Free “gifts” are handed to me pretty frequently. Water bottles, koozies, dentist office sample bags and plastic souvenir glasses — some are useful, but most are destined for the trash bin (even if they pass through Goodwill first). Many of these items are advertisements. Many are meant as acts of kindness. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the best thing I can do for our earth is say “No” to the free gifts.

Saying “No” isn’t as easy as it sounds. I was recently sucked in by a Subaru-branded travel tumbler at a craft market. It wasn’t until I got home and tried to put it into our already overcrowded cupboard that I realized I didn’t need a metal travel tumbler. I already had four others, and they could barely fit next to all the free water bottles I’d received.

So why does that even matter? There are three reasons I decided to stop taking the free stuff:

  • I don’t want to consume the resources needed to make that item. By refusing the item, I’m refusing to consume the valuable resources that were required to produce it. If it’s made from plastic, I’m not consuming the fossil fuels needed to make it. If paper or wood, I’m giving another tree a longer life. I’m also opting out of the energy consumption associated with making these products. Objects can be created & disseminated for mere fractions of a penny, but the cost to our natural resources & places is higher than that.
  • I want to limit actions that produce greenhouse gases and pollution. Mass production of objects today requires complex processes, and they all produce pollution. Every part of the process required to make disposables like plastic keychain flashlights or spiky stretchy balls is an industrial process that releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and pollutants into water, soil and air.
  • I’m aiming for a waste-free lifestyle. I don’t want to accept an object that will end up in a landfill.

It’s true, saying “No” has been challenging for me, but I’m getting a lot better at it. I thank people sincerely. I use particular words like “No thank you, I don’t want one”. (I don’t know why but people respond much better to saying “I don’t want” than “I don’t need”.) Sometimes I have to explain why I won’t take the thing. I say that I’m reducing clutter, and that it’s important to me to reduce how much I’m consuming in the world. Sometimes people think I’m crazy, but that’s alright. Maybe they will think about it again someday in a different way. Maybe my small action will inspire them to make some changes in their lives too.

In trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle, many of the steps I’m taking feel like they require more time and energy. But this is one of the easy ones. This is something I can do while traveling, while running from job to job, and even while failing at 80% of my other waste-free practices. I love the times when I realize that doing the environmentally friendly thing is actually pretty easy, as long as I just take the step. So even if other sustainable practices seem out of reach right now, I highly recommend giving “No, thank you” a try.

Further reading:

This article on Britanica explains the five main greenhouse gases & how they’re produced:

This article on the Desmog Blog from May 2019 has some really interesting statistics about how dramatically plastic production contributes to greenhouse gas pollution: