One Small Step: 50 ideas for more sustainable gifts

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For challenge 5 in One Small Step, I’m turning our focus toward how (and what) we give.

Because for many of us, December is gift-giving season.

Gifts for children and parents, friends and teachers, neighbors and loved ones. But what do we give them, to express our love or connection, that is in alignment with our sustainability goals?

We dug into consumerism and purchasing habits here last month, but I thought a focus specific to gifts would be helpful for many.

Because buying less is one thing, but what about during a season when we feel inspired, compelled, or obligated to buy?

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I’m here for you.

The list below includes 50 stuff-free, sustainable, or consumable gift ideas for everyone on your list. Creative, useful, and thoughtful gifts that your friends and loved ones are sure to appreciate, and that won’t throw the planet under the proverbial bus.

Most of the items below are plastic-free, many are packaging-free, some are stuff-free (gifts of experiences). Many are zero-waste and most are tried-and-true gifts that my own family has loved.

Read though the list, get inspired, and share it with those you care about. I hope you find something for everyone on your holiday list this season!

Before we cut to the list, however I wanted to share one more thought on sustainability: where you acquire your gifts matters as much as what you choose.

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Before you shop

The suggestions below can help you choose more sustainable options before you even select your first gift. Because where you buy and who you purchase from matters nearly as much as what you choose to give.

Shop small, shop local

Locally owned, independent stores are the lifeblood of any community. Before you get online or buy from a big box store, explore the nearest downtown or corner shop to see what is available. Sure, you might find something cheaper elsewhere, but supporting your neighbors goes a long way toward building a more sustainable, stable future for your hometown community.

Choose handmade

Go out of your way to purchase locally made or domestically handmade gifts. It’s a more sustainable, feel-good option than buying mass-produced or imported products. You will certainly pay more for a handmade pair of mittens than a pair from an oversees factory, but I think it’s worth it to give less if we give better.

Avoid joke gifts

I know. I’m such a scrooge. But joke gifts are often given for the moment of unwrapping only, at a huge environmental cost. If you’re driven to give a joke gift or white elephant, pick it up at the thrift store, won’t you? If the item you are contemplating isn’t worth the mining, extraction, pollution, and human cost that it took to make it, don’t support its existence through your purchase.

Shop ethically made + fair trade

If you are shopping for imported goods, choose those with a fair trade certification. Using chocolate as an example, mainstream, conventional chocolate is often made with child labor, while fair trade-certified brands ensure ethical work conditions and fair pay. We vote for the world that we want with every purchase, and I’m sure none of us think exploitation of children and other vulnerable populations is acceptable. So don’t support it when you shop.

Don’t buy just to buy

And finally, let’s all quit with the obligatory gifts. A thoughtful, heartfelt card or donation in someone’s name will go a long way in paving a new path toward better giving. Very few of us are wanting for more things. So let’s be the change we’re desperate for in the world.

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Sustainable Holiday Gift Ideas

Let’s get on with the list! Below are 50 ideas for a wide range of zero-waste, sustainable, or otherwise ethical gifts. Many are for giving to your favorite kids, but other are suitable for coworkers, teachers, parents, friends, and neighbors.

A quick note before we embark: I’ve included some links below. Some are to small shops, others are big box afflinks below that I really hope you don’t take me up on. Click through to see what I’m talking about, jot down some notes, then set out locally to see what you can pick up from local shops in your own neighborhood. 

