How to wrap gifts without gift wrap

There are lots of ways to wrap gifts using wrapping paper alternatives, and we’ve used lots of them in my family for years. We know not to trust the box that a gift comes in: my brother-in-law received once something in a glove box from the bay with the year 1973 written on it! RB and my brother in law gawked at how we all meticulously peeled off the tape on presents so we could re-use the paper. So it wasn’t a stretch for me to start using fabric wrapping, and I haven’t looked back!

Gift Bags

Even though we had a few in the house (from who knows when), I sewed some bags using my drawstring bag pattern about five years ago using some Christmas fabric I bought. These are made with rectangular pieces of fabric, so it’s easy to make sure there’s no waste fabric while sewing.

Wrapping Paper Alternative - Gift Bags

Gift bags can also be easily made from leftover fabric from other sewing projects, clothes that are no longer repairable, or material from second-hand shop finds. I love this wrapping paper alternative using an old cable knit sweater!

Furoshiki Wraps

My interest in using scarfs for wrapping started when RB gave me some solid shampoo and conditioner in a knot wrap. I still have the wrap he gave me, but I also augmented it with some square scarves that I found at my local second-hand shop. You could also use just about any rectangular fabric, like a bandana, (clean) handkerchief, tea towel or bath towel

Wrapping Paper Alternatives - Scarf

There are about a million ways to wrap a gift using a square piece of fabric!  I mostly use the basic wrap, but there are tonnes more at

Clothespin Tags

Every year after Christmas, my mom gathers all of her Christmas cards and cuts them to make gift tags for subsequent years. While I think this is an excellent way to extend the life of cards, most of the cards I get have pictures of my friends’ families, which would be weird to use as a gift tag. So instead, I grabbed some old clothespins and painted the names of my family on them. They’re easy to clamp onto a gift bag or wrap, and can be used for years and years!

Wrapping Paper Alternative

What wrapping paper alternatives do you use?

Why I’m happy to sort my waste and recycling

When I first moved to the Netherlands, nearly all the waste we produced went straight into the garbage. You can imagine how frustrated that made me! Now that I’ve sort of figured out the waste and recycling systems, we’ve managed to reduce the amount of stuff we put into the garbage by about half. I’ve still got some learning to do, but hope to reduce our waste by another half in the coming year – new years resolution #2 (after finding a job!)

My former hometown of Toronto uses a single stream recycling system, where residents put all of their recyclables – paper, plastic, metals, and glass – into a single bin. The municipality collects these bins and takes them to a materials recovery facility (MRF) where they’re sorted back into their respective types for recycling. Many municipalities use a single-stream system because it’s convenient for their residents to use the recycling bin – almost as easy as using the trash can. Costs for a single-stream system are lower though processing costs are higher.

The biggest problem with single stream systems is contamination, resulting in lower scrap material quality and lower revenues for the recyclers. There is a particular concern that broken glass can get into the paper stream and mess with the paper mill and that bits of wet paper can get into everything. About a quarter of single-stream recycling goes to the dump, for glass, waste can be as high as 40%.

The system used here is a multi-stream recycling system. It’s more efficient for processors than a single-stream system because the majority of materials have already been sorted, and contamination levels are significantly less, eliminating waste and expense of removal.

In our apartment, we separate plastic bottles for a deposit refund, other plastic, paper, compost and glass from our garbage.

Why I don't mind sorting my waste & recycling

The garbage, compost, and other plastics are collected bi-weekly by the municipality. We take everything else to the grocery store, which acts as a sort of small waste depot. There you can find a place to deal with glass, paper, containers with a deposit, grease, batteries and light bulbs.

In the parking lot, you’ll find receptacles for glass, sorted into white, green & brown, and paper.

Why I don't mind sorting my waste & recycling

There’s also several bins for clothing donations.

Why I don't mind sorting my waste & recycling

Inside, you can find a machine where you can return beer bottles and plastic bottles for a deposit refund.

Why I don't mind sorting my waste and recycling

This machine scans the barcodes and prints out a ticket that can be redeemed at the cash register.

Why I don't mind sorting my waste & recycling

At the cash register is where you’ll find the containers for light bulbs, batteries and grease.

Why I don't mind sorting my waste & recycling

Since so many people go to the grocery store regularly, it’s not out of the way to take plastic, glass, and paper from time to time. If you’re like me, it’s more a problem to remember to do it than actually to do it!

If you’re interested in learning more about how single stream recycling works, I’d recommend taking a quick glance at this short NPR story from earlier this year.

Reducing Waste at Work

I work for an engineering consulting firm. If you’ve seen office space or read Dilbert, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what I deal with on a daily basis. The company I work for is pretty good about being environmentally conscious. Most of the company’s buildings are either LEED Certified, or are in the process of certifying, we report our Carbon Footprint yearly, are pursuing ISO 14000 certification (boring reading, if you’re interested), and have a yearly commuter challenge. We can sign up to have our pay stubs electronically through e-post, rather than by mail, which of course I did!

