Reduce packaging waste this holiday season

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You don’t have to strive for zero waste perfection. Every effort to reduce unnecessary paper and plastic waste is worthwhile.

Giving and receiving gifts is one of the great pleasures of the holiday season, but that pleasure is somewhat reduced when you behold the pile of packaging waste that’s left behind. And this year, in the midst of America’s Great Recycling Crisis, the residual packaging waste is a bigger deal than ever.

As we’ve written before on TreeHugger, China closed its doors to plastic waste imports in January 201. Up until then it had taken 70 percent of the United States’ plastic waste and two-thirds of the UK’s. Even though the U.S. had ample warning of the impending change, it failed to build additional recycling infrastructure or to launch waste-reduction campaigns or to pressure manufacturers to come up with better packaging designs – just a few of the many things it could have done to cope with this enormous problem. As a result, the recycling situation is in a state of chaos.

USA Today reports that countless municipalities across the country cannot find a market for their recyclables. Many are driving their trucks directly to the landfill. Others are paying recycling companies to take away their trash.

“In Sacramento County, California, recycling goes on, but the economic toll is adding up. Mixed paper was worth $85 to $95 a ton to recyclers a year ago. Lately, it’s been fetching $6.50 to $8.50. Lesser-quality plastics were worth $45 a ton. Now it costs $35 to get it recycled. Cardboard prices fell, too.”

These issues, which are big enough on a day-to-day basis, are intensified during the holidays, when people are shopping and consuming more than ever, particularly online. UPS predicts it will deliver 800 million packages this holiday season, up from 762 million last year at this time. If FedEx’s numbers match those from last year, it will deliver 400 million. That’s a whole lot of cardboard boxes, plastic bags, and packing peanuts.

Lamenting the lack of recycling infrastructure is not going to change the unfortunate fact that our society is not set up to handle this level of waste right now. But knowing that, we have a clear responsibility to minimize this waste as best we can, and tackling it on a personal level is all we can do.

I urge you to make a point of avoiding unnecessary packaging when shopping for and wrapping holiday gifts. You can do this in a number of ways.

– Make your own presents, using materials you already have. Check out 5 last-minute hostess gifts from your pantry and 10 luxe DIY gifts made from old sweaters.

– Buy presents loose, without outer packaging, and refuse any additional bags or boxes from the stores.

– Buy second-hand presents from thrift stores, local swap sites, or antique shops. These always come free from packaging.

– Leave surplus packaging at the store – whatever you don’t need in the case of a return. Send a message to the brand that you don’t support their packaging design.

– When shopping online, inquire about packaging prior to placing an order. Support companies whose shipping bags and boxes are plastic-free and fully recyclable. (I’m no Amazon fan, but their Certified Frustration Free Packaging is an ingenious idea that more companies should emulate.)

– Wrap gifts in newspaper, old wrapping paper or gift bags, cloth (check out beautiful furoshiki wraps), or brown paper. Try to keep wrapping paper and gift bags as nice as possible when you’re opening a present and save for reuse. Note that wrapping paper is always non-recyclable.

– Consider not wrapping presents, or just wrapping the kids’ presents. Create a new gift-giving model where the giver presents an unwrapped gift to the recipient. It’s no less meaningful, there’s just less lead-up to the big reveal.

– Use non-salvageable paper and cardboard as fire starter.

– Talk to the family and friends with whom you spend the holidays and ask if that gigantic pile of wrapping paper waste that dominates so many living rooms on Christmas morning can be eliminated or, at the very least, shrunk considerably.

It’s not going to solve the recycling crisis overnight, but neither will improving our recycling infrastructure. What’s needed more than that is a dramatic shift in the way we shop and handle our goods, always moving toward less packaging.

10 gifts for the Zero Waster in your life

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Have a friend or family member who’s trying to reduce trash? Give them the tools to succeed!

If you have a friend or family member who is interested in pursuing a zero waste lifestyle, then this is the perfect time of year to give them some of the tools that will make that transition easier. Giving gifts might seem at odds with the zero waste lifestyle, but the fact is that a few basic supplies can be enormously helpful – and the more supplies one has, the more likely one is to stick with it. So, in an effort to give gifts that are conducive to zero waste success, here’s what we recommend.

1. Shampoo Bars

shampoo bars© Lush (used with permission)

Give the gift of plastic-free hair care. Shampoo bars are a brilliant way to keep one’s hair clean without relying on plastic bottles. Check out the fun offerings at Lush Cosmetics, or the beautiful shampoo-conditioner bar sets by Unwrapped Life, a Calgary-based company.