  1. Gift certificates for experiences, or favorite locally owned shops (think restaurants, independent book stores, movie theaters, your local yarn shop, the skating rink, indie coffee shops, or performing arts centers)
  2. Membership (museums, maker spaces, or their favorite gym)
  3. Handmade coupons for special experience to share (ideal for family members or close friends)
  4. Zero-waste, plastic-free lip balms
  5. Zero-waste, luxury, organic bar soaps
  6. Natural perfume
  7. Music or dance lessons
  8. Tickets to a play, music or dance venue, concert, or ballet
  9. Donation to a charitable organization that your friend or loved one would value (a few of our favorite are here, here, and here.)
  10. Sparkle Stories subscription for kids
  11. Gift certificate for summer camp or a high ropes course experience
  12. Cozy, real wool outerwear (hats, mittens, scarves)
  13. Wool socks (we adore Sockwell and Darn Tough brands)
  14. Media-time tokens (if children receive limited screen time in your home)
  15. Homemade pizza party coupon
  16. Breakfast in bed gift certificate for a loved one
  17. Sustainable travel lunch kit (a zippered pouch containing a set of silverware, reusable straw, and a cloth napkin)
  18. Homemade holiday ornaments, crafted by you
  19. “Coupon” for an night at a hotel and dinner on the town, for you and your child or partner
  20. Recipe and ingredients for a special dessert
  21. Fair trade chocolate
  22. Mason jar of homemade hot cocoa mix
  23. Beeswax candles
  24. Herbal tea blends
  25. Travel cup or drinking mason jar (my DIY drinking jar tutorial is here, or I have an already made version available here with your choice of closure.)
  26. Homemade, custom spice blends
  27. Nuts in the shell and a nut cracker (we adore this version!)
  28. Cloth napkin set, homemade or purchased
  29. A homemade or purchased apron
  30. Recipe box filled with favorite family recipes and blank recipe cards
  31. Gifts of homemade food and treats, such as candied nuts, homemade jerky, cookies, bread, or other nibbles
  32. Our DIY organic Lip Balm kit (so fun, and very nearly plastic-free!)
  33. Homemade herbal balms, syrups, or other formulas
  34. Coupon for an adventure day together (exploring a city, skiing, hiking, etc.)
  35. Herbal Adventures, my herb book for families and other beginners
  36. Children’s pocket knife (we love this knife with it’s built-in fire starter, but this one is nice as well and has a blunted tip for younger kids)
  37. S’more ingredients and a winter campfire coupon
  38. Homemade bitters, shrubs, or other natural drink mix-ins
  39. Headlamp (We love this model. Unlike other brands, they last for years!)
  40. Fort-making supplies for kids
  41. Handmade wooden spoons (purchased locally or your own creation!)
  42. A tinkering kit for children–hammer, nails, screwdriver, screws, and wood
  43. Play dough ingredients, mason jars, and recipe
  44. Mending kit including this book, needles, and thread
  45. Homemade fire starters
  46. Yarn (bonus points for buying at your local yarn shop!) and knitting needles
  47. Embroidery book, needles, hoop, and thread
  48. “Spa night at home” coupon for a child or your partner, with supplies for pampering (quality/nontoxic/synthetic fragrance- and preservative-free soapsugar scrubmoisturizer, etc.)
  49. Photo album from a favorite adventure with a loved one, or a homemade book of your child’s growing up
  50. Coupon for a summer camping trip with your child, friend, or loved one

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What’s your favorite tip for sustainable, mindful gift-giving? Add your ideas in the comments below! 

You can find the entire One Small Step series here, or click through below for individual posts:

One Small Step: a year of small actions with huge impact

Swap Plastic Bottles of Soap for Bars (plus a DIY liquid recipe)

Buy Less Stuff

Switch to Loose Leaf Tea

DIY All Purpose Citrus Cleaner

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One Small Step: easy DIY All Purpose Citrus Cleanser

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For challenge 4 in One Small Step, I wanted to choose something super simple and not-overwhelming that you can set in motion now, even as the holiday season approaches. And I landed on this old favorite: citrus peel infused vinegar.

Because if your family is anything like mine, there is no shortage of citrus peels heading for the compost pail between December and February.

All Purpose Citrus Cleanser is easy to make from discarded peels of oranges, grapefruits, lemons, clementines, limes, tangerines, pomelos–any citrus fruit skins will do! And all you need is a handful of peels, a mason jar, and some white vinegar.

I first shared a recipe for this household cleanser (along with loads of other non-toxic DIY home cleansers) back in 2013. And truly, it’s been in daily or weekly use in our home for so much longer.

