Wrapping gifts for our friends and loved ones for Christmas, birthdays, weddings, baby showers and other fun occasions is a tradition for so many of us. Is it possible for our gift wrapping to be eco-friendly? Of course!
Wrapped gifts add pizzazz to the holiday season. It’s a fun way to coordinate colors for a party or holiday theme. We can personalize gifts by matching the wrapping paper or gift bag to recipients’ interests.
Some view it as a necessary evil! But others love the wrapping process. They see it as part of the care that goes into choosing a gift for a special person or occasion. Even when we know the wrapping paper will be tossed 90% of the time, it’s still a valued part of our gift-giving culture.
How does this fun and meaningful tradition fit into our quest to become more sustainable overall? Just as in most other parts of our lives, all it takes is some insight and intention.
Why Consider Sustainable Gift Wrapping
Americans spend several billion dollars on gift wrap every year. About half of it ends up in landfills—several million pounds annually. That’s a lot of trash for what (on the surface) seems like such an innocuous custom!
If you’re like us, you want to do whatever you can to help reduce that amount, reuse what you can and recycle when possible. We can all aim for one or both of these goals:
- If we opt for single-use gift wrap, think recycled.
- Look for creative alternatives for wrapping gifts that are still fun and pretty but don’t involve single-use paper wrap.
Single-Use Gift Wrap? Recycle It
Gift wrap is so widely available and easy to use that there’s no doubt it’s the simplest and often most cost-effective choice. So if this is your go-to, the way to keep it eco-friendly is to buy wrap made from recycled paper or buy wrap that’s recyclable.
Here’s a pretty simple guideline for which wrapping paper is recyclable and which isn’t: Does it contain glitter or foil? Is it shiny? Velvety? It can’t be recycled. (Sorry to all of you who love sparkle and fancy!)
Similarly, if the wrapping paper is coated with a thin layer of plastic or laminated in any manner, it cannot undergo the recycling process. To check for plastic coating, you can perform a rip test. If the paper doesn't tear easily, it likely contains plastic; if it tears effortlessly, it's probably just glossy paper and can be recycled normally with other paper and cardboard.
If it’s plain paper gift wrap, chances are it can be recycled. Once a gift is open, remove any bows, ribbon and tape from intact recyclable wrap and you can place it in your curbside bin.
Wrapping Accessories and Packing Materials
What about the accessories that go with gift wrapping like bows, ribbons, gift tags and packing materials? Many of these traditionally-used materials aren’t recyclable, unfortunately.
Tissue paper is questionable, depending on your area’s recycling policies. Bubble wrap can sometimes be brought to locations that recycle plastic bags (look for your local guidelines). Shredded paper gets tangled in recycling machines, so nope. If you’re unsure, a call to your local recycling plant or an online search should help point you in the right direction.
Bows, ribbons and packing materials can almost always be reused if stored thoughtfully. That’s certainly better than continually buying these items new.
If you keep your stock of gift wrap and accessories limited to coordinating colors, you’ll always have options to choose from. That can prevent the need to buy more just to match a bow or ribbon for a specific occasion.
Creative and Sustainable Alternatives to Wrapping Paper
There are so many ways to become more eco-friendly with your gift wrapping if that’s your goal. Here are a few of them:
- Instead of using paper gift wrap, use a fabric item like a bandana or scarf to wrap it. Something the recipient can use, or that’s part of the gift itself.
- Use paper you already have around the house like newspapers, magazines or road maps. Or head to your local thrift store to find an old atlas, children’s books or sheet music and use some of those pages for gift wrap. Unconventional, certainly—but fun!
- Gift bags are even easier than wrapping paper, and they can be reused several times before they start to look grungy. Once their life is over, remove any metal grommets and string and they can usually be recycled. (Stick to bags without sequins, glitter and other non-recyclable materials.)
- Give gifts in fabric bags or totes that can later serve as a shopping bag, grocery bag or weekend trip tote.
- Instead of paper or plastic ribbons and bows, use ribbons made from fabric that can be reused again and again. Natural materials can eventually be composted.
- Do you sew or want to learn to sew? A great entry-level project would be to make your own fabric gift pouches similar to the ones Amazon uses when you click the “gift wrapping” box. You can customize the sizes and colors and they can be reused indefinitely. Or if you don’t have the desire or time to sew your own, there are plenty of them on the market!
- “Wrap” your gifts in a tin, a mason jar or other container that can serve a different function later or be used again for another gift-giving occasion.
Our takeaway: We can continue our fun gift-wrapping traditions and be friendly to our environment at the same time. Happy gift giving!