The Ultimate Guide to Recycling at the Holidays

The Ultimate Guide to Recycling at the Holidays

Dec 3rd 2018

Americans throw away 25% more trash during the Thanksgiving to New Year's holiday period than any other time of year.

Disposable plates and cutlery, holiday cards, wrapping paper, ecommerce shipping boxes and mailers, holiday decorations; the list of things purchased for the holiday season and often used just once is so. very. long.

Those of us who try to exercise sustainability but also love to fully celebrate the holiday season find ourselves wondering how to make both goals work in harmony.

Look no further. Here, we break down what sustainability looks like during the holiday season and how to responsibly buy and recycle many of the holiday basics.

Recycling 101

Recycling Basics

Few people truly understand the recycling process. When you recycle an object, it goes to a sorting facility (Materials Recovery Facility, MRF) where your items are sorted into “like” materials -- cardboard with cardboard, soda cans with soda cans, glass with glass, etc. The MRF then sells bales of sorted materials to manufacturing facilities. Bales of corrugated boxes are repulped and used to make recycled corrugated or paper goods. Bales of aluminum cans are remelted and reused to make new cans.

What can I recycle?

When something is “recyclable” it means that the item (1) can be effectively sorted into bales of like material and (2) that there is a market (or a manufacturer that is willing to pay) for this material because that manufacturer has found a way to cost effectively use it in their production processes.

Recyclable is not black and white. Instead, it is more accurate to think about recyclability on a spectrum. 

At the top of the list are items that are readily and easily recyclable. Aluminum cans are a prime example of this category. Cans are easily accepted and sorted by MRFs, and MRFs get a fairly high price for a bale of soda cans. This is because aluminum can be remelted and used to make new cans an almost limitless amount of times.

Then there are items that are readily recyclable, but can only be recycled a certain amount of times or that are not necessarily ecologically or cost effective to recycle. Paper and corrugated are prime examples of this category. Paper is easily accepted and sorted by MRFs. However, the fibers of paper are shortened with each recycling process. As such, paper products are typically converted into “lower quality” products each time they are recycled. Paper can go through 4 to 7 cycles before its fibers are too short to use for any purpose.

Then there are items that are accepted by MRFs but are often downcycled. Many types of plastic fall into this category. MRFs can accept plastic milk jugs and have few problems sorting and baling this material. However, milk jugs do not typically become new milk jugs. This material is used to become composite lumber or even fabric - meaning that it is downcycled rather than truly “recycled.”

These last two categories don’t generate as much revenue for MRFs.

Then, there are items that are considered “hard to recycle.” Items that are hard to recycle are not accepted by a local MRF (so you can’t just toss it in your blue bin). However, markets do exist that accept them so you’d have to take special steps to get these materials recycled. Plastic film and grocery bags (as well as poly mailers) are great examples of this type of material. Film can’t be accepted by MRFs, because it gets caught in the gears of sorting machinery causing costly shutdowns and repairs. However, this film can be converted into composite lumber. To recycle this type of plastic, you must deposit it at a hard to recycle bin, often found in grocery stores.

Other examples of hard to recycle material include:

  • Batteries
  • Electronics
  • Toothpaste tubes
  • Energy bar wrappers
  • Mattresses
  • Styrofoam

The majority of items in the hard to recycle category don’t actually get recycled because the process of doing so is difficult and inaccessible.

What cannot be recycled?

As sustainability and packaging experts, we’re often asked “What can I recycle?” and “What cannot be recycled?” Two categories of items that are almost never recyclable are food (and food waste is pervasive during the holidays!) and items that are made with a number of different materials (such as plastic and metal layered together for a Christmas ornament).

While most other things technically can be recycled, the vast majority of communities nationwide don’t have ready access to items that are considered “hard to recycle.” 

Common holiday examples of hard to recycle material include:

  • Gift wrapping, especially foil or metallic gift wrap
  • Batteries and electronics
  • Packaging made with plastic and foil together (like an energy bar wrapper)
  • Christmas tree lights
  • Christmas tree tinsel and other foil decorations
  • Styrofoam, including foam packing peanuts

Read on for details and tips on how to buy these hard to recycle goods as sustainably as possible, and how to responsibly dispose of goods you do receive. 