Currently, we clean with just this all-purpose citrus vinegar, a jar of baking soda, and the new LüSa Organics Zero-Waste Dish Soap Bar. Those three gems are all we need to keep our house sparkling clean from top to bottom. (Edited to add: when we clean, that is. I don’t want to misrepresent the state of my house here. And, well, if you know me in real life, you know cleaning is not my top hobby or priority. But when we do clean, these babies work like magic!)

DIY citrus peel vinegar is a non-toxic, zero-waste win for so many reasons. Including:

  • reducing your the need to purchase pre-made cleansers (and the packaging that comes with them)
  • reducing your family’s exposure to toxic household chemicals and fragrances
  • giving second life to a waste product from your kitchen

And while this recipe is not truly zero-waste (because it requires a jug of vinegar), it’s quite low-waste and sustainable. And if you make it with homemade apple cider vinegar, then zero-waste it is!

You can adapt the recipe as desired, adding other botanicals to your jar. Try tossing in a handful of lavender flowers, a sprig of fresh or dried sage and thyme, some pine and spruce boughs, juniper berries, or other herbal favorites like cinnamon, clove, or cardamom. (Lavender infused vinegar turns a gorgeous pink color. I love to combine it with grapefruit peels.)

The process couldn’t be more simple.

DIY All Purpose Citrus Cleanser

Ingredients & Supplies

  • 1 quart white vinegar
  • peels from 3 or more pieces of citrus fruit
  • quart-sized mason jar with nonreactive lid

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Step 1. Place citrus peels into the clean, dry mason jar.

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Step 2: Cover with white vinegar or homemade cider vinegar, filling jar to the shoulders.

If needed, nestle a very small glass jar inside the neck of your jar to hold the peels beneath the surface of the vinegar. Peels that stick up out of the vinegar can mold if not kept submerged beneath the liquid.

Tightly lid and infuse in a cool, dark place for 2 to 6 weeks.

Pro tip: If desired, leave a bit more headspace in your jar, and add additional peels as the come available throughout the month. Mixed fruit-types is fine! This is my usual method, as we normally only have one or two citrus peels at a time, rather than a quart-full at once. Don’t save up your peels to infuse later, as they will quickly mold, rather get them infusing on the day you peel the fruit.

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Step 3: After your peels have infused for 2 to 6 weeks, the vinegar will become a warm, citrusy hue, taking on the pigment from the peels, while the peels themselves become sad, pale, and lifeless-looking (like the jar above, at left). Give your jar a sniff, and it should be a lovely mix of bright acidic vinegar plus sweet citrus notes.

Now it’s time to strain! Pour your citrus vinegar through a mesh colander, squeezing to extract as much infused vinegar as you can from the fruit. Discard spent peels, and transfer your vinegar to a clean, dry jar. Lid with a nonreactive lid, label, and store with your cleaning supplies.

Transfer to an upcycled spray bottle if desired, or use my preferred method and decant directly from the jar.

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Do you make your own nontoxic household cleansers? What’s your favorite recipe?

 

You can find the entire One Small Step series here, or click through below for individual posts:

One Small Step: a year of small actions with huge impact

Swap Plastic Bottles of Soap for Bars (plus a DIY liquid recipe)

Buy Less Stuff

Switch to Loose Leaf Tea

onesmallstep

One Small Step: switch to loose leaf tea

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For challenge 3 in One Small Step, I thought I’d zoom in on seeking more sustainable options for our daily cup of tea.

I’m a tea drinker, smitten with strong black tea with milk and honey each morning. I’m also a fan of herbal chai on the weekends, homegrown tulsi when I’m stressed, and a relaxing herbal blend before bed.

And until this month (and the inception of this blog series), 99% of the times that I reached for purchased tea, I reached for a packaged tea bag.

Truly, there was very little I questioned about the process. I’d rifle through the boxes, choose my envelope, rip it open, and brew. I would steep my tea, then toss the spent tea bag into the compost pail, the wrapper into recycling, and sip my cup.

Until I discovered that actually, it wasn’t quite that simple.