2. Set of organic cotton produce bags

cloth bag with vegetablesUnsplash/Public Domain

My 8 favorite kitchen tools still going strong after decades of use

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These allies in cooking and baking were made to endure, rather than self-destruct.

When Katherine wrote an ode to her trusty Le Creuset pot, it got me thinking about some of my beloved kitchen items that I’ve had for ages. I’ve written about some of my favorite tools before (see related stories below), but more in context of their low-tech prowess and flexibility rather than their endurance. But in this day and age, when things are often made so shoddily, it seems prudent to give a shout-out to the old workhorses in my kitchen, the items that were built to work beautifully and live a long life. These are some of my favorites that came to mind.

1. Copper pans

Our hand-me-down copper pans, shown above, are so dreamy that they make me coo like a freak whenever we cook with them. They had been in my partner’s family for decades before they came our way; and said family member is a chef, so they have seen a lot of use. Yes, copper pans take a little more care than some other pans, but there is nothing like cooking with them. Magic happens, for sure; food does not stick, the conductivity makes them heat up super quickly, and food browns beautifully but is hard to burn. We had a few of them re-tinned, but many modern copper pans come with a stainless steel lining that is a bit less fussy. Either way, I am pretty sure these will last forever.

2. Le Creuset au gratin

le creuset© Melissa Breyer

Katherine waxed poetically about her Le Creuset pot, and with good reason – they are like comfort items for grown-ups. Aside from my Dutch oven, I came across an old and stained (but beautiful and green!) Le Creuset au gratin pan at a sidewalk sale and scooped it up for $5. I bake everything in it! From casseroles to roasted vegetables to baked pastas to, yes, even gratins. I love it not only for the way it cooks food, but it’s also nice on the table and precludes my need for a serving dish.

3. Pepper mill

pepper mill© Melissa Breyer

A thrift shop find from decades ago, this mid-century beauty just keeps grinding and grinding and grinding. And it provides a great array of ground pepper, from fine to course. When I see those pre-loaded disposable salt and pepper grinders in the store, I am always shocked – why would someone buy a new plastic pepper mill every time they buy pepper? Yes, it’s a little beat up, but it’s a beautiful patina that shows its sweet heart underneath.

4. Pastry scraper

pastry scraper© Melissa Breyer

Another thrift shop find, my pretty cast iron and steel scraper has cut and scraped more pastry than I can remember. Now of course pastry scrapers are inherently durable and will likely last a long time anyway, but that this one came to me with years of use already under its belt, which makes it all the more impressive.

5. Calvin Klein dinner plates

kitchen tools© Melissa Breyer

I wouldn’t judge someone for judging someone for buying designer dinner plates because it does seem frivolous. But I got my (intentionally mix-matched) set of Calvin Klein dinner plates 20 years ago and they’ve been absolute superheroes. I have never tired of their clean design – a collaboration between Klein and the postmodern tableware company Swid Powell – which means I have never ever considered replacing them. But even better than their timeless appeal, is this: In 20 years, in a busy household that has seen babies turn into teens and a parade of rambunctious pets, only two of the 30 pieces have broken. We have used them every single day, we have dropped them, we have stacked them and dish-washed them and otherwise mishandled them, and yet they persist! The other day I accidentally whacked one on my stone countertop; the thwack was resounding, and not even a chip.

6. Muffin tins

baking pans© Melissa Breyer

My grandma gave me her muffin tins when she was downsizing, and while she is sadly gone now, her bakeware lives on. Every time I bring them out, I think of her with the fondest of memories. I mean, yes, they look old … but they should! I hope I can give these tins to my grandkids some day.

7. Ginger grater

grater© Melissa Breyer

Oh my trusty old friend, the ceramic ginger grater. I bought this slip of nubby porcelain in Chinatown for $3 when I first outfitted my kitchen, and I use it almost everyday. It is the easiest way, in my experience, to prepare fresh ginger – just rub the root on the grater’s teeth and a juicy pulp is achieved; I don’t even peel the root. I also use it frequently for fresh nutmeg, as you can see above, which is basically like catnip for me. I love that it’s ceramic but has never broken … and I especially love that I don’t risk grating part of my finger off, like I always fear with a microplane.