Sustainability 101: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

While recycling is a key step in making your holidays more sustainable, as this step keeps waste out of the landfill and ensures it is used in new materials over time, the basic rules of sustainability still apply. With each holiday tradition and each purchase you consider making, consider the three Rs first.

Reduce: Do you have to buy the item in the first place? Can you do without?

Reuse: Instead of recycling the item, can you save it for next year? Can you reuse it first so it takes the place of another purchase you’d have to make? Would the item be usable by other people and if so, can you give it away or donate it?

Recycle: If neither of these are feasible, then find a way to recycle it.

Check out our post on recycling and buying recycled content to learn more: Why recycled content matters

What to do with holiday decor and supplies when the holidays are over

Here, we discuss common holiday materials and share sustainability tips for each, including what to do with it when the holiday season is over.

Gift Wrap

What to look for and buy: We recommend avoiding traditional gift wrap! Borrow the Japanese tradition of Furoshiki of wrapping gifts in gorgeous multi-functional cloths. Or use scarves that actually double as gifts! Of find decorative reusable bags.

If you just love the thrill of gifting a wrapped package, consider using newspaper or plain Kraft or white packaging paper. EcoEnclose’s packaging paper options are all 100% recycled and easily recyclable (and even compostable). Not only are these much more sustainable options, they are also aesthetically pleasing, with a sleek, clean look (hygge anyone!?).

And of course, if you can’t resist wrapping paper with cute holiday decorations on it, we recommend looking for holiday gift wrap that is made with as much recycled content as you can find and/or that states that it can be curbside recycled.

The main thing to avoid when it comes to wrapping paper is anything shiny! Shiny means foil or metallic additions, which almost always render gift wrap unrecyclable.

How to recycle: Regardless of how you wrap the gifts you give, chances are that you’ll end up with a pile of gift wrap at the end of the season. What to do with gift wrap when the holidays are over?

First, we recommend creating a method to sort wrapping paper. Separate wrapping paper into three categories.

  1. One for any wrapping paper you’d reuse, either to wrap gifts or for other purposes (arts and crafts, holiday decor, etc).
  2. A second for wrapping paper that has no glitter or foil in it, and appears to be pure paper (versus a paper and plastic, or paper and foil composite)
  3. A third for paper with metallic elements to it or is extremely shiny.

That second category of wrapping paper might be recyclable. Wrapping paper is often low grade and contains clay that make it difficult to recycle. Contact your local waste management company / recycler and find out if they accept wrapping paper and how you should dispose of it.

Some will accept it through curbside recycling and others will request that you drop it off at a special location for recycling.

Please do not blindly throw it in the blue bin hoping for the best! If your local facility doesn’t accept gift wrap, doing this will contaminate the waste stream and add an unnecessary burden to the hard workers who are sorting waste.

Be sure to remove bows, ribbons and excessive tape from wrapping paper before it is recycled. See more about ribbons and bows below!

The third category of wrapping paper is almost never recyclable and should be landfilled.

Gift Bags

What to look for and buy: Gift bags can be a great alternative to gift wrap. They are easy (no wrapping or tape), work well when gifting multiple items in one package, and are often very easy to reuse. If you’re looking for the perfect gift bags, consider reusing one you already have on hand first. Many of us have a stash of old gift bags in the corner of our house somewhere. Go through them at the beginning of the holiday season and pull out anything usable.

If you have to purchase gift bags, look for durable ones that you can reuse. There are beautiful gift bags and sacks made of muslin and hemp, that give a beautiful, natural look to your holiday gift. Encourage recipients to reuse the gift bags or take them back if that makes more sense.

Consider reusable gift boxes instead of gift bags if that works for your gift. The downside of gift boxes is that they are harder for you and recipients to store, making it more likely they are discarded rather than saved for future gifts. 

If traditional gift bags work best for you, look for ones that are made with 100% paper (ideally recycled paper!), and have no plastic and/or metallic/glittery additions to it. This will maximize the likelihood that they can be recycled at the end of their life. Look for ones that are strong enough to be reused once or twice before they are discarded.

How to recycle: Similar to gift wrap, we recommend separating any gift bags you receive into three piles.

  1. Gift bags you can reuse, either as gift bags or for other purposes. We’ve found that the majority of gift bags actually fall into this category!
  2. Gift bags that are made entirely with paper
  3. Gift bags you likely can’t reuse and that have plastic or metallic additions to it

In most municipalities, the second category is recyclable. 