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Because while there are exceptions, most bagged tea (even organic tea) has some sustainability issues. It turns out that a majority of tea bags are made of a paper-plastic blend. The plastic helps the tea bag hold its shape in your cup, and not leak leaves into your brew. Tea bags that are fused closed (versus stapled shut) use plastic to create a tight seal.

That means that when you drink tea brewed with this common, standard type of tea bag, you’re drinking micro- and nano-plastics with every sip. Plastic! (Some tea bags, like those made completely of thin, woven plastic, are logically even worse.)

That means that many of the tea bags that I tossed in to the compost heap actually deposited a fine layer of plastic in my garden soil. Ew.

To make matters worse nearly all of the paper envelopes that tea bags come individually wrapped in are not recyclable either. Take a close look when you rip them open, and you’ll see that most of them are comprised of a non-recyclable frankenpaper, made of paper and plastic, inseparably fused. There’s even an organic brand that I love that I was disheartened to discover shipped their bags in non-recyclable, non-compostable mylar.

Sigh.

So what’s a tea lover to do?

Don’t despair. I’ve outlined some simple, accessible solutions below. As a bonus, since making this change, I’m enjoying my tea ritual more than ever before.

Sustainable Tea Solutions

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Leaf over bag

Choose loose leaf tea, whenever possible. Purchase from your natural food store bulk bins if possible, decanting tea into your own refillable jar. You (like me) may be surprised to discover that your tea expenses are reduced by more than half when making this simple shift! (It turns out–like with so many products–what we’re paying for is mostly the packaging.) Give bulk teas a sniff before buying, to make sure it isn’t stale before you bring it home. Choose a different variety if it is. You can also buy tins of loose leaf tea, though they tend to be more expensive per ounce. If you have the means, switch to organic loose leaf tea for even greater sustainability.

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Plastic-free brewing solutions

Brew your loose leaf tea using a simple, basket-style tea infuser. I find this type to be ideal, as it lets the tea leaves move freely for a well-brewed, flavorful cup. And it isn’t fiddly to assemble like some tea infusers, and doesn’t won’t leaves into your mug. Check at your natural foods coop or tea shop to see if you can find something similar locally. If you want to go even more low-consumption, brew in a pre-warmed mason jar, then decant into your cup by pouring through a stainless sprouting lid. or a small metal strainer the right size for your cup. I picked mine up at a thrift store for 35 cents, and kept it out of the landfill to boot. Win-win! (Wrap your hot mason jar in a towel before pouring, to prevent burns.) (afflinks)

Choose bagged teas wisely

If you do choose to continue to buy bagged tea, choose a plastic-free option. Newman’s Organic Black Tea comes wrapped in compostable/recyclable paper only (not a fused paper/plastic mix), and to my knowledge their tea bags are plastic-free. (The box does come plastic-wrapped, however.) Other brands have clean tea bags too (like Pukka), but many lack the plastic-free individual wrappings.

Here’s a list of plastic-free tea bag brands to get you started.

For pod users

And if you use Kruig tea pods, purchase a stainless steel, refillable pod. You’ll save a ton of money, and reduce your trash generation by leagues. (afflink)

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Grow (or forage) your own!

I you’re an herbal tea fan, homegrown tea is one of the most rewarding crops to grow. And it’s as zero-waste as they come: no carbon footprint for packaging, transportation, fertilizer, and more.

Need inspiration? I forage dandelion, linden, burdock, nettle, wild peppermint, mountain mint, mullein, bee balm, and chicory (among other wonderful weeds), and grow calendula, chamomile, anise hyssop, echinacea, sage, thyme, rose, and more for our tea pantry. I store the dried tea in mason jars as individual herbs, and in blends I dream up for tummy aches, bedtime, anxiety, etc.

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All this said, there is still a lot of tea in my house and at work that I purchased in individual packets right now. A lot. My plan to drink and savor what I’ve already purchased (shame-free), and then, when it’s time to restock, do better.

That’s what this challenge is all about, after all. Starting where we are, and making better choices from here.

