Every December, when the radio starts playing “All I Want is You,” I’m overcome by the urge to craft, bake, plan the perfect holiday meal, and decorate the house just so. And despite Mariah Carey’s insistence that she doesn’t care about the presents underneath the Christmas tree, it seems imperative to wrap beautiful, Insta-worthy gifts. I know I’m not alone.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the fantasy of a perfect, magical Christmas and lose sight of the impact the holidays have on the planet. And it’s not just the gifts themselves, but what we wrap them in. Stanford University estimates that the average household in the U.S. produces 25 percent more waste during the holiday period than any other time of year. According to Zero Waste Canada, Canadians throw out 545,000 tonnes of gift wrapping and shopping bags each year.
“The idea of buying single-use wrap just to have it ripped and thrown in the garbage on Christmas day is really sad,” says Shellee Ritzman. A policy coordinator with Metro Vancouver, Ritzman leads the Create Memories Not Garbage campaign, which encourages people to reduce their waste over the holiday season.
Ritzman says not all wrapping paper can be recycled, either. The “shiny, slippery stuff” that is hard to wrap with? It can’t go in the paper recycling, because it’s made with plastic.
“Even wrapping paper that you think would be safe for your curbside recycling might not be,” she says, “because anything that has glitter, texture or shine can’t go in your recycling. That’s garbage.” She says that sparkle and shine isn’t compatible with paper recycling because it can affect the machines. Wrapping paper needs to have a smooth, matte finish to go in the blue bin.
Even if a product can be recycled, it might not be. Emily Alfred, waste campaigner for the Toronto Environmental Alliance, says it’s up to your municipality what goes in the blue bin. And if you live in a condo or apartment, a private waste collection company determines what gets recycled.
“One thing that makes recycling really complicated,” says Alfred, “is that recycling rules are different everywhere in the country.”
Recycling is only part of the picture, though. A lot of resources go into making a product that is meant to be ripped apart and thrown away.
“The trees that were cut down and the energy used to process that into paper and to transport it to your house has a much bigger environmental impact than whether you recycle it or not.”
The good news is there are lots of ways to make your gifts pretty without creating waste.
“The easiest choice and the most affordable choice,” says Alfred, “is to avoid wrapping paper and look for other creative alternatives.”
The most creative—and greenest—way to wrap presents is to reuse what you already have, or find something second-hand. So while we’ve included some new and reusable options you can buy, see if you can use what you have lying around the house.
If you enjoy wrapping gifts, try furoshiki—the art of Japanese fabric wrapping. Furoshiki also refers to the squares of fabric used, which usually range in size from 50-70 cm. Furoshiki has been used in Japan for centuries as a way to carry and protect goods. It’s even easier than wrapping with paper. Simply place your gift in the centre of the fabric, fold it around the object, and tie it in a knot. No tape or scissors required! Best of all, the fabric can then be reused by the recipient. Check out this furoshiki gift wrapping tutorial. The most sustainable option is to make furoshiki from fabric you already have, like pillow cases, blankets, or towels. If you don’t have any, try your local thrift shop. Or use a pretty scarf, handkerchief or tea towel, and make it part of the gift. For large gifts, you can even use a tablecloth or bedding. (My girls are getting a wooden balance board this year, wrapped in a festive tablecloth.)
Gift wrapping doesn’t get any easier than this. Unlike plastic reusable bags, fabric gift bags can be reused indefinitely. They come in lots of beautiful colours and patterns, and they cinch up nicely—no tissue paper required. If you’re crafty, you can even sew some of your own out of leftover fabric.
Not only is a basket a beautiful way to wrap a gift, it becomes part of the present. Woven from natural materials like bamboo, rattan, and seagrass, baskets are both eco-friendly and look great as home decor all year long. To hide the present, simply cover it with some cloth or tissue paper you’ve saved from other occasions.
Tins don’t just have to be for baked goods—you can use them to wrap all sorts of small items! If you don’t have any left over from holidays past, here are some cute and inexpensive ones.
Next time you’re about to put a glass jar in the recycling bin, wash it instead. A jar is great for gifting treats or other small items. Just put a bow on it!
If you really enjoy wrapping gifts with paper, see what you have lying around the house. You can use newspaper, magazine pages, old maps, and calendars. If you have kids, don’t throw out their extra artwork—wrap with it instead! Kraft paper (if you have it) is fun to decorate and wrap with, and it can be recycled. Or save up those brown paper takeout bags and packing materials.
Instead of using plastic tape, you can use washi tape—a biodegradable alternative that comes in all sorts of fun colours and patterns. If you want to spruce up your gifts, decorate them with natural materials like pine cones, berries, and evergreen sprigs. And instead of buying plastic ribbon, use hemp or twine—or cut strips of leftover fabric.