8. All-Clad pots

all clad pots© Melissa Breyer

While the copper cookware is slightly more delicate, my 30-year-old All-Clad pots have been thoroughly abused by me, and they still look practically brand new – well, more so after a hard cleaning, but still. Yes, there are cheaper pots and pans out there – but I am pretty sure these ones will never need to be replaced, and I adore cooking with them. I will probably be giving them to my grandkids along with my grandma’s muffin tins! And copper pots, and pastry scraper, and ginger grater, and … you get the picture. Long live the long-lived kitchen tools!

Living Christmas tree rental takes off in England, too

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Pot-grown trees are a nice idea. Especially if someone else looks after them.

I’ve always liked the idea of a living Christmas tree, but the idea of keeping it alive between the holidays seems daunting. There’s also something nice about going to pick up your tree—bringing something new and fresh and different into the house during the darkest time of the year to brighten things up.

It’s just a shame that this new and fresh and different thing is dead…

That’s why living Christmas tree rental makes so much sense, and not just in California. The BBC reports that Primrose Vale Farm in Gloucestershire, England, has also developed a reputation for living tree rental—allowing customers to come select and bring home their own tree, and then return it back to the farm for safe-keeping until next year rolls around.

According to the Primrose Vale Farm shop website, rentals start from £20 (about US$25) for a 3′ tree. If you leave your £15 deposit with them when you return your tree, you can even reserve the same specific tree for your next year’s celebration, which would be fun if you have little ones and want your tree to grow with them. Apparently local-area delivery and collection is available for an additional fee.

You can even pre-order your free-range meats, veggie boxes, pies and other holiday goodies from the same place to keep things easy.

Not a bad business model for those who are trying to cut down on waste during the holidays.

It’s time to extinguish your passion for scented candles

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They may be nice to look at, but they’re terrible for air quality.

Candle season is in full swing. Those little flickering flames in a jar are an antidote to the darkness that descends so early at this time of year and an invitation to curl up for a quiet evening at home. They also look great on social media and, for photo-happy Millennials and iGens, that’s important.

The Business of Fashion (BoF) reports that candle sales have been soaring. UK retailer Cult Beauty has seen a 61 percent increase in 12 months. US brand Prestige Candles has seen sales rise by one-third in the past two years. Luxury brands such as Gucci, Dior, and Louis Vuitton are offering candles as a “more accessible entry point” for customers. Candles have suddenly become cool because social media influencers are telling us so. Cheryl Wischhover writes for BoF:

“Often consumers are buying candles to use as part of their beauty or wellness routines. Some brands’ best advertising comes from beauty influencers demonstrating face masks with a fetching candle flickering nearby.”

All this talk of candles might give you the warm fuzzies, but there’s a dark truth beneath it all. Scented candles are not as innocuous as they seem. They’re in fact quite toxic and not something you should be burning in your home. Here’s why.

The majority of candles are made from paraffin wax, which is the final byproduct in the petroleum refining chain. It is described as “basically the bottom of the barrel, even after asphalt is extracted.” When burned, its soot contains toluene and benzene, both known carcinogens. These are the same chemicals found in diesel exhaust and “can cause damage to the brain, lung and central nervous system, as well as cause developmental difficulties” (via HuffPo).

A study at South Carolina State University compared non-scented, non-pigmented, dye-free candles that were made from either a petroleum-based wax or a vegetable-based wax. They concluded that “the vegetable-based candles didn’t produce any potentially harmful pollutants [but] the paraffin candles released unwanted chemicals into the air.” Chemistry professor Ruhullah Massoudi stated,

“For a person who lights a candle every day for years or just uses them frequently, inhalation of these dangerous pollutants drifting in the air could contribute to the development of health risks like cancer, common allergies and even asthma.”

Fragrance isn’t safe, either. Eighty to 90 percent of fragrance ingredients are “synthesized from petroleum and some of the commonly found harmful chemicals in fragranced products include acetone, phenol, toluene, benzyl acetate, and limonene” (from 2009 study “Fragrance in the Workplace is the New Second-Hand Smoke“, University of Maryland). Many of the chemicals commonly used in fragrance blends have been linked to hormone disruption, asthma, chronic lung disease, and allergic reactions; nevertheless, they are not required to be listed as ingredients because they’re considered a proprietary secret.

In 2001 the Environmental Protection Agency issued a report stating that burning candles is a source of particulate matter and “may result in indoor air concentrations of lead above EPA-recommended thresholds.” The lead comes from metal-core wicks, which are used by some candle-makers because the metal holds the wick upright, preventing it from falling over as a cotton wick would.