At an office level, the printers are automatically set up to print on both sides, there is a bin in the main kitchen for compost and recycling in addition to garbage. There’s also a lot of ceramic mugs, plates, and for everyone to use. And so long as there isn’t a lunch ‘n’ learn going on, there’s usually cutlery as well! Our office usually does pretty well in the commuter challenge, and could easily do better if people would participate. (I’m a joiner, always have been!) Not surprisingly, there are things that I’d like to add, like a compost/recycling program for the paper towels in the bathroom, but all in all, it’s not bad.

It’s also a really cool looking office, it was converted from the old McGreggor Sock Factory. Check it out!

I’ve also made some personal changes at work to try and reduce the amount of waste that I personally produce. A lot of my job involves comparing something to a code or standard, like the LEED Reference Guide or ASHRAE Standard. Or both, on a good day! I requested (and got) a second screen so that I could avoid having to print those codes and standards.  I also put a ‘references’ toolbar on the menu bar for the codes and standards I use the most so they’re as easy to access as the binders I used to keep them in.

I also added a ‘projects’ toolbar to access my project folders so that I don’t have to keep project binders. My old boss loved to have project binders. So much so that he would print everything, including emails, and store them in the project binder. And I work in the ‘Sustainable Buildings’ group… It drove me crazy!!! I have since filed most the relevant documents and recycled most of the rest.  I did keep a few binders for active projects as a test to see if I use them in the next 3 months. If I don’t, they’re all going to be filed, and I will no longer keep paper copies of anything!

I keep single sided prints, both mine (when I have an odd size of pages to print) and the ones I see in the recycling box in the printing room, and keep them as scratch pads. I know our Ottawa office keeps ALL single sided prints and every once in a while someone makes scratch pads for anyone in the office who wants one. My goal for this year is to start a similar program.

I keep a 750mL glass bottle at my desk for water. Having it there reminds me to drink the 8 glasses I should be drinking in a day. I also have a personal mug for my coffee and tea, and I brought one of my extra hankies to work to cover up food I put in the microwave rather than a paper towel.

I use One Note to record my phone calls and teleconferences, rather than keeping them in a notebook. They’re much easier to search through, if needed, and there’s obviously far less waste. My next challenge will be to try to do this in real meetings. I’m not a big fan of laptops in meetings because it feels like they put up a barrier between the user and the rest of the group, so I’m thinking about requesting a tablet for taking notes. I’ve only ever used one for games, so I don’t know if it’s a viable option, but I can’t think of any other. The key will be to remember to turn it off when it’s not in use!

Lastly, I got a power bar that has an on-off button and plugged all of my electronics to that.  That way my monitor, computer, desk lamp and cell phone charger are not drawing phantom power while I’m not even there.


My parents house has a pear tree that bears lots and lots of fruit. I don’t think I can describe just how many pears they have every fall. My mom discovered that often you can use pears in recipes that call for apples. So after making my new favourite breakfast, which calls for applesauce, I though I’d try to make some pearsauce!

I had a quart and a half of pears, that I washed, cut and cored. My mom had picked them straight from the tree, so there weren’t too many bruises, but they were very ripe, and I had to compost a fair amount.

Eeeewww, brown grossness that needs to be removed!

One tip: peel the pears before cutting them. I ended up having to pick out as many peels as I could find, and it was a messy job!

Bring about half a cup of water to a boil. Put the pears in, and add the juice from one lemon, and one or two peels of lemon rind.

Boiling pears

Let the pears boil for about 5 minutes or until soft.  Mash the pears with a potato masher, straining as necessary for consistency.  Put into jars and enjoy!


I think it looks just like applesauce!

I had this on my Breakfast Quinoa this morning, and it was delicious, though had a very strong pear taste. I think I’ll mix it with the applesauce I plan to make later today.

Zero Waste?

I had the pleasure of attending the USGBC GreenBuild Expo last week. I normally wouldn’t go because it’s a pretty expensive conference for me to pay out of pocket, but it was in Toronto this year, the first time it’s ever been held outside of the US, so my employer decided it was worth sending me. And I couldn’t have been happier! I met some really cool people, and went to some pretty incredible presentations all relating to green building.

On Thursday afternoon, I ended up in the wrong presentation (I went to 718A not 718B by mistake) and saw this amazing presentation about Waste Management in the Construction and Demolition business (I know, it sounds fascinating!) called “Getting to Zero Waste: Turning Trash into a Resource for the Next Generation.” Admittedly, before I even went into the room I was wondering whether I might want to attend a presentation other than the one I was supposed to. “Towards Low Carbon Buildings and Cities: Energy Benchmarking and High Performance Building Envelopes” was sounding a bit too architectural to me.

One of the presenters played this video, which got me thinking about the waste that I generate on a day to day basis and some things I could do to reduce that waste.

Béa also blogs about her experiences and has some pretty cool tips and recipes. You should definitely check it out!

So, over the next little while I’m going to see what I can do to reduce the amount of garbage I produce! And being the engineer that I am, my first task will be to measure exactly how much garbage I produce. Do I smell a waste audit?!