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  • Writer's pictureellencdonker


Updated: Dec 3, 2020

How to map the road to eco gift-wrap and more

Sustainable actions may take time and investment upfront; afterwards, however, they pay for themselves over and over again. This red fabric wrap was bought more than 15 years ago and has been used every season since.

When you’re a child, you aren’t able to understand and appreciate each layer of your family’s traditions because you see them as a whole. Over the years I’ve unfolded my family’s holiday traditions, identifying sustainability as one of the many layers. Whether it was our gift-giving customs or how we masterminded our holiday meal, I came to realize that sustainability was a distinct and deliberate layer, one greatly to be valued, because protecting our environment was – and is – important.

In the age before GPS and smart phones, my father worked in the American Automobile Association (AAA) road travel department. His job was to help AAA members plan trips on paper maps, marking by hand the best routes. (Yes, paper maps.) A few times a year my father would bring home outdated stacks of neatly folded maps and place them in the back room of our house where gifts could be wrapped in secrecy. Paired with reusable ribbons, those maps, or alternatively the newspaper’s cartoon page, were our gift wrap, and stood out next to other presents wrapped in seasonally designed paper with coordinating stick-on bows.

At a young age, I became concerned about the increasing amount of waste generated by humans. Where did it all go? Could the planet sustain it? What would happen if we kept throwing so much away? Innately, I knew that each of us needed to do our part to decrease waste, with the first step being to avoid it in the first place.

During the holidays especially, I noticed that wrapping paper would have a short life: from gift to garbage. Trash doesn’t “go away” once picked up by the garbage truck but merely leaves your home and becomes a pollutant – of the air if burned, of land if bulldozed into a landfill. Wrapping paper is a single-use item, much like plastic bags and straws.

I desired to upgrade our “recycled-old-map” gift-wrap routine to make the wrapping perfectly reusable with a touch of class. From both my grandmothers to my mother and now my husband, I have acquired a new respect for the value of remnants, those odd-size pieces of leftover fabric. One holiday season we visited our local fabric store and, as we always did, proceeded straight to the remnant section in search of fabric that would become reusable holiday wrap.

And suddenly there it was, staring right at me – a few yards of a durable red fabric patterned with little white stars. I felt I had hit the jackpot. Once home, I cut it into various sizes to fit my gift wrapping needs, and it became my perennial reusable and stylish holiday wrap. This was more than 15 years ago.

And our gifts themselves have become eco-friendly too. Once my brother and I were out of college, my parents evolved to a more sustainable gift-giving regimen. Now each year they donate to a charity of our choosing and have come to stress the importance of shopping locally and to encourage the giving of experiences rather than things: certificates for dinners at favorite restaurants, theater tickets, magazine subscriptions.

Besides supporting the local economy or a charity, this eliminates another kind of holiday waste: holiday gifts that might otherwise end up in next year’s “give-way” bag or, worse, in the trash. Instead, our family frequents local South Orange and Maplewood shops, and gift certificates have assumed a much more prominent role. Taken together, these changes have gone a long way towards making our holiday gift giving sustainable inside and out.

Food is the other custom at the top of our list. Early in December my mom would place a blank piece of paper on the desk in our kitchen. One side of the sheet awaited ideas for our Christmas menu and the other a list of guests to invite. I enjoyed brainstorming the menu and it always became a family debate.

My father wanted the same big chunks of meat served over rice that he liked to call “Rich Man’s Stew.” I, on the other hand, would want to try something trendy that I had read about in a cooking magazine. Whatever the ultimate decision, the menu was carefully planned by estimating the number of guests, making a list before the shopping and buying the appropriate amount of food. As guests left for the evening, we were sure to send them home with leftovers and we would enjoy what remained in the days following.

The current statistic is jarring: It is estimated that in the United States between 30 and 40 percent of food produced ends up wasted. For my family, the idea has been simple: No food is thrown out after our meal – a lesson in valuing food, understanding the resources it took to produce it and making sure it is not wasted along the way or in the end.

In the days leading up to our big holiday meal, my mom and aunt would begin gathering their dishes, utensils and serving plates to make sure we had enough for the dinner. Sometimes we also borrowed from neighbors. I found great pleasure in handling dishes that had been in our family for a couple of generations, imagining the many dinner parties they served.

Madiba’s parents gave her their formal silverware when they downsized, the ultimate when it comes to reuse. Not only sustainable, passing along useful items is a way we can teach the next generation to be environmentally conscious.

My favorite part of the process was opening the wooden box lined with red velvet fabric where our family’s formal silverware was stored. A few years back, when my parents downsized, they sent the box of silverware to my husband and me. The smell of the box’s interior brings me back in an instant and now has become the scent of my own holidays.

Though not conscious of it at the time, I now realize that my family was deliberately fostering the habit of sharing resources rather than the convenience of single-use items, of which the large majority, if not all, is not recyclable: Single-use plastic utensils and cups, as well as paper plates, become large quantities of trash immediately after that one use.

When my husband and I bought our South Orange home eight years ago, we decided to buy a box of 36 party glasses, and we have acquired ample dishes for parties via other hand-me-downs or from thrift stores. We agreed that the modest expense would pay off over the years in lieu of single-use partyware. At each party we host, we pride ourselves on the small amount of trash we generate. We feel we are doing our part in decreasing waste and notice that our children are conscious of it too.

My family’s holiday traditions have been steeped in sustainability, and ensure that the next generation has the desire and ability to do the same. We must not ignore the important task of protecting our environment, including the global climate crisis whose effects are here in New Jersey: Sea levels are rising, storms are more windy and rainy and the days are getting hotter, all to the detriment of human health and food supplies. Altering our behavior into a consciousness and practice of sustainability is the answer – and no less than the health of our entire planet depends upon it.

Georgia Madiba lives in South Orange and is completing her certification as a Rutgers Environmental Steward.


The Cambridge English Dictionary defines sustainability as “the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time.” Sustainability can become a way of life and a decision-making factor in everything we do or make.

Here are some ways to add a sustainable twist to your holiday. Starting this year, incorporate some of these eco-tips into your traditions.

Gift-giving outside the box

* Shop locally.

* Give gift certificates, experiences or subscriptions, not things.

* Donate to charities in someone’s name.

* Choose reusable gift wrap and reusable ribbon.

Greening-up from fork to plate

* Organize food shopping trips and plan meals.

* Rename left-overs as “plan-overs” and plan to eat them.

* Use dishes and utensils that are reusable year after year.

* Serve water in glasses, avoiding single-use bottled water.

For decor, less is more

* Choose less rather than more for a classic holiday look.

* Carefully buy reusable decorations to use year after year.

* Pass decorations to the next generation for ultimate reuse.

* Place holiday lights on timers to limit use and save energy.


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