How to Have a Fun, Plastic Free Christmas When You Have Kids

Research has shown that our waste doubles over Christmas, much of it plastic from packaging and wrapping.  In the UK we get through 40 million rolls of plastic sticky tape alone!  Then there's the wrapping paper, endless packaging, and the gifts themselves.  Just how can we have a Christmas free of plastic, but still fun and with lovely gifts and special times?  Read on to find out how to have a plastic free Christmas - even when you have kids!

This is a guest post by Katie Matthews, Founder and Editor of

There’s a crispness to the air these days that can only mean one thing. The leaves - so briefly brilliant shades of orange, yellow, and red - have turned brown. Each morning we wake-up to find more of them carpeting the ground, resting under a thin blanket of frost. And when I take my early morning walk with my toddler these days, it so happens we can both see our own breath.

Autumn is here. Which means winter is not far behind.

And while I’m not looking forward to the rain, the short days, and the sheer number of layers I need to wrestle my kid into each morning, I am looking forward to that reliable spurt of cheer that comes hand-in-hand with bad weather and dark mornings. Christmas.

This year, I’m especially excited about Christmas. My daughter will be a-year-and-a-half. She’s old enough to anticipate things, and shows us she’s excited by running in place - a little dance my husband calls her happy feet.

Watching her enjoy the season for the first time, and get excited about our different family traditions, will be her gift to us.

But it also has me stressing about our gifts to her.

These days, I follow the Fridays for Future climate strikes and news about Extinction Rebellion. My husband and I are trying to reduce our family’s environmental footprint (with varying degrees of success). And we feel genuine, existential panic when we think about the kind of planet we’ll be leaving our daughter - and maybe one day her children - when we’re gone.

The thought of giving her piles of plastic toys (that came packaged in plastic), wrapped with single-use paper, and topped with plastic ribbons and a bow...well, let’s just say that doesn’t feel like something to celebrate.

The headlines being what they are, this year seems like the ideal time to reevaluate what Christmas means to our family.

And taking it a step further, this year seems like the ideal time to enjoy a family Christmas that doesn’t include plastic.

Yes, it’s possible to have a fun, plastic-free Christmas with kids. Here's how.

Why You Should Consider Having A Plastic Free Family Christmas

We Owe It To Our Kids To Have A Zero Plastic Christmas

When Greta Thunberg addressed the UN General Assembly at the 2019 Climate Action Summit earlier this year, we watched her speech as a family.

I’d be lying if I said we didn’t tear-up when she told us what I’ve long suspected:

If you choose to fail us we will never forgive you.

Just as many of my Millennial friends look at their parents’ generation with a twinge of resentment over out-of-reach housing prices, tuition fees, stagnating wages, and the 2008 financial crisis, I worry that my daughter’s generation will one day look at those of us who are adults today, and demand to know why we continued our lives and consumption habits, business as usual.

The Joy of Consumption is Fleeting

Raise your hand if this has happened to you.

(As the parent of a toddler, I can assure you it’s happened to me).

Your kid gloms onto some shiny new object in the store. Seeing how excited they are, you buy it for them, and their face lights up with joy. Just as they experience pure delight from their new toy, so do you! Seeing them happy makes you happy. And for a moment, all seems right in the world.

And then 30 seconds pass. Your kid loses interest in the shiny new object and moves on to something else. And you’re left with another piece of plastic crap to clutter the playroom.

Here’s the thing - the joy from new stuff is fleeting.

While the surge of dopamine we get from a new object is intensely pleasurable (and addicting), it doesn’t last. In fact, research has shown dopamine surges in our brain are already declining by the time we get a reward (or, in this example, a desired toy).

It’s actually the anticipation of getting a reward, coupled with the unpredictability of whether we’ll get it, that creates the dopamine surge.

Which means you don’t actually need to buy that plastic toy that’s on their Christmas List.

Kids Have Too Much Stuff, And Not Enough Time As A Family 

A study in the UK found on average, 10-year-olds have roughly £7,000 worth of toys.

If that’s not enough of a wakeup call (think of what you could do with an extra £7,000!), here’s the real kick: they only play with about £330 worth of them.

In the US, home to roughly 3% of the world’s children, Americans are responsible for 40% of the world’s toy consumption.

To put it simply, many of our kids already have enough toys in their lives.

And yet, that same UK study found more than 60% of parents believed their kids would play with a “wider variety of toys if mum and dad participated.”

And that source pointing out how Americans are the number-one toy consumers in the world? They also shared the grim fact that, “in dual-income, middle-class American homes, only one in six meals is eaten with the entire family together.”

It’s not more stuff that our kids need. It’s more time with us, their parents.

We Have A Serious Plastic Problem Already. Let’s Not Make It Worse.

Even after your kid has lost interest in that shiny new plastic object you bought her, and you’ve gone full Marie Kondo on your playroom, that plastic toy lives on...pretty much forever.

Plastics can take up to 1000 years to degrade.

To put this in perspective, if the kids on the Mayflower had been packing plastic toys, those toys would still be sitting in American landfills today, and would continue to do so for another 600 years.

Even more eye-opening?

If kids in the Middle Ages (c. 476 AD to 1492) had plastic toys, some of them would still be kicking around.

Plastic is Bad For Our Kids' Health

Plastic is packed full of chemicals that can damage our kids’ health. Fire retardants, phthalates, VOCs - these are just some of the chemicals you might be bringing into your house when you buy plastic. For babies and young kids, this is particularly scary. That’s because young kids’ “hand-to-mouth behaviour” puts them at greater risk than older kids for ingesting these chemicals.