If you’re a committed candle lover – or celebrating Hanukkah – the safest bet is to go with unscented organic soy or beeswax candles. An essential oil diffuser can provide the fragrance, if you’re really missing it. The good news is, soy candles last 50 percent longer than paraffin ones, according to Sandrine Perez of Nourishing our Children. She writes, “They also burn slower and cooler (helping to better distribute fragrance), are non-toxic, less likely to trigger allergies, clean up with soap and water, and produce very little soot.”

It may be hard to pass on the scented ones, as they do look stunning and smell tantalizing, but it’s not worth sacrificing your health for the sake of an attractive light, especially when healthier options do exist.

21 ways to use tea towels

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Who knew these fabric rectangles could be so phenomenally versatile?

Every now and then I stumble across a headline that kickstarts my brainstorming. Today, it was Food52’s article on “8 Ways to Use a Kitchen Towel Besides Drying Dishes.” Immediately I started wondering what my own list would look like, before sneaking a peek at theirs. In a matter of minutes, I had a surprising long list, helped by some Internet wisdom. I guess I use my tea towels in more ways than I realize!

These little rectangles of fabric are impressively versatile, so do not underestimate their ability to make your kitchen tasks easier. Keep them clean (I change mine every 2-3 days) and stock a few varieties for different purposes. I like super-absorbent cotton terry ones for drying wet dishes and cleaning up messes, and the stiffer flour sack/linen types for covering dough and creating a stable base for mixing bowls – but more on that below!

1. Cover rising bread dough. When I gave up plastic wrap, tea towels became my go-to for covering bowls of dough while rising. Some people moisten the towels beforehand, but I don’t and haven’t noticed any problems with dryness.

2. Spin salad greens and herbs dry. When my salad spinner broke, I spent several months drying greens in clean towels. You can literally spin and twirl the towel around to get the moisture out, or gently wrap and press the water out.

3. Potholder and trivet. Fold a tea towel over several times to create a insulated grip for hot pots and baking pans. Set one on the table to hold hot dishes.

4. Make the fluffiest rice. Wrapping a pot lid in a tea towel and securing it around the handle with an elastic makes a tight seal. This is also good if you have browned meat in with the rice. According to chef Samin Nosrat’s recipe for Chicken with Lentil Rice, “This will absorb steam and prevent it from condensing and dripping back onto the chicken, which would make the skin soggy.”

5. Keep quick breads warm from the oven. Line a bowl or basket with a clean tea towel and put freshly baked tea biscuits, scones, or muffins inside to keep them warm until ready to serve.

6. Stabilize mixing bowls and cutting boards. Fold up a towel to create a base beneath a mixing bowl, if you find it’s skittering across the counter. Spread one out and place a cutting board on top if it’s moving around, or if you want to catch drips.

7. Drain fried foods. Giving up paper towels has forced me to use fabric alternatives to absorb grease. Please note: This does tend to make cloths unattractive over the long term, so I have a few designated towels that I use any time I need to drain something greasy.

8. Wrap gifts. Use a tea towel to make furoshiki-style wrapping for a gift, like a bottle of wine or olive oil or a pile of handmade soaps.

9. An improvised tea cozy. My mother would be horrified to find out that I don’t own a single tea cozy (she has many), but when my guests are late showing up for tea, I wrap it in a towel.

10. Line a shelf or cabinet. I put a thin linen towel on the bottom of the cabinet where I keep olive oil and vinegar. It absorbs the greasiness that inevitably appears over time. I’ve also heard of tea towels being used to line fruit bowls and crisper drawers in the fridge.

11. Spread over phyllo pastry to prevent drying out. Phyllo is notorious for drying out quickly, so I always have a tea towel handy to place over top of the pile as I’m brushing olive oil between layers of spanakopita or melted butter for strudel.

12. Make a lunchbox. This awesome idea comes via The Kitchn. Wrap your food containers in a tea towel, furoshiki-style, and you get a tablecloth in the deal, too.

13. A work surface when preserving food. When canning tomatoes, I like to spread a tea towel on the counter to prevent hot jars from slipping and to absorb the many drips. It makes for easy cleanup.

