Is it possible to recycle wrapping paper? An expert weighs in

This is not as simple as it seems.

by Kate S. Petersen
Originally Published: 
Man holding Christmas presents laid on a wooden table background

"The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use." So wrote John Steinbeck in his 1962 novel, Travels With Charley. And for America, at least, it holds too true: In the United States in 2018, the latest year figures are available, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates Americans threw out 292.4 million tons of trash. This trash is, in part, recycled, but the sheer amount throws an uncomfortable spotlight on long-standing habits. And holiday traditions are no exception.

Tearing open colorful, glittery parcels is no small part of the holiday experience, but it is also no small part of America's trash pile. Which leads to the question: Can we cut the waste from our holiday wrapping paper?

Kelley Dennings, a campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, puts it bluntly:

“Each year, Americans use about 4.6 million pounds of wrapping paper and about half of that ends up in the landfill,” Dennings tells Inverse.

Is wrapping paper recyclable?

We have some bad news: Traditional Christmas and holiday wrapping paper is not usually recyclable.

“The stuff that you mostly think of has a high clay content and low paper content, which is how it gets all those pretty colors,” Dennings says. “And that actually is not really recyclable.”

“It's a very low grade paper fiber, so it doesn't do well in the recycling process and kind of creates more sludge than it than it's worth,” she says.

Additionally, holiday wrapping paper often comes with coatings, foils, and glitter — which are definitely not recyclable.

Tissue paper, despite its humble appearance, is also not generally recyclable, according to Dennings. Although, in some municipalities it might be compostable, so you should check your local sanitation websites for more guidance.

How can you tell if your wrapping paper is recyclable?

Some manufacturers are taking action, however. There are certain wrapping paper brands that advertise 100 percent recycled, or 100 percent recyclable wrapping paper.

You can also use non-traditional recyclable paper to wrap gifts, perhaps adding a more personal touch a la Marie Kondo's furoshiki methods.

Dennings suggests alternative papers, such as:

  • Craft paper
  • Butcher paper
  • Office paper
  • Newspaper
  • Maps (think of the national park lover in your life)
  • Catalog pages

“Those would be recyclable, so somebody could actually have the traditional feel of ripping it open… and then being able to recycle it afterwards,” Dennings says.

Of course, recycling is better than just throwing paper away, but unless the paper was 100 percent recycled to begin with, it still likely came from fresh cut trees. It also required additional resources to produce, and generated emissions in production, although less so if it’s recycled.

According to Project Drawdown, paper can be recycled 5-7 times before the fibers lose integrity. But it can't be recycled indefinitely. And even if you recycle it, the next consumer in line may landfill or burn it, essentially undoing your good deed.

You can choose recyclable materials to wrap presents

Westend61 / Getty Images

What are the best alternatives to wrapping paper?

The EPA recommends reusing wrappings, such as gift bags and tissue paper — although maybe take note on which relative gave you which gift bag before your re-gift it, if you're worried about that kind of social faux-pas.

Dennings suggests some other options for reusable wrapping including:

  • Fabric scraps
  • Glass jar
  • Decorative pillowcase
  • Basket
  • Reusable bag
  • Scarf (Marie!)

Do you remove the tape from wrapping paper to recycle it?

Dennings says it’s ideal to remove tape, but if you can’t or don’t feel like it, it’s better to recycle it anyways than to throw it away.

She says that, while recycling centers need to minimize contaminants, they can generally take care of tape during processing.

“Generally when the paper gets put into a paper pulper, water is added to it,” Dennings says. “The Post-It notes… the labels on your envelopes, and tape generally float to the top and they skim them off.”

Of course, wrapping paper is only one of many single-use products that Americans consume and throw away, and it's not going to make or break the biosphere by itself. But if you want to do better this holiday season, it is a tradition that could very easily be changed to something better for our Earth.

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