Christmas 2016 will be my first zero-waste Christmas. As I read other posts about zero-waste Christmas traditions, furoshiki techniques to wrap presents, and tips for staying zero-waste during the most wasteful time of the year, I’m encouraged that future holidays with my family will be centered around experiences rather than stuff. But it is only the 16th of December, we have nine days to go, and I feel guilty even calling my own holiday zero-waste. This Christmas season has been anything but zero-waste, especially in my classroom.
This is part one of a three-part series about my first attempt at a zero-waste Christmas. In this first post, I will reflect on the two reasons why my Christmas, so far, has been the opposite of zero-waste and what I can do to improve for next year. Maybe some of my insights and revelations will help you minimize your own holiday waste this year and in future years.
Two Reasons Why I Have Christmas Trash on my Desk
I Made Assumptions
My coworkers are well aware that I bring my own plate and fork to lunch. My parents know that I replaced all of the kiddos’ plastic cups with glass mason jars. My students reluctantly recycle anything that can be recycled in my classroom. However, I now realize that I have never really explained to any of the above parties why I did these things. Considering my tendency to plan in my head and assume everyone else knows what’s going on in there, it’s no shocker that I have a desk littered with single-use plastic bags and plastic packaging from Christmas presents. I assumed my friends and co-workers and students would understand that I wouldn’t want anything wrapped or packaged in material that I couldn’t compost or reuse. Didn’t my plate and fork make that connection crystal clear? Obviously not.
I Didn’t Communicate Clearly
Some of my students (and their parents) shower their teachers in Christmas presents. I joke with my students that they are simply trying to put me in a diabetic coma so they can have a substitute teacher. A complaint I hear from secondary teachers around this time of the year is that elementary teachers receive so much more from their students than we do. Secondary teachers seem genuinely surprised when a student brings them a gift before we leave for Christmas break. This year, my students and coworkers have gifted cake balls packaged in a plastic bag, wafer rolls packaged in a plastic box, a plastic cookie cutter attached by a plastic tie to an oven mitt filled with a plastic bag of sugar cookie mix, a box of Ferrero Rocher truffles packed in plastic and stuffed into a single-use box, three individually wrapped Ghirardelli chocolates in a little candy-cane striped box, a small plastic bag filled with tea flowers, and numerous Christmas cards. This year brought me the most Christmas presents from students I have ever had in my eight years of teaching, and it was all delicious and thoughtful. However, had I communicated early and clearly with my students, their parents, and my coworkers about my goals to avoid plastic waste, I would not be sitting here at my computer desk staring at a mountain of empty plastic packaging. Yes, empty.
Those cake balls were magnificent, by the way.
What I Will Do Next Year
Like most misconceptions and misunderstandings in life, the hindrances to my zero-waste Christmas could have been easily mitigated by clear and timely communication on my part. I never told my students or their parents about my zero-waste aspirations. I never told my coworkers that I would rather not receive a present if it was going to include plastic packaging or other disposable materials. I never told my family members to wrap the presents for the kids in paper that can be composted instead of traditional wrapping paper. That’s on me, not them. And I know Christmas cards are a huge zero-waste “no no,” but it was refreshing to read the kind words from my students and hear their thanks for my hard work as their teacher. Maybe I can teach them to share those kind words face-to-face in the future.
What I can do differently next year is start talking about what it means to be zero-waste and plastic-free right from the start of the school year. My students are old enough to understand even if some of them have the emotional maturity of a pocket watch. Next year after Thanksgiving break, I will send an email to all of my students and their parents about my goals to be waste-free for the holidays. Then, I will explain as clearly and graciously as possible that I would rather forgo any Christmas present if they would not be able to send something package-free. I will also send this to my coworkers along with many, many thanks for their continued support in my zero-waste lifestyle (in all honesty, I have the most amazing group of coworkers who have been nothing but encouraging these last four months).
Ugh. I’m trying not to beat myself up about this, but zero-waste fails are more common at this stage of my eco-conscious journey than I would like to admit. In the spirit of full disclosure, and the holidays, I think it’s best that we in the zero-waste community share our achievements and failures equally. Imagine how comforting it is to a new adopter of zero-waste to know that others struggle just as much as they do. But it’s like I tell my students: it’s okay to fail. That’s how you learn. And boy…have I learned a lot this Christmas season. Merry Christmas, everyone!
Remember, be part of the solution, not the problem.