14. Improvised curtains. Hang pretty tea towels off curtain rods to give privacy and color to a kitchen window.

15. Make homemade produce bags. I just wrote an article on this last week, but it never occurred to me that tea towels would be a great shortcut. They’re pre-cut and pre-hemmed. Just stitch on three sides, add a drawstring, and you’re set.

16. Baby bib. I’ve done this more times than I can count – showed up for dinner at someone’s house without a bib for one of my kids. A tea towel always does the trick, secured at the back with a clothespin.

17. Store breakable dishes. Stack fragile china and glassware between tea towels to prevent chips and cracks.

18. Make baked eggs. This curious recipe places eggs on a moist tea towel directly in the oven to bake. (I haven’t actually tried this myself yet.)

19. Store greens in the refrigerator. In the post-plastic era, we’ll be doing a lot more of this – turning to cloths to serve purposes that formerly relied on plastic bags. Tea towels are great for storing herbs, lettuce, kale, and more.

20. Replace paper towels. You don’t need paper towels if you have a stack of clean tea towels on hand. Use them for wiping dry, cleaning, polishing, etc. More: How to avoid using paper towels

Oh, and did I mention they’re pretty good for drying dishes, too?

The ‘one in, one out’ rule could solve your wardrobe woes

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It’s more effective than a shopping ban at reducing clutter and unnecessary spending.

Shopping bans have become popular in recent years, as people strive to cut down on unnecessary spending and reduce clutter in their homes. To implement a shopping ban, one commits to buying nothing new for a set period of time. It’s a good idea in theory, but not realistic for everyone; nor is it sustainable for the long term. If a shopping ban wraps up with a long list of things that need to be purchased, its purpose has been defeated.

Another, arguably better, way of going about reducing one’s tendency toward mindless shopping is to follow the ‘one in, one out’ rule. Its name is self-explanatory: every time you bring something new into the house, you must remove an item. This keeps clutter at bay, puts an immediate stop to needless accumulation, and forces the shopper to think carefully about what s/he is choosing, since it requires a sacrifice at home.

Ani Wells is a denim designer and minimalist who follows the ‘one in, one out’ rule at home. She wrote for The Minimalist Wardrobe,

“[The one in, one out rule] allows more flexibility while still living minimally… By having this rule in mind, you are less likely to go on shopping binges and you truly think about the purpose the item has in your life. Ultimately, it forces you to ask the question, ‘Do I really need it?'”

If you want to give the ‘one in, one out’ rule a try, here’s some advice for a smooth transition.

1) Pair like with like. Get rid of something that’s in the same category as the new item. I’ll let Francine Jay, author of The Joy of Less, explain:

“For every new shirt that goes in the closet, an old one comes out; new handbag in, old handbag out; new pair of shoes in, old pair of shoes out. If you need to rebalance, you can mix it up; for example, if you have too many pants and not enough shirts, feel free to decrease the former, while increasing the latter. But no fair tossing a pair of socks for a new coat!”

2) Do it right away. Within the hour of returning home with your new purchase, another must leave. If you delay, it may never happen. Jay takes this to an extreme, saying, “I’ve gone so far as to keep new items, still packaged, in the trunk of my car until I was able to purge something similar.”

That’s all there is to it. One in, one out – a simple yet effective solution to your wardrobe and financial woes. Give it a try and see how it works.

Cloth produce bags are easy to make and use

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The solution to one of your plastic problems is in your linen closet.

I was recently shopping online for cloth produce bags and gaping at the cost of shipping when it dawned on me that I should just make my own. Even though I have zero sewing experience, surely it’s not that hard to convert an old cotton sheet into a bunch of sturdy produce bags, right?

That’s when I came across Anne-Marie Bonneau’s tutorial on how to make your own cloth produce and bulk food bags. Bonneau, who’s known as the Zero Waste Chef and has no end of delightful tricks up her sleeves for reducing waste in the kitchen, makes it sound easy. She uses a 23″ x 17.5″ template and cuts as many bags as she can out of a freshly washed sheet. She finishes the edge by serging (or you could hem it), pins and sews the edges, and leaves them with open tops.

It was the open tops that stumped me initially. I had assumed that I’d need a drawstring to close it up, and that’s far beyond my level of sewing ability! But as Bonneau pointed out, all you need is an elastic. Shop with a small ball of elastics in your purse and you’re set. It’s easy for a cashier to stretch open for a quick glance inside to confirm the contents.