Even some of the so-called “healthier plastics,” like polyethylene terephthalate (abbreviated as PET or PEET, and known to most of us as single-use water bottle plastic), are starting to be called into question.

Fact is, there’s a lot we still don’t know when it comes to plastic and our health.

Relationships Are The Real Gift

Thing is, the time you spend with your kids is the real gift. We all know it intuitively, and turns out it’s backed up by research, too.

Cindy Chan, an assistant professor at University of Toronto, in Canada, has conducted research into the pro-social consequences of gift giving.

And what she’s found is on-track with what a lot of us know, intuitively. The real goal in giving a gift isn’t to find an object the recipient loves, but to strengthen your relationship with the recipient.

"Often the focus is only on whether someone likes a gift rather than focusing on a fundamental objective of gift giving, and that is fostering relationships between giver and recipient."

How to Have Plastic Free Christmas With Your Kids

If you’ve read this far, I’m going to assume you’re on board with the idea of a plastic free Christmas - at least theoretically.

Which brings me to the how of it. Despite what you may think, it’s actually possible to have a plastic-free family Christmas, and it may be even more fun than your old way of doing things!

How to Give Plastic-Free Gifts

When it comes to kids, keeping the presents under your tree plastic-free is the obvious place to start, and can make a big impact. Start with these ideas.

Give Experiences, Not Things

There are plenty of creative, fun ways to gift experiences, rather than things.

Let each of your kids plan one or two family outings, and schedule them out over a few months so the whole family can share in the fun of anticipation.

You could also indulge your kids’ current main obsession with a tour, class, seminar, or custom event. If you have a dinosaur-lover in your home, give the nearest natural history museum a call to see if they offer events for kids. If they don’t, ask if it’s possible to book a private tour with a child-friendly expert or guide.

As a family gift, you could create a new family tradition that can be done throughout the year. If your kids are old enough, pick up some used board games at a local charity shop (to put under the tree), and set a weekly or monthly date on the calendar. Your kids will love getting your undivided attention, and they’ll look forward to that attention week after week throughout the year.

You could also learn a skill together. Instead of sending your kid off to cooking, archery, art class (or whatever floats your boat) by themselves, see if there are any parent-child classes you can do together.

Support Causes That Are Meaningful To Your Kids

For older kids and teenagers, consider directing some of your gift budget to causes your kids are interested in. If you have a future marine biologist on your hands, let him or her find an ocean or species conservation group to give to, and donate in your child’s name.

Even better, volunteer for the organization as a family, or (for multi-child families) as a special one-on-one parent-kid activity.

Go Old School in Your Toy Selection

I don’t know about you, but my mum has toys in her house that belonged to her when she was a baby! They’ve served three generations of my family, and many of them are still in great shape.

While it’s tempting to fall back on a cliché such as, “they just don’t make them the way they used to,” the thing is, they do.

There are plenty of artisans who make durable wooden toys for young kids, for example. Along with a few big companies like Melissa & Doug.

Shopping at a Christmas craft fair is a great place to find well-made, plastic-free toys, too. And if you buy straight from the artisan, chances are it won’t be packaged in unnecessary plastic.

Give Things That Reduce Even More Plastic

Family subscriptions for plastic-free toothbrushes, reusable cotton swabs, stainless steel water bottles, silicone straws, bento boxes for daily lunches … all of these gifts will get used on a daily basis, and can make a big dent in reducing your family’s annual plastic consumption.

Talk about a gift that keeps on giving!

Support An Artist

If your kids love beautiful art, why not gift a one-of-a-kind piece for your kids’ rooms? You’ll feel great supporting an artist, and there are plenty of beautiful, accessible pieces on sites like Etsy. For young kids, look for bold colors and themes in line with their interests - animals or transportation, for example. For older kids and teens, more abstract or keepsake pieces work well.

If you can, message the artist to ask for plastic-free packaging.

If You Must, Buy Second-Hand Plastic

Toys aren’t inherently bad. Some toys and plenty of free-play are necessary for a child’s development.

Indeed, it’s not toys that are the problem. It’s what they’re made of and our culture of disposability that we need to change.

If you have specific toys in mind for your kids that are only available in plastic, consider buying them second-hand. If you don’t have time or don’t relish the thought of rummaging through a charity shop, check out Facebook Marketplace.

We’ve bought plenty of our daughter’s toys and clothes via Facebook Marketplace - offering great savings for us and the planet.

Consider the Wrapping

Wrapping gifts in reusable cloth bags is a great option, and you’ll be able to use them year after year if they stay in your family.

Even better, you can make the wrapping part of the gift: beeswax fabric food wraps are super easy to make, and could double as gift wrap. For adult children who’ve moved out on their own, wrapping gifts in tea towels or hand-towels is appreciated - especially if they’re university-aged, and not inclined to spend their money on housewares.

When wrapping gifts, boycott plastic sticky tape in favour of twine, and skip the plastic ribbons and bows.

Additional Ideas For a Zero Plastic Christmas

While the gifts and toys under your Christmas tree are the most obvious place to cut down or eliminate plastic from your family Christmas, there are plenty of other areas to consider, too.

Plan your Christmas meals using local, in-season ingredients you can buy directly from local producers. Doing it this way means there’s far less chance your food will come over packaged in plastic.

Invest in non-plastic containers and storage solutions for your leftovers. Beeswax wraps and silicone stretch lids can replace plastic wrap, glass containers can replace plastic, and fabric sandwich bags can replace plastic baggies.

Choose a real Christmas tree - ideally one that’s live and can be used year-over-year, living in your garden in between. In some major cities, you can also rent a living tree! Decorate with glass decorations, or natural objects like cranberry chains and dried orange slices, instead of plastic. Even better, spend time making the decorations as a family!

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