Eco-Gifts Give All Year Long, UF Professor Says

Published: December 21 1998

Category:Environment, Research

GAINESVILLE—Advice guru Abigail Van Buren liked Marie Hammer’s holiday counsel so much, she passed it on to her readers in a recent Dear Abby column.

The advice: Give less this holiday.

Less trash, that is. Hammer, a solid waste specialist at the University of Florida, says the week between Christmas and New Year’s is the biggest trash collection week of the year.

Where does it all come from? Guilty gift-givers know: It’s wrapping paper, boxes, bows and ribbons. The packaging that looks festive under a tree looks like an environmental sin by the time it gets to the landfill.

So Hammer has a few suggestions to cut down on the trashing of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

Gifts of time, baked goods, handmade items and other gifts that do not add to the trash stream top Hammer’s holiday list. Hammer calls them “eco-gifts,” so named because they create little or no waste and save energy.

“We already have enough ‘stuff.’ We fill garages, attics and rented storage units with it,” said Hammer, a professor at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “We already have more than we need.”

Hammer’s recommendations include low-flow showerheads, rechargeable flashlights, fire extinguishers, tickets to a play and books. Good ideas for grandchildren whose rooms already look like a toy store include stocks, savings bonds, music, dance or other lessons, or the promise of a new experience, such as a boat or train ride.

Then there are gifts that don’t add to the waste stream at all, such as gift certificates for making household repairs, tuning up a car, paying a winter utility bill, cleaning hard-to-reach places, mulching or raking a yard. Be sure to establish a time period for following through, Hammer suggests.

“These gifts are preferred by many senior citizens over material possessions,” Hammer said. “How many times have you heard someone say, ‘I don’t want anything for Christmas.’ This means they have just about everything they want. For them, a gift certificate or gift of time would be more welcome than an actual possession.

“When you want people to know you care about them, your actions speak louder than words,” Hammer said.

And when it comes to wrapping, Hammer also has advice: Quit putting all that trash under your tree.

For the creative souls who can’t resist festive wraps, Hammer suggests wrapping gifts in dishcloths printed with holiday themes or brown paper stamped with a sponge or potato print. And the packaging itself can be part of the gift. For example, an amaryllis bulb planted in an unusual pot. Turn wrapping into a game and challenge family members to wrap all gifts without using gift wrap.

Reusing packaging helps, too. The Use Less Stuff Report, published by Partners for Environmental Progress, says if every family reused just 2 feet of holiday ribbon, the 38,000 miles of ribbon saved could tie a bow around the entire planet.

For gifts that need to be packaged for mailing, Hammer suggests cushioning with wrapped hard candy, peanuts in the shell or shredded paper instead of plastic packing peanuts.

“Even if we just saved a half pound of paper per person, when we’re talking about 14 million people in Florida, that’s saving a lot of waste,” Hammer said. “Let’s face it, when you buy wrapping paper, ribbons and bows, you’re buying trash.”

Floridians already generate 9.1 pounds of waste per person per day, double the national figure, Hammer said. So buying a lot of packaging at Christmas and then putting it on the curb just doesn’t make sense.

Hammer also encourages family to rethink traditions that no longer work and start new traditions that are less wasteful. Instead of a cut tree, use an artificial tree or plant a real tree in the yard that can be decorated year after year. Donate money to a charity in lieu of gift exchange or plant a tree in a person’s honor. Have an open house celebration instead of a huge meal. Choose one or two traditions from other cultures to celebrate.

“Don’t be afraid to break with tradition. Just because you’ve always done it a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t change,” Hammer said. “Today’s families are much different from those in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. A characteristic of healthy families is to create traditions that are meaningful for them.”

The tradition of sending holiday greeting cards has been altered by e-mail, Hammer notes. But the Use Less Stuff Report says the 2.65 billion holiday cards sold each year in the United States could fill a football field 10 stories high. If every family sent one card less, it would save 50,000 cubic yards of paper.

The less-is-more approach may require a sea change for baby boomers. But for older people, it’s the way they remember Christmas.

“In the early tradition of Christmas, there were a lot more handmade gifts,” Hammer said. “People didn’t have the resources to purchase many gifts.

“So going back to the basics, back to the gifts from the heart, giving gifts we generate with our hands and our hearts, these gifts naturally do not generate a lot of waste. And they help us avoid overspending during the holidays.”

Hammer says most families can think of ways to cut down on waste in the home, and the holiday is a good time to start. And if you’re in the market for a New Year’s resolution, mending wasteful ways is a great place to start, she notes.

“Christmas is a wonderful time to share with the family. But the legacy we leave our children should not be one of landfills overflowing with Christmas garbage,” Hammer said. “A little effort by everyone adds up to a much cleaner environment.

“Think of it as a Christmas gift to the future.”


Cindy Spence
Marie Hammer

Category:Environment, Research