Bonneau had a few more suggestions. When buying bulk foods, depending on the store, you may have to record the bin number to make things easier for the cashier. Writing the number directly on fabric doesn’t always work, nor does it wash out predictably. She suggests writing the number down next to the item on your shopping list, whether on your phone or a piece of paper. Again, a simple yet effective solution.

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Reusable produce bags aren't just for produce. Some of the ways I use mine: . Certain bulk foods. These lightweight cloth bags work well for larger items, such as nuts, beans, rice and popcorn. I have used them to buy flour but prefer jars for that. . Freezing and storing bread. People ask often how I store bread. I store whole loaves in these bags in the freezer. I don’t freeze bread for very long—a couple of weeks maximum. I store bread on the counter in these bags also. . Buying bread and baked goods. Sometimes I buy bread at a local small grocery store that sells Acme Bread loose. . Packing lunches. The smaller bags work well for a sandwich (unless it has lots of juicy pickles, in which case, I use a metal @lunchbots). . Produce. I usually take at least five with me to the farmers’ market. Leafy greens keep really well stored in these bags in the refrigerator. . Salad spinner. Wash greens, place them in a bag, take the bag outside and twirl it around a bunch of times to dry the greens off. Store in the crisper in the damp bag. . New blog post on this past weekend’s reusable produce bag giveaway at the farmers’ market: “8.3 Billion Reasons to Choose Reusable Produce Bags.” Link in profile. . #bulk #bulkshopping #reusables #reusableproducebags #reduce #reuse #repurpose #plasticfree #plasticfreeproduce #plasticfreeliving #planetorplastic #breakfreefromplastic #beatplasticpollution #waronwaste #zerowaste #zerowasteliving #sharingeconomy #realsharingeconomy

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One commenter suggested embroidering (yikes, that sounds complicated!) the bag’s weight onto the exterior so that it doesn’t have to be tared (pre-weighed) by the cashier every time. Another approach is to choose a lightweight material that does not affect the final weight on the scale and doesn’t need to be tared, and yet is sturdy enough to hold reasonable quantities of whatever you’re buying. Cotton and linen are ideal.

Dark fabric won’t show stains as readily if you’re prone to forgetting produce in the bottom of the fridge, but you should really sort food once you get home from the store to make sure that doesn’t happen. Wash bags regularly because they can pick up all kinds of nastiness in the grocery cart (after every shopping trip is ideal) and hang to dry. They should last a long time and bring you lots of satisfaction in the process.

Get together with a group of friends to make bags one evening. I bet this is the kind of thing that a lot of people would happily use, but haven’t necessarily gone out of their way to acquire yet.

I think I know what my weekend project will be…

15 things not to buy for the holidays

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A great big list of things you don’t need or that you can make instead of buying.

Even before the chapter was closed on October, Taryn Williford at Apartment Therapy was urging readers to begin holiday crafting. And she’s got a point: Handmade gifts and decor don’t happen overnight. Williford offers a number of typical holiday items that can be made instead of bought, which dovetails with my annual seeking of things that I don’t need to buy for December. I have found that by not spending money on all the superfluous stuff, I have more to spend on a higher quality gifts for my friends and family, things that are made ethically and that will last longer. And when supplemented with a homemade gift as well, it’s really the best of all worlds.

1. Cookie tins

Metal cookie tins are cute and yes, they are reusable, so they’re not the worst thing in the world. But there are so many other options that are free and may be more practical for re-use than a metal box with Santa on it. Most of us sustainably minded folks have a stash of jars – they make great cookie containers, as you can see in the photo above. You can also repurpose old gift boxes or make little craft paper pouches from old paper shopping bags, then decorate with ribbon and a sprig of evergreen.

2. Gift tags

Gift tags© Melissa Breyer

Do people still buy gift tags? They must because I see them for sale in the stores. There are so many other options other than new store-bought tags. Write on the paper itself, cut out initials from scrap paper or old greeting cards, write the name in yarn, use rubber stamps, cut out a tag from scrap paper, color code gift wrap per person … the options are endless.

3. Holiday cards

While I love the care and experience of giving and receiving holiday cards, the fact that we spend $7 billion dollars a year on greeting cards in the United States makes me wonder about all that single-use paper flooding the waste stream. If this bothers you as well, think of alternatives: Send a photo with a note on back, make new cards by cutting up and reassembling old ones, use old wrapping paper or scraps (like above), write emails and include photos … there are all kinds of things you can do that are not buying into the Greeting Card Industrial Complex!