Again, call or research your waste management / recycler to confirm.

Ribbons, Bows and Gift Tags

What to look for and buy: If you’re a sucker for gift adornments -- bows, ribbons, gift tags and more -- we don’t blame you. There is nothing more delightful than a gorgeous, wrapped present under a tree, just waiting to be opened (where opening the gift is almost as fun as the gift itself).

Avoid traditional ribbons and bows, which are typically made of polyester or nylon (often with other materials for included). Instead of traditional ribbons and bows, look for ways to reuse items you already have to finish off a gift in style. Perhaps you can use old holiday cards you’ve received as gift tags or decor. 

Use ribbons and bows you’ve received in previous years. If you’re going for the natural look, use natural pine cones, or Raffia ribbon or hemp twine to finish off a gift. You can also use SFI certified, paper-based GreenWrap, an offering from EcoEnclose that is typically used in place of plastic bubble wrap. As you can see from the following picture, wrapping your gift with an outer layer of greenwrap gives it a beautiful finish. 

How to recycle: Traditional bows, ribbons and gift tags are almost never recyclable. Again, they are made with polyester or nylon. The way these raw materials are woven (to give bows the satin feel they have) and their size make them unrecyclable -- they are not accepted by curbside recyclers and there aren't any nontraditional markets that accept these products.

When you get them on a present you’ve received, save them for future holiday seasons. Some people save them for arts and crafts projects.

If reuse is not an option, these should be landfilled.

If you receive hemp, jute or Raffia ribbons, these are compostable but not recyclable. Good news is that they can be composted in both a home or industrial compost facility. 

Pure paper-based adornments (such as the GreenWrap shown above) can be added to curbside recycling. 

Pine cones and other natural adornments can be put back in nature where they came from!

Holiday Cards

What to look for and buy: Americans send 2.65 billion Christmas cards annually - enough to fill a football field 10 stories high. If we each sent one card less, we’d save 50,000 cubic yards of paper.

So consider skipping holiday cards. If you want to send photos of your family and/or a note with updated from your year, go with ecards instead. 

That said, we know that for some people, sending and receiving holiday cards is an important and special tradition (and a great way to keep in touch). If that is you, look for, or custom print, holiday cards made with 100% recycled content. Avoid cards with any foil embellishments. And take the time to add a personal note to those cards, to make them a more personal and meaningful use of resources.

How to recycle: Traditional holiday cards (the ones that aren’t personalized with family pictures!) can often be cut up and used as decorations. Kids love creating ornaments out of them, and these ornaments can last many years! 

If reuse isn’t an option, recycle all cards with no foil, glitter, or shiny additions. Landfill cards with these additions. When in doubt though, landfill the holiday cards you receive to avoid contaminating the paper recycling stream. 

Tissue Paper

What to look for and buy: If you need tissue paper, look for paper made with 100% recycled content. Look for white or kraft tissue paper rather than colored paper - it is easier and more versatile to reuse, and does not utilize any harmful dyes or inks. Don't buy tissue paper with foil or glitter adornments. 

How to recycle: Save and reuse as much as possible. The great thing about tissue paper is that it is typically crinkled a bit when it is used, so saving tissue that is a bit wrinkled is no problem.

Obviously if it is at the very end of its life, you should be able to recycle it. That said, check your local waste management company’s recommendations as some ask that you compost your tissue paper instead. It is important to note that while tissue paper is typically "technically" recyclable, its fibers are shorter than high quality paper. As such markets for tissue paper are limited and recyclers do not generate much revenue from the product. That is why reusing them as much as possible is an important ecological step. 

Corrugated and Cardboard Boxes

What to look for and buy: Many of us acquire a LOT of boxes over the course of the holiday season, between ecommerce and traditional product packaging. If you’re buying boxes for your products, look for recycled material wherever possible. 

Avoid shiny boxes that likely have a poly-based coating to them. 

Avoid heavily printed boxes that often use unsustainable printing inks and are more difficult for paper repulpers to process.

How to recycle cardboard boxes: If boxes are made with paper, and don’t include poly or foil / metallic additions to them, they are typically curbside recyclable.

Flatