From Christmas and anniversaries to birthdays and baby showers, the excitement of gift-giving seems to flow in abundance. But once the candles have been blown out and the tears of joy have been shed, you’re here—stuck and staring at a mound of excess trash. Wrapping paper, ribbons, tape, and glittery cards abound.
You wonder: Can you recycle wrapping paper or is it destined for the trash?
Save yourself the time and worry—here’s an easy guide with answers to a few of the head-scratching questions you might have about recycling gift wrap. Plus, if you’re looking for some clever, eco-friendly alternatives, we’ve got you covered there too.
The Truth About Recycling Gift Wrap (By Category)
While your gift-giving celebration may be over, the recycling process has only just begun. To sort out what can—and can’t—be given a brand new life, let’s peel back each of the layers by material.
First things first: Is wrapping paper recyclable? Yes, regular wrapping paper can be recycled—even with tape on it. But before you start jumping for joy, you’ll need to prepare yourself for a bit of not-so-good news.
The hard truth to swallow? Several varieties of wrapping paper found in stores are dyed or made out of low-grade fibers, often with decorative accessories attached, making them ineligible for recycling.
Among the problematic culprits, you might find wrapping paper with:
- Metallic flakes
- Other coatings
If you’re not sure whether or not your wrapping paper gets the green light for the blue bin, the “Scrunch Test” might be able to help. To perform the test, simply:
- Take your wrapping paper and scrunch it up into a ball.
- If the ball keeps its shape, it’s likely recyclable.
- If it springs back to a sheet, it’s likely not.
When shopping for wrapping paper, be sure to keep this in mind. Regular wrapping paper can be recycled. Embellished paper can be reused. Just be careful not to mix the two in the recycling bin.
Sure, bows might add an adorable finishing touch to a freshly wrapped package, but they’re not exactly the most eco-friendly choice. That’s because most bows are made of plastic, not paper—or sometimes they’re manufactured using a combination of the two. Therefore, they are not considered recycled material.
However, they are some of the easiest materials to reuse at home. Just stick some tape on the bottom and they’re practically as good as new.
Pro tip: While opening presents, try putting bows directly into a bag to save them for next year. This way, you won’t have to dig through the wreckage of wrapping paper to find each bow later on.
Like bows, ribbons can’t be recycled. What’s more, if they do end up finding their way into the recycling bin somehow, it could evolve into an even larger problem. That’s because it can be even more likely for them to contaminate recycling supplies since they’re easily caught in sorting machines at recycling plants.
To fix the problem, "the facility then needs to shut down all the equipment so they can get in and cut out all the junk that has wrapped around the shafts holding the discs,” said Peter Spendelow, a materials management specialist for Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality.
Unfortunately, sloppy recycling is becoming an ever-increasing problem. After China cracked down on America’s recycling habits, more trash than ever is headed to landfills.
Instead, do your best to reuse and save ribbons for next year. Need an adhesive for a recyclable product? Consider tape, which is, in fact, considered a recycled material.
Whether the winter holidays are in session or you’re celebrating another special occasion, it’s always fun to receive mail and catch up with loved ones in a personal way. Plus, there’s something special about the tactile nature of cards—from holding them in your hand to putting them up on the fridge. But while cards with glitter or coating may look pretty, unfortunately they can’t be recycled.
Each year, an estimated 2.6 billion holiday cards are sold in the US, or enough to fill a football field 10 stories high. With such an abundance of non-recyclable material, it may be worth looking into a more eco-conscious alternative:
- For a crafty and recycling-safe twist, try making your own holiday cards out of recycled paper.
- Customizable design templates can often be downloaded for free, or you could turn it into an opportunity to put your own artistic skills to the test.
Sustainable Alternatives for Gift-Wrapping
It’s true that only plain wrapping paper can be recycled—but that doesn’t mean that your gift wrapping needs to be boring in order to be sustainable. Instead of purchasing new every year, think about what can be saved and reused.
To help you cut down on unnecessary waste at home, we’ve brainstormed some simple swaps for you to try right now.
Use What You Already Have
Instead of stocking up on rolls of gift wrapping paper, why not try taking a browse through your closets and cupboard first? Along your travels, you might encounter:
- Paper bags – If you forgot to bring along your reusable bags on your last trip to the grocery store, you might have ended up taking your food items home in a handful of paper bags instead. In lieu of wrapping paper, try cutting up your brown paper bags and using them as a neutral, minimalist way of packaging up a gift.
- Old newspapers – For another vintage-inspired gift wrap idea, take a small stack of old newspapers to bundle up your gift. If you’re feeling ultra-creative, use a marker to highlight a few words on the page to send a special message to the recipient—and to save you from buying a card.
- Scraps of fabric – If your sewing tote has been holding onto some fabric scraps, put them to good use by swaddling them around a small gift box. Instead of tape, tie it up with a bit of yarn, jute, or macrame cord for a decidedly unique look.
Skip the Gift Wrap Altogether
Who says gifts need to be wrapped, anyway? If you’re really looking to cut down on your paper waste, don’t use any paper at all. Instead, consider arranging an assortment of small gifts into a larger wicker basket. You could also reuse your cardboard boxes to nicely display your gifts. Dress it up with some freshly cut greenery or florals and voila! But can you recycle cardboard and wicker baskets? Cardboard can be recycled and depending on what the basket is made of it can be too!
Another idea is, instead of purchasing a tangible gift, surprise your friend or loved one with the gift of an experience—no gift wrap needed. To inspire your shopping, consider the following:
- Passes for two to the nearby movie theater
- A gift card to their favorite online or brick-and-mortar shop
- A cooking class
- Tickets to a concert at a local venue
- A day pass to the nearby spa
Some Recycling Myths to Keep on Your Radar
Now that you know what components of a perfectly-packaged gift can be scooped by recycling crews on collection day, let’s take a look at two recycling myths—and bust them.
Myth 1: There’s No Need to Sort Your Recyclables
While single-stream recycling methods have certainly been an attractive option for aspiring, at-home recyclers, they’ve certainly caused a few hiccups along the way—mainly, in the form of “wishcycling.”
You might be one of the millions of Americans who want to do their part by recycling paper-based products like gift wrap, but be careful to avoid “wishcycling,” warns Heidi Brock, President and CEO of the American Forest & Paper Association. “The act of putting something in the recycling bin in the hope that someone else will figure out what to do with it actually impedes the recycling process.”
So, while you might not need to separate each of your recyclables by category, it’s helpful to:
- Think twice before tossing questionable items into the bin.
- Read up on the local regulations and policies regarding recycling in your area since they’re likely to vary from state to state.
Myth 2: Items Can Only Be Recycled Once
That recyclable wrapping paper we talked about above can only be recycled one time, right? Actually—wrong. The benefit of taking the extra time to toss your gift wrap in the recycling bin is that it can be turned into usable paper several times. If you were also wondering, can you recycle shredded paper or shredded wrapping paper, the answer is a bit more complicated. Although the material itself is recyclable, shredded paper is not accepted by facilities. The shreds are too small and can ruin the sorting machine. Instead, use shredded paper for composting or even try to make your own paper!
But paper products aren’t the only items eligible for a chance at multiple lives. Consider that glass bottle of pinot noir you bought at the wine shop around the corner or the mountain of empty seltzer cans that have helped to keep you hydrated throughout the week. When done correctly, glass and metal can, in fact, be recycled in perpetuity.
Discover Other Paper Alternatives at Reel Paper
Among the glitz and the glamor of the gift-gifting seasons, do your best to keep your wrapping simple. Look for paper that passes the “Scrunch Test” and keep a bag handy to reuse those bows and ribbons.
Fortunately, small changes in behavior such as those can impact the planet in a major way.
As you consider ways to make gift swaps kinder on the planet, it might be worth re-evaluating other daily habits that play a part in the size of your carbon footprint too. For example, those frequently-used household items like paper towels and toilet paper. But are paper towels recyclable? This is where recycled paper towels comes in.
With Reel Paper’s 100% tree-free recycled paper towels and bamboo toilet paper, you can give back to the planet without taking a hit on comfort. Our biodegradable products are made in the USA without dyes or inks—and are delivered conveniently to your door in a recyclable corrugated cardboard box.
Sustainable solutions don’t have to be complicated. Experience the simplicity for yourself—get your first box of Reel Paper today.
EPA.gov. National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling. https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials#recycling
USA Today News. Recycling Wrapping Paper? https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/12/15/christmas-2020-wrapping-paper-packaging-you-can-recycle/6537567002/
USA Today Tech. Bows, Glitter, Ribbon are not Recyclable. https://eu.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2017/12/20/dont-recycle-bow-sloppy-christmas-recycling-can-send-all-your-efforts-landfill/963415001/
The National Environmental Education Foundation. ‘Tis the Season…To Take Out the Trash? https://www.neefusa.org/holiday-waste
What Things Weight. How Much Does an Elephant Weigh. https://whatthingsweigh.com/how-much-does-an-elephant-weigh
The American Forest & Paper Association. Here’s How to Recycle Your Cardboard Boxes. https://www.afandpa.org/news/2018/heres-how-recycle-your-cardboard-boxes
National Geographic. 5 recycling myths busted. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/5-recycling-myths-busted-plastic