4. Stockings

Even the most craft-challenged amongst us can cut out two stocking shapes from old fabric, stitch them together, and embellish. The one above doesn’t even require sewing! This one is a bit more complicated, but uses old blankets which is a nice touch.

5. Wrapping paper

I am always shocked by how much new wrapping paper costs – and by how wasteful it seems. According to Stanford University, if every American family wrapped three presents in reused materials, the saved paper would cover 45,000 football fields. Become a fan of recycling old wrapping paper, and/or easily make your own – it’s really fun, unique, and easy. A wealth of ideas here: 10 stylish and sustainable ways to wrap gifts

6. Garland / Bunting

No need to splurge on garlands or festive bunting when you have tree trimmings and some string. You can snip some greens from trees in your garden, ask your tree seller for extras, or use some from your own Christmas tree. For a tutorial on how to make the one pictured above, visit the ever-lovely A Pair and A Spare.

7. Advent calendar

DIY advent calendarHans/Public Domain

An Internet search for “DIY advent calendar” may be all that’s needed to convince anyone to make their own advent calendar. There are so many creative ideas, like the one above using matchboxes. A few years ago, my then-11-year-old daughter gathered up all the wrecked pants from her childhood (which we saved because you never know…) removed the pockets and stitched 25 of them on a piece of metallic-tinged linen for the cutest advent calendar ever. All you need is 25 receptacles and voila.

8. Flower arrangements

No need to buy special holiday flowers! Raid your garden for pretty branches and sprigs, even if it means bare branches that you can decorate for a wintry theme. My winter garden usually has the last of the rosemary and sage that can be added in, as well as dried curly grape vines and evergreen branches. If you have nothing to work with, Christmas tree sellers often have loads of scraps they’re willing to give away. Add ornaments and fruit and whatever else comes to mind.

9. Holiday dinnerware

Why go out and buy Santa plates when you can use plain plates topped with a holiday flourish?

10. Tree ornaments

Cookie cutterMax Pixel/Public Domain

The great tree ornament mystery goes like this: Who is buying the zillions of tree ornaments that fill the stores’ shelves every holiday season? Don’t people use the same ornaments year after year? Even accounting for people who have lost their ornaments or people starting new homes, it seems like there is an awful lot of ornaments for sale. Maybe people just want a new look? If that’s the case, they could try one of these: How to decorate your Christmas tree with found objects.

11. Hostess gifts

hostessFlickr/The Purple Foodie/CC BY 2.0

Your host or hostess probably doesn’t need you to buy them fresh flowers or a bottle of wine – but they would perhaps love to receive something homemade from your kitchen. Inspiration here: 5 last-minute hostess gifts from your pantry

12. Wreaths

Have a wreath-making day with friends. Everyone can bring a big batch of treasures – branches, leaves, herbs, flowers, pinecones, seedpods, rose hips, seashells, ribbons, ornaments, etc – and guests can mix and match to make their own wreaths. A Pair and a Spare has a tutorial on how to make the minimalist wreaths pictured above, but you could go over-the-top as well. For the base, you can make forms out of wire or branches.

13. Scented candles

I know that scented candles are all the rage, but too many of them should actually be inciting rage given the synthetic fragrance they’re polluting homes with. Instead, opt for DIY all-natural ways to scent your home: Put a mug of water with cinnamon sticks on a radiator, make clove and orange pomanders, have lots of fresh evergreen or eucalyptus branches in vases, use fresh herbs like rosemary in centerpieces and arrangements, or even make your own non-toxic essential oil diffuser.

14. Party hats

I’m not sure that people wear party hats during the holidays, but why don’t we?? Or at least, why don’t we wear flower crowns like these? Forage for whatever winter greens you have on hand and get crafting.

15. Fancy table linens

As much as I love formal table cloths, I always ruin them … which is why I think that it’s better not to keep buying new ones. Now I’ve taken a more rustic approach and mix and match formal serving pieces with linens that are a bit more rough and tumble. I love the burlap woven table covering in the photo above. Any humble fabric can be used, just make sure to add in some elegant things and a lot of greenery to tie it all together.

I’m always looking for new ideas – what holiday items do you eschew or make yourself? Let us know in the comments.

7 money tips for the dirt poor

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Most money tips are aimed at the middle class. Here are some for those just scraping by.

A Vice article going around argues that money advice is for the middle class, not the poor. The article says most money tips are only applicable to people with enough cash to make real financial choices. Besides, if you’re poor, you need life’s little luxuries every once in a while to keep your spirits up.