 

Are you a tea drinker? Have you made the switch to loose leave over tea bags? What other tips would you add to the list above?

 

You can find the entire One Small Step series here, or click through below for individual posts:

One Small Step: a year of small actions with huge impact

Swap Plastic Bottles of Soap for Bars (plus a DIY liquid recipe)

Buy Less Stuff

One Small Step: buy less stuff

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For challenge 2 in One Small Step, our simple sustainability journey,  I ratcheted up the challenge level a few notches.

Because oh, my, if this one doesn’t get to the heart of the matter–on so many levels.

When we master this step, our impact spills over into all of the other sustainability goals that we may have (like generating less trash, using less fossil fuels, etc.). I’m not going to lie–this step is a doozy. And while I might have waited until we were a little more warmed up, today felt like the right time–especially as here in America, Black Friday looms ever nearer.

This week’s challenge? Buy less stuff. 

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Less clothing, less housewares, less gadgets, less toys–less stuff.

Because when we buy fewer things, both we and the earth benefit. We learn to make due, we learn to make repairs, we learn to make connections. And we lighten our impact on the earth in countless ways.

And when we buy fewer things we may just discover how little we truly need, and how–not surprisingly–we’re happier without all the excess.

Less things mean less resource extraction, less pollution, less human exploitation, less packaging, and less obsolete products heading to the landfill. It’s a win on every level.

But is it easier said than done?

Not if we shift our habits and think clearly about what and why we’re buying. And then start in earnest from where you stand today. You don’t need to become a zero waste master to participate. You only need to begin.

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Why we buy + the business of selling

Why we shop is a pandora’s box of human nature. Your reasons and mine are surely different, but for most of us it’s often more than just filling a tangible, physical need.

We’re not only buying necessities. And in most cases, the things that we buy leave our lives as rapidly as they came. Just 6 months after purchase, only 1% of the things we buy are still in use! 1%!*

So why are we buying–then tossing–so much stuff in America and western society in general? For most of us, one or more of the “why we buy” reasons below are at the root of their purchases. (Confession: even I relate to some of these.)

Why We Buy

  • Marketing makes promises that compels us to buy
  • Shopping is entertaining or fun
  • We feel an emotional lift when we buy
  • We’re in a hurry and don’t have time to seek out a more sustainable solution
  • We are disorganized and can’t find the things we already own
  • Convenience drives our purchases
  • We don’t want to disappoint a child or other loved one by not buying
  • We’re trying to buy the intangible (a feeling)
  • We don’t want to miss out

But when we find healthier ways to navigate our complex human emotions and look objectively at our purchases before we make them, we can unplug from the cycle of mindless consumption.

Only then can our purchases can be needs-driven, and can we can look more objectively at the stuff we welcome into our lives.

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The Business of Selling

When I was a business coaching client, one of the primary messages our coach drove home was this: You never sell a product. You only sell a feeling.

Happiness, belonging, abundance, beauty, love, relaxation, joy, freedom, fun, health. These are the feelings we are seeking when we buy new Ipods and jewelery, pressure cookers and blenders, dress shoes and gaming systems. And while there is truth that sometimes we buy things that deliver those feelings, mostly they miss the mark.

Because we can’t buy joy, belonging, abundance, or any of those feelings. We can only buy things that–for a fleeting moment–help us tap us into that emotion. Then the feeling fades and we’re searching (or shopping) once more, in an effort to regain it.

But when we keep our money in our pockets and find other paths to entertainment and connection, we are far happier than when we attempt to shop our way there. And the earth reaps the rewards when we make this shift as well.

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Buying Less: a simple how-to

Buying less is a deceptively simple challenge, because you decide how far you want to go. Do you have to be zero-waste and shun all things new? Of course not. In order to participate, all you have to do is begin. Then move as slowly (or as quickly) as you wish toward less shopping, less buying, less stuff.

The seven steps below will help you stay focused and mindful about the things you purchase, and ease your transition toward less consumption. (One afflink follows the irony of which is not lost on me). 

