(Updated December 4, 2019) Gift-giving is a holiday tradition in most families. But one tradition that you might be looking to do away with is wrapping paper — and by proxy, the massive clean-up that often follows.
Maybe thinking about the amount of paper that goes to the landfill after the holidays makes you cringe. Or, maybe you’re looking for smaller steps to reduce your eco-footprint or ways to resist buying new things without disrupting tradition. No matter what your motivation is, here are tips on how to make gift-wrapping more sustainable.
Wrapping Paper Waste
We spend billions each year on something that’s forgotten in minutes. According to a report from Sundale Research, Americans spent $12.7 billion on gift wrap in 2017. The majority of wrapping paper, ribbons, and gift bags are not recyclable in most circumstances, according to Earth911. The glossy, laminated finish makes gift wrap unrecyclable — the same goes for paper with a metallic, glitter, or textured finish. Ribbons, bows, and holiday cards are also not accepted at recycling centers. Including any of the above in a bin with other paper products might make an entire batch unrecyclable.
Glitter is popular around this time of year — sparkling gift boxes and decor channel a festive look. But, glitter is a nightmare for marine life. Most glitter is made from etched aluminum attached to polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a type of microplastic that can contaminate water, soil, and air. Its increased presence in all three may pose a threat to human health and ecosystems, according to the Scientific American.
But, glitter represents only a small portion of ocean plastic pollution. Dr. Richard Thompson, a marine biologist at the University of Plymouth who led a 2016 research project that found microplastics in a third of all UK-caught fish, told the Guardian that it’s important to be mindful of glitter. “If it’s being used in a rinse-off product, then you think: why does it need to be there?” Thompson says. “If it’s being glued on to a greeting card, I’m less worried about it.”
However, many believe that no glitter is better than some. There are also brands that make glitter from plant cellulose instead of plastic.
Landfills and the Climate
Landfill waste plays a role in climate change. They are a natural source of landfill gas (LFG), a byproduct of organic matter decomposition. This gas is composed of approximately 50 percent methane, 50 percent carbon dioxide (CO2), and a small number of organic compounds.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), municipal solid landfills are the third-largest source of human-caused methane emissions in the United States. In 2017, they accounted for 14.1 percent of all methane emissions. Methane traps heat 28 to 36 times more effectively than CO2.
Americans throw away 25 percent more trash during Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to the Stanford Recycling Center and the Peninsula Sanitary Service, Inc. This accounts for 25 million tons of garbage that could be reduced. It’s not all on paper, though — food waste is a big factor. EPA data shows that 41 million tons of food waste was generated in 2017 and only 6.3 percent was diverted from landfills. Food waste also contributes to methane emissions from landfills, but much of that comes from grocery stores, not individual consumers.
Do We Need Christmas Cards?
A Christmas card along with a gift is tradition — but is it necessary? According to the Huffington Post, while many greeting cards can be recycled (sans those covered in glitter and ribbon), the cellophane wrap that they come in isn’t. But, the wrappers often end up in bins anyway, due to a lack of general awareness of what can and can’t be recycled. Last year, recycling bin contamination led to 500,000 tonnes of recyling being send to landfills.
The Naked Card campaign aims to change that. It’s putting pressure on retailers to ditch plastic wraps and encouraging consumers to choose “naked” cards — or forgo them altogether. Eliminating the cellophane wrap does make a difference. Supermarket chain Sainsbury’s got rid of them last April, saving an estimated 77 tonnes of plastic a year. Asda, Tesco, and Marks & Spencer have also made commitments to reduce plastic packaging, including greeting card wrappers.
Eco-friendly wrapping paper is easy to come by. Save those grocery store paper bags for wrapping gift boxes. Around this time of year, a lot of retailers launch festive paper bags that are perfect for the role. You can also use newspapers. Use this method to avoid using tape and finish it off with things you already have, like kitchen twine or old ribbons. Hold onto bags, ribbons, tissue paper, and boxes you get during the year. So many of us have That One Place in our home where we keep gift bags, tissue paper, and boxes — put it to good use this year.
You can also use brown Kraft paper, which is fully recyclable and biodegradable. Plus, if you’re crafty, you can customize it with festive patterns — but, the minimalist look is nice, too.
Alternative Gift-Wrapping Ideas
If you would rather forget wrapping paper altogether, there are still ways you can keep the gift-opening experience. Here are some ideas for alternative gift-wrapping options. You can even forego traditional gift-giving altogether and opt for things like mason jars full of vegan chocolate chip cookie mix, a homemade vegan scarf, tickets to a show, or a donation to a favorite charity. These are just some general ideas — feel free to get creative with your gift-wrapping, like adding a sprig of evergreen from your Christmas tree.
1. Boxes & Tins
Do you have old cookie tins or tea boxes lying around? Upcycle them into gift boxes without having to buy anything new. Line them with old tissue paper or leave it bare. Peruse your local thrift store for tins of all shapes and sizes — you never know what you’ll find.
Cloth is a good option because you have a little more flexibility as far as seasonal patterns go and it can be used again and again. Lush stores always carry knot-wraps, which are made from organic cotton or two recycled water bottles, that are perfect for gift-wrapping. They’re inspired by furoshiki, the traditional Japanese art of wrapping clothing and gifts. All you need to practice furoshiki is a square cloth that’s either 17×17 inches or 28×28 inches. Invaluable has a handy guide on the most common furoshiki wrapping styles.
3. Tote Bags
Sometimes you end up with more tote bags than you know what to do with. If that’s the case, give a few of your totes a new life as a gift bag. Maybe your giftee will even reuse it again. Or, you can start a tradition with reusable gift bags. If you have gift bags left from previous holiday seasons, use those.