I found myself nodding along to most of the points in the article, but something tickled at the back of my head. The author made $23,000 a year and was on Medicaid. That’s rough. But … I’ve made less, had no Medicaid, and lived in New York City. And I managed to pay the rent, eat, get around, find entertainment, and even save a little.

I lived with a lot of people in the same boat, and honestly … some of us managed our money well enough to live on without going into debt, and others couldn’t make it. Unfortunately, Vice is right: most savings articles are aimed at middle-class people, not the poor.

So here are some tips I found for living poor that really did make a difference to me. Should anyone have to live like this? Maybe not, but you gotta play the hand you’re dealt sometimes.

1. Consider alternative living arrangements

friends living together coop© DGLimages/Shutterstock

Rent is really what sinks people. Most people are used to a certain standard — having their own rooms or living in certain neighborhoods, for instance. But if you are truly struggling to get by, those things aren’t always luxuries you can afford. Besides, if you are constantly worried about getting evicted, the stress seeps into the rest of your life.

Sharing a room may not be ideal, but it goes a long way toward keeping a person afloat. This technique might be most common for single young adults, but plenty of older adults and families take advantage of co-ops and other co-housing.

Location matters too. When I moved to a new place, I would figure out what bus or train lines went near my job and look for apartments in cheap neighborhoods on those lines.

But whatever you do, DON’T move into a place without a kitchen. You’ll end up blowing all your earnings on restaurants.

2. Rice and lentils

fried riceMaxPixel/Public Domain

Speaking of cooking, big bags of rice, beans, and lentils are nutritious and will get you far. Eggs are another good ingredient to pick up, packing in plenty of protein and fat for a fraction of the cost of meat. If you’re vegan, chose tofu or beans, not veggie burgers.

If you can use these simple but nutritious foods as your bases (supplementing them with oil, veggies, fruits, and other basics), your food budget will be tiny, making the occasional restaurant treat much more doable. Avoid anything pre-made.

3. Put on a sweater

ugly Christmas sweater partyWikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A girl once told me she was just barely keeping up with rent. But she’d crank up the heat in the middle of winter so that she could hang out comfortably in a T-shirt.

Clothes, people. Long underwear and sweaters are nearly as cozy as furnaces. Also, did you know you could wear hats and scarves inside?

4. Pot lucks

potluck dinner© K Martinko — A Mediterranean-themed potluck at my house last summer

Everybody needs a little entertainment now and then, and it makes total sense that someone on a shoestring budget would want to go out for dinner or to a bar every now and then. But if good food, drink, and community is what you’re after, a pot luck can be just as fun. During my dogs days, I would only go out to eat or to a bar once every couple months, but I had plenty of good food and company.

5. Trades and free activities

dance class cheap tips© Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

You can always find ways to pay for entertainment, but with a little creativity, you can find alternatives for cheap or free. If you want to take a dance class, for instance, you can always approach a dance instructor and offer to clean the studio every now and then in exchange for a free class. Lots of businesses are open to these kinds of trades. Libraries sometimes offer free movie screenings. And there are tons of free meet-ups.

6. Thrift stores

You Treehuggers may already know this one, but it bears repeating for anyone who doesn’t: Thrift. Stores. Are. The. Best. I’ve come away from them with new outfits for a few bucks. But avoid upscale “vintage” stores that charge almost normal prices. Goodwill and Salvation Army are always good bets. These stores often have furniture and other household supplies too.

7. Friends

friends camping cooking over fire© Just dance/Shutterstock

I had a friend who worked two low-paying jobs. She was so exhausted each day, she’d need to blow off some steam. So every evening, she’d meet up with a friend or two, and they’d each drop at least $50 at a wine bar.

If hanging out with your friends means spending money, then it’ll be hard to save without feeling like you’re missing out. It’s SO much easier to have a community of like-minded spenders who go on camping trips and host dinner parties instead of hitting up restaurants or clubs.

By the way, fun fact about nearly all these tips: they’re good for the environment. Cooking at home, buying used clothes, avoiding using heat, and sharing rooms all slow down the industrial machine, creating less waste and a healthier planet.

Edit: Two Treehugger readers suggested some more great tips: grow your own food (even if you just have a windowsill, you can plant some nice herbs and spices) and go carless (this depends on your needs of course, but I’ve lived in cities and countrysides around the world without ever needing a car).