1. Use what you have

So often we’re lured by faster, fancier, newer, shinier. But is more really better? Before you buy, decide if you truly need that new item. Sometimes a one week waiting period will help cool your fire, and you’ll realized that you don’t need it after all (this is why most sales run for a short period of time, to seduce you into buying things immediately before you have a chance to think more objectively about your purchase).

Avoid items that only do one job (I’m looking at you, banana slicer), and extend the useful life of your belongings by repairing them when they break or tear (this booklet and this book have been such a gift for us for upping our mending game).

2. Borrow what you can

We all don’t need to own all the things that we use. Just last week, my daughter called up one of our friends to ask if we could borrow their angel food cake pan. We borrowed it for her birthday (the second time in six years), then returned it the next week when we were in the neighborhood.

Borrowing not only reduces the number of things we each must own, store, maintain, and clean, it helps build community and connection when we borrow from friends and neighbors. Win-win!

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3. Choose second hand

If you do decide you wish to own something (say, if I’m suddenly hooked on angel food cake, and baking one every week), seek out that item second-hand before buying new. Second-hand goods are an environmentally sustainable choice, because your purchase keeps someone else’s buying decision out of the landfill.

Thrifting the things that we need can take time and patience, so plan ahead. Keep an eye out for a suitably sized pair of snow pants before that blizzard hits, for example. I often thrift with a list of items we’re in need of, knowing that it might take a few months of patient searching before we tick everything off the list. When my kids were younger, I kept a list in my wallet of the items and sizes that we needed for future season’s clothing, footwear, and outerwear. It helped prevent me from buying duplicates, while stocking up for the months to come.

Yard sales, thrift stores, and even clothing swaps are all great options for picking up some low-impact, second-hand goods.

4. Make you own

While it is not always possible, there are many instances when you can DIY an item off of your shopping list (bonus points of you can use some upcycled materials). You don’t have to be crafty to follow a simply online tutorial for whacking together a shelf, knitting up some mittens, or stitching yourself a zip bag.

If you’ve never made things before, this challenge is a great opportunity to develop some of this skills that your great-grandfather and great-grandmother had. Learning to work with a hammer and saw, a sewing machine, or a needle and thread will give you a skill you can use for a lifetime. Connect with a crafty friend or neighbor to learn some new skills, or contact your local university extension or folk school for assistance.

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5. Where from?

So you’ve looked over the list above, and decided that you really do need to purchase something new. (It happens to all of us, more often than we’d like.) What now?

Before you dive in, consider where the item you purchase is from. Where it was made (and from what), where it has traveled, and where you choose to buy it all matter, and all impact the environmental footprint of your purchase.

Was your product made on the other side of the planet, or closer to home? Is it made of sustainable materials, or synthetics? Is it toxic or nontoxic? In each of these decisions, choose the past of lowest impact when your options and budget allow.

Remember, a high quality item will be more expensive today, but cheaper (and more sustainable) in the long run, because it won’t need replacement as soon as a cheaper model will.

Consider the packaging as well. If you have a choice that’s free of excessive packaging and another that’s shrink-wrapped, bubble-packed, and triple bagged, choose the first option.

And finally, if you have the choice between buying from a big box store (online or otherwise) or a small, locally owned shop, choose the latter.

6. Shop with a list

When you embark to make your purchase, let your shopping list serve as your force field. Don’t be distracted by the cute, shiny, fast, fancy new products that call to you with their seductive siren songs as you walk through Target. Buy what’s on the list, and only what’s on the list. Jot down things that call to you, and come back in a week (or a month) if you really need them.

7. Give conscious gifts

And finally, give better gifts. Our kids don’t need more plastic toys, we don’t need more whirring gadgets. Don’t throw the planet under the bus because you feel obligated to buy a present. Instead, give mindfully.

One blog reader here mentioned that she’s gifting freezer meals to her loved ones this year. We handcraft most of our gifts, and also give our sustainable body care. Consumable gifts and zero-waste gifts are always a win. Or make thoughtful donations to organizations doing good out there in the world.

