week period according to

Final Note to self: Post my declaration of Plastic Independence and allegiance to Zero Waste so that my readers (if any) know what the heck I am talking about! ... to be continued.


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  2. Excellent tips! Can't wait to see what comes up next! Please provide tips on what you do with different foods. i.e., How do you buy cheese without plastic or paper packaging? Where do you buy everything? ;) signed your #2 fan!

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  4. Bea ~ thank you for the inspiration! I loved your Thyme holiday cards this year.

    We are trying to get there and vow to make similar changes in 2010 (twenty ten?).

  5. Hi Girls! and Thanks for visiting my blog. Barri: I am working on different aspects of the Zero Waste home, incl. a room by room analysis. Hang in there, keep coming back for more!
    Robin: it's two thousand ten ;)
    This afternoon I discovered Furoshiki folding techniques (Thanks Gwen), the art of fabric folding around objects. Why didn't I find out about it before Xmas? time to collect fabric squares... More on that later, I am hooked!

  6. I'm pretty sure you can compost wax paper. I'm not sure if you count that as non-waste, but it doesn't have to go into the land fill! Just cut the wax paper you accidentally get and mix it in with you compostables.

  7. cut the wax paper into strips, I mean to say...

  8. Sandra6/22/2010

    Bea, this is a fabulous web site. I am an overseas school teacher in Muscat, Oman, and I read about your blogspot in our local newspaper. Can life get any stranger? :) I teach Media Literacy and have an after school activity called "Food Revolution" in an attempt to lure kids away from processed foods. I will be giving parents a training in packing zero waste lunches the end of Auguest. Any suggestions?

  9. Anonymous2/26/2011

    Hi Bea,

    I just discovered your blog after reading the article about your family in an older issue of Sunset magazine.
    About the bones you had to throw away, you just need to find somebody who feeds their dog(that is bigger than your Chihuahua) raw and the problem is solved. I have Bullmastiffs and duck/rabbit bones would not have been an issue for them. I know raw feeders are always on a lookout for source of bones & meat.
    Love your blog!

  10. Love your blog! Thank you for the great ideas and the inspiration.

  11. Anonymous3/10/2011

    Thank you so much for setting the example. Will do my best to make changes in our lifestyle. Hope to learn more from your blog.

  12. Found your article in my hairdresser's copy of Sunset mag, and was eager to check you out here on your blog. Oddly enough, we also had just received the film "No Impact Man" from Netflix, so I'm getting lots of motivation! We've been continually evolving our habits for years now, but still have a long way to go (and LOTS of decluttering to do!), so I am eager to read the rest of your posts as well. For the moment, I wanted to comment on the fabric wrapping for gifts -- We began, more than 15 years ago, to use fabric for Christmas gifts, my sis-in-law picked up on the idea and began sewing bags (I need to learn how to sew!), we also just wrap in swaths of fabric with fabric ribbons, and they all get saved each year and reused the next. I really appreciate your mention of the Japanese fabric folding technique, I will definitely look into that! But my main point is that, gradually, over the years, our extended family (on both sides) has been catching on and they have all begun to keep the circle of re-gifting the fabric wrapping. It has been wonderful to watch it happen. Also, with my daughter's friends, we have been leaning more towards offering playdates as gifts -- one we have done with several friends is an afternoon at the local paint-your-own pottery shop followed by walking across the parking lot to the ice-cream shop. It's been great!

  13. Anonymous3/14/2011

    Hi I just read this real quick...found you through sunset, but I wanted to say that as far as meat bones.... if you boil them with a small amount of apple cider vinegar for say 8hr. or more after you've used them, that you will have a VERY healthy broth for soup AND the bones will at that point be crushable so as not to choke an animal who might eat them (or you can compost them)

  14. Why did I not realize I could recycle the cap of a screw-top wine bottle? I'm embarrassed, but now I'm on it!
    I linked to your home and blog today from my blog. You're doing great stuff and you're truly an inspiration.

  15. Thanks for ideas. I'm going with small steps in the same direction. And now I fill my self guilty for my hobby.

  16. Susan d8/07/2011

    I have been a teacher for the past 23 years and have received more gifts for Christmas than one can imagine. While I appreciate the effort that goes into choosing the gifts and the good thoughts that accompany them I finally decided that I had to do something to stop the flow of stuff coming into my home. There really are only so many teacher mugs that one person can use. I decided that I would request that my students not bring me any gifts for Christmas and suggested that we take on a charity project instead. Last year we baked dog biscuits for the SPCA and another year we bought a goat for a family in a developing country. I think that the parents are relieved that they don't feel pressure to find a gift and I feel so much better knowing that I will not have to drag home a large box of stuff that I will have to find a place for in my home.

  17. I am catching up very late to this blog but thought it was worth mentioning what we did to reduce waste at Christmas. For each of my children I bought large felt Santa Sacks at Bed, Bath and Beyond. Instead of wrapping gifts individually, they are placed unwrapped into the sacks. We have done this for a few years so we have eliminated wrapping paper of any kind with our gift giving. FWIW, this generally applies to other gift giving scenarios (birthdays, etc.) as we have collected a large supply of gift bags suitable for most occasions. The majority of these were acquired when receiving gifts. Now we reuse these bags and when bringing them to kid's parties will retrieve them if they are discarded. One small tip (which I am sure is too obvious) is that we avoid writing on the bags or the paper tags that are often attached.

    Back to the sacks, we originally explained to our kids that Santa needed to group presents into the sacks to improve his efficiency when he stopped at each house. We also suggested to the kids that he was concerned about creating waste and this helped the kids to get interested in the concept. I think the first year he stopped using wrapping paper he left the kids a note explaining his reasons for the changes.

  18. For your hard meat bones, use them to make soup stock, they'll soften up and then you can grind them up and put in the compost or at the very least be reused once.

  19. Anonymous6/03/2012

    Hello- we live in Portland, OR and have since 2001 (before that, we lived in San Francisco). In Oct 2011 our city recycling plan changed so that 'trash' is only picked up every two weeks and 'green/compost' is picked up every week (it had been the opposite for years). Since the change--which has been a good one and was very easy to adapt, our 'green/compost' allows meat bones to be included. Maybe something MV might want to look into?
    p.s. recycling is still picked up once per week, as it has been since we've lived here.

    1. Since I wrote this post, my city has adopted curbside composting.

  20. Those are such fantastic ideas! I have no idea why I didn't think of MAKING gift bags from fabric instead of all those paper (sometimes) plastic bags that I stuff the presents I give to my friends. I've always hated individually wrapped presents (they frustrate the heck out of me cuz I can't wrap AND I can't tear paper 'neatly' according to my mom) and have always tried to use alternatives to just give the present with nothing on it. But I love that fabric bags ideas. I can make them myself AND whoever receives it can reuse it to give gifts to someone else! And the cycle can continue! Genius! And I even thought of reusable fabric handmade envelopes! I don't know where the post will accep them if I actually ship them... But if to people who I see face to face that would be a great replacement for the instant throw away envelopes right? Hee. My family doesn't celebrate Christmas (I only celebrate it with my friends) but I love that it can be applied to any occasions with gifts! Awesome! Oh and I'm currently watching the movie "Home" you were talking about in the previous post. Still at the beginning though. Eheh...