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Column: Holidays don't have to hurt the environment

An opinion piece on gift wrapping and waste reduction ahead of holidays.

When I was a teen, I was fascinated with holiday packaging. All those bright wrappers, ribbons and bows, all those details that would make any present look so nice. For some time, I liked wrapping and packaging gifts more than anything else. 

And I wasn't the only one hypnotized by how much a package can do back then. My best friend once used the magic of packaging and gave all of us beautifully wrapped laundry soap bars, just to experiment and see our reaction when we unwrapped them. And I remember that at least I was happy with my gift – the package did its job and created too good of a first impression to even worry about what was inside.

I think I valued the packaging so much, mainly because when I was a kid there was nothing like that. There was no sparkly paper or glittering stickers. I don't remember such a thing as packing gifts at all. To tell you the truth, there wasn't much for presents either.

One year I got a little plastic alarm clock, and the other time I found a pencil box filled with sunflower seeds under the tree. (Everyone in my family loved them. At least that's how I felt, maybe we just didn't have many options for other salty treats).

I never was disappointed with my gifts. I had a good family, and we were together. The times were just tough, so we handled it the best we could.

That's why I think when the situation in the country and in my family changed, and bright colours and an abundance of everything flooded store shelves, I got carried away for some time. I'd wrap anything and everything. I loved personalizing any gift I'd give, and most of it happened with the help of wrapping.

That changed with time too. After a few years, gift wrapping and gift bags became a part of the norm rather than something exceptional. And once it lost its novelty, I actually started noticing how much of an extra waste it is.

Waste reduction, recycling and the amount of garbage we generate have been on my mind for many years. In St. Petersburg, a city of five million people, one of the main landfills was just on the outskirts. It was the size of a good ski hill, taking the space of a few neighbourhoods, always crowned with thousands of yappy gulls, smelling bad and really scary. That giant pile looked almost alive to me, as it's been slowly growing, and sinking in the garbage was one of my worst nightmares for a while.

But only recently have I started doing more to reduce my waste.

I've been working on separating my trash and minimizing the volume of what ends up in the landfill for some time now. But even though a few years ago, I started a bag with gift bags and boxes to be reused, my garbage bin still swells faster around holidays.

I guess this time of the year we tend to go through more food and stuff, which all comes wrapped in at least two to three layers even before its holiday outfit (if it's a gift). And to be truthful, when I'm short on time, I don't pay as much attention to separating the garbage, so more items end up in black bags.

Ahead of the holiday season, the Ministry of Environment along with the Saskatchewan Waste Reduction Council (SWRC) encouraged residents to take those extra minutes to do their best to reduce the amount of garbage that ends up in the landfill.

"While we encourage people to think big, it doesn't take a lot of effort to make a difference," Environment Minister Dana Skoropad said in their holiday address.

I agree. Once I started paying more attention to my garbage, I was shocked at how little actually ends up in the landfill pile. I went from 35 litres bin to four, and with my small household, it still takes me a few days to fill. And it's still not perfectly separated 100 per cent of the time.

Recycling and composting sure make a big difference. And there are many ways to switch to low or no waste decorating, gift-giving and wrapping and post-holiday clean-up (for some tips, check out the Saskatchewan Environment Facebook page or SWRC website).

The SWRC suggests that to keep holidays happy and the planet cleaner, one thing to have in mind is what we are trying to accomplish – have a good time with loved ones and show that we appreciate them while also trying to waste fewer resources. 

That simple thought indeed inspired me to try and do better these holidays. After all, gifts do look better when they are delightfully wrapped, but the most beautiful part of any gift is the care that the giver put into it, and caring about the world around will only add to it.