Need more ideas? I shared 101 toy-free children’s gift ideas here, and many of them are zero-consumption/zero-waste, to boot.

What would you add to the list above? How do you keep too much stuff from coming into your life, especially at this time of year? 

* Only 1% of items purchased new are still in use after 6 months. Did this statistic blow your mind like it did mine? Watch the full video below for more staggering facts, and inspiration on why less stuff is good for the planet (and for our happiness).

 

You can find the entire One Small Step series here, or click through below for individual posts below.

One Small Step: a year of small actions with huge impact

Swap Plastic Bottles of Soap for Bars (plus a DIY liquid recipe)

 

One small step: Swap plastic bottles of soap for bars (plus a DIY liquid soap recipe)

One Small Step toward sustainability: swap plastic bottles of soap for bars.

Last week my 12 year old daughter and I jotted down a list of over 50 small, simple steps we all can take to change the world. We wrote down ideas for kitchen and bathroom, travel and housekeeping, dining out and gardening. So many fun, simple ideas to empower us all to make positive change.

But where should we begin this journey? Well, that was easy. Because our family runs a small, organic soap company. So why not start with the place that is nearest and dearest to our hearts?

With soap.

Nearly all of us have soap (or something like it) at our bathroom and kitchen sinks; in our showers or at our bathtubs. But have we given much thought to the type that we’ve chosen?

Because all soaps and cleansing washes are not created equal, and upping our sustainability game while we’re cleaning up is one small step toward a healthier planet.

Are you ready to dive in with our first small step? Me, too. Let’s get started.

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Kick the bottle

If your soap/body wash/facial cleanser comes in a plastic bottle, the first thing to question is that packaging.

Just 9% of plastic is recycled world-wide. That’s a tiny fraction of plastic produced, with the bulk ending up in landfills, and a smaller percentage either being incinerated or ending as litter in our communities, country sides, oceans and waterways.

Is recycling a better option? Absolutely. But even much of the plastic that we toss in the recycling bin (trusting that it won’t end up in the waste stream) ends up dumped in landfills anyway.

Recycling, the go-to environmental action of the 1990’s, is certainly a small step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. Reducing our frivolous use of plastic needs to come first.

But there’s more to it than the impact of that bottle. Soap, body wash, and other bubbles sold in plastic bottles are made mostly of water. This adds to shipping weight, overall carbon footprint, and even the cost per use for you, the consumer.

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Bars are better

Doesn’t soap need to come in a bottle? No way. High quality bar soaps are gentle on the skin, long-lasting, and in most cases involve no plastic waste. What would your great grandma have used? Simple, natural bar soap, of course.  No bottle, no waste, no fuss.

Here at LüSa Organics, we even offer our bar soaps “naked”. These zero-waste bars come without any packaging at all. (A 100% post-consumer recycled paper box is a second option for most varieties.)

We also sell the scraps, end cuts, and imperfect bars instead of landfilling them, making for a soap that truly is zero-waste.

Not all bars are created equal

Before you head to the corner store to stock up on bar soap, be aware: many of the things we refer to as “soap” isn’t. They are actually synthetic detergent bars. So read those ingredients, lists, won’t you? If possible, avoid synthetic preservatives, fragrances, colorants, and added alcohol which wreaks havoc on sensitive skin. While these synthetic bars do lack the bottle, they can be harsh for your skin and the environment.

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Photo by Alyson Morgan

What about kids?

We hear a lot of concerns from adults about children mangling bar soaps at the sink. “We need liquid soap,” they reason. “Or my kid will trash a bar of soap in one washing!”

We hear you. We had a pint-sized soap-strangler in the house for years. (Yes, they outgrow it.) And while our solution was to provide them with a smaller scratch-and-dent bar of their own, our friend Alyson took things one step further for her littles. She cuts a full-sized bar into tiny cubes, just right for small hands.

These cute little bars stand up to poking and prodding, and create less soap waste than handing your toddler a full-sized bar in the bath.

Natural bar soaps like LüSa are a breeze to cut with a sturdy kitchen knife, but mass produced detergent bars as well as more heavily processed bar soaps can crumble under the knife. Test the bar you use to see if it’s a match.

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DIY Liquid Soap

Okay, so I haven’t convinced you to kick the soap bottle for good? Then how about you refill the bottle you already own with your homemade? All it takes is a scrap of good soap, some water, and a few minutes of your time.

Full disclosure: this liquid won’t lather like the store-bought kind, nor will the texture be what you’re accustom to from a liquid (it’s more viscous). But it will be a safe, healthy, plastic-free liquid option for those who want one–and if you use high quality soap like LüSa, it won’t dry your skin.

Ready to dive in? Here’s my how-to!

DIY Liquid Soap Recipe

Makes 1 quart

Ingredients

  • 1 oz high quality bar soap (scraps or Scratch-and-Dent bars are great)
  • 4 cups of water

Equipment

  • Box grater or heavy duty kitchen knife
  • Cooking pot
  • Whisk

Instructions

  1. Grate or mince your bar soap. Weigh out 1 ounce of shreds. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, aim for 1/4 of a full-sized bar.
  2. Add soap shreds to a cooking pot with 4 cups of water.
  3. Place over medium heat, whisking occasionally until all of your soap chunks are dissolved. (I hurried this process along with a submersible blender, but a whisk alone will suffice.) Do not whip into a froth (though some bubbles are to be expected).
  4. Your soap solution will be very thin and milky in appearance. Cover and allow to cool overnight, or until the mixture reaches room temperature.
  5. The next morning, your soap mixture will have thickened considerably and will now resemble a pet jellyfish. Don’t despair! Grab your trusty whisk, and give it another vigorous whisking. Do not use an electric whisk unless you want to make roughly a gallon of shaving foam that you will never be able to convince to become a liquid again. Ask me how I know.
  6. Transfer your liquid to a repurposed soap bottle, and store the rest in a quart-sized mason jar until needed.

Note: you may need to shake your liquid on occasion, as some separation is normal. Add additional water if desired for a thinner soap, or dissolve in more grated soap for a thicker mix.

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How we make it

Just for fun, I wanted to share a peek into how we make our bar soaps here at LüSa Organics.

Because I think where the goods we use come from matters. And going back to how our great-grandparents did things (in some regards) is a step in the right direction.

Our process is low-tech, and begins with just organic, pressed oils (normally sunflower, olive, and coconut–never palm oil) and a carefully measured sodium hydroxide solution. These are combined, then gently stirred until the mixture begins to thicken. When it reached the consistency of pudding, it’s ready to pour.

If the soap is a scented one, now is when we stir in our essential oils, then the soap is poured into a butcher paper-lined soap mold. The bars are set to rest in an insulated room for three days.

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Here the soap continues to work its magic (aka: chemistry!) and it goes through a series of stages of exothermic heating, becoming a gel-like liquid, then solidifying. This moment is when it’s time to unmold the soap and cut the blocks into bars (by hand with our people-powered soap cutter) before it becomes to hard to easily slice.

The finished soaps are carefully shelved in our soap curing room where they mellow and harden for one month before heading out the door to sinks, tubs, and showers everywhere.

The whole process is simple, organic, and low-tech. What’s not to love about that?

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P.S. If you’d like to try LüSa bar soap for the first time (or if you already love us and would simply enjoy a little bonus bar), add a note of “kicking the soap bottle” to any LüSa Organics order and we’ll throw in a 2 to 3 oz. sample scratch-and-dent bar when we ship your order! With our thanks (offer valid through 12/31/19).

Have you already made the switch from bottles to bars? Was it challenging for your family? What do you love most about bars instead of bottles?  Leave a comment below sharing your experience.

Explore more statistics about plastic production, use, recycling, and waste here.

Scroll below to the green signup box, then add your email address. When I add more posts to the blog and the One Small Step series, I’ll drop you a note.

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Photos 2, 3, 6, and 9-13 by Ray + Kelly Photography.

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