You did your best to go zero waste with your gift wrapping this holiday season, but let’s be real: not everyone else did. Whether it’s your family, friends, or friendly co-workers, there’s a pretty good chance you got some holiday gift wrap you’re just not sure what to do with.

Enter reuse or gift wrap recycling. Because, let’s get real, the holidays are a time of decadence and waste far beyond the norm – cutting it down in any way is really important.

It’s estimated that homes produce 25% more trash than usual during the month of December. Sources vary, but most estimate gift wrapping accounts for between 4 and 6 million tons of trash annually in the USA alone (source).  UK folks, you’re not guilt-free in this one either: “the amount of wrapping paper thrown away at Christmas in the UK alone would stretch to the moon” according to official government statistics (source).

Read on to see what can generally be recycled (check with nearby organizations to ensure you’re following all local guidelines). And be sure to help out friends and family when faced with mountains of used gift wrapping this holiday season.

Save the good stuff to be used later

If you’ve got the space, choose a few boxes to fill with the best gift bags, ribbons, and wrapping paper. Even Christmas cards can be saved – there are tons of simple tutorials to reuse the images in different ways, if not the whole card itself. Interior packaging (like bubble wrap or packing peanuts) can also be saved for the next package you send.

Set everything aside for the next holiday/birthday/housewarming gift you’ll inevitably have to give. Be sure to focus on items that can’t be recycled (more on that below) since their life ends in a landfill once they go out of your house. Save the materials to use throughout the year for future gifts!

Recycle what you can

If for whatever reason you can’t hold on to old wrapping materials, there are some gift wrap recycling guidelines. While these tips are meant to be general, check with your local recycling center as to what they can specifically accept.

What you can recycle:

Christmas trees: most cities or towns have special pick-up times or drop-off locations for real trees shortly after the holidays. Some people suggest simply placing it in your backyard with bird feeders as a pseudo-habitat while it breaks down. Alternatively, because Christmas trees are 100% organic, they’re used again as mulch once they’ve been chipped.

Gift bags: only if they are 100% paper; if there’s a plastic lining, do not recycle as your local recycling facility will not be able to separate the two. If the bag is made of paper and not able to be saved for future use, go ahead. Just be sure to remove any plastic handles still attached. (Can also be used for composting.)

Tissue paper: you’ll hear differing ideas about tissue paper, but tissue paper is technically recyclable. The problem is that it’s low fiber content means there won’t be much product left after the recycling process. So technically, yes, along with other paper. (Can also be used for composting.)

Greeting cards: only if they are 100% paper. Remove all extra ornamentation like glitter, foil, felt, ribbon, etc. and all greeting cards (even the glossy kind) should be recyclable along with all of your typical junk mail recycling.

Christmas lights: if there’s no way to fix that old string of Christmas lights, never fear! You can recycle them at locations accepting e-waste. IKEA also accepts them, and Lowes and Home Depot also offer a short period of time after the holidays when they’ll accept them.

The essentials of holiday gift wrap recycling - Green Indy Blog

What you might be able to recycle

Bubble wrap: You can drop off bubble wrap to be recycled at a number of locations such as Target, Walmart, Lowes, etc. – find the closest drop off to you here. Those air-filled plastic pillows can be dropped off at any location that collects low and high density polyethylene films (AKA plastic bags). Additionally, UPS stores accept clean, foam packaging peanuts and bubble cushioning for reuse.

Gift cards: gift cards are made of PVC which, one source notes, “is infinitely recyclable, but few curbside programs accept this form of plastic — meaning it is often tossed in the trash.” Thankfully there are companies willing to take these cards, so save them up and use earthworks’ mail-back program to have them recycled. (Program not always open – check on site.)

Cardboard boxes: cardboard is processed differently than paper, so be sure to check your local recycling service takes cardboard. Most do, although the common paper recycling dumpsters do not take cardboard. (Can also be used for composting.)

What can’t be recycled:

Artificial Christmas trees: unfortunately these guys are not able to be recycled. Despite being made partially of PVS, Earth911 reports “artificial trees are non-recyclable and non-biodegradable, meaning they will sit in a landfill for centuries after disposal.” Consider trying to pass it on to someone else as well, either as a tree or a part of a craft project.

Bows and ribbons: these adornments can be a terrible mix of plastic or laminated paper which is often not recyclable. Plus they have a tendency to cause issues with the sorting mechanisms in a recycling center because they’re small and likely to get caught. Ribbons and bows should go straight to the trash can, so try to recover and reuse them as much as possible if they find their way into your celebrations.

Styrofoam: most recycling programs do not accept styrofoam (EPS) packaging or packing peanuts, even though they say they take plastic #6. The technology to recycle styrofoam is just not there and it simply can’t be turned into anything useful to warrant the development of EPS recycling (source). Check out this post on ideas for where to take styrofoam to be reused.

Wrapping paper: unless it’s unlined (to be 100% sure, use non-glossy, butcher-paper style), wrapping paper shouldn’t be recycled. Most wrapping papers have a plastic lining which can’t be separated. That plastic lining can actually contaminate paper products when it goes to be recycled. More than that, the highly decorative paper has lots of ink which requires extra chemicals to process – no good for the system or the environment.

Feeling more confident this holiday season after reading the gift wrap recycling guide? Or do you still have questions? Drop then in the comments and I’ll do my best to address them!


Green Indy is a blog about zero waste, minimalism, and generally being less of an a**hole to our Earth (Indianapolis, specifically) by me, Polly Barks. I’m a writer, teacher, and a natural-born researcher/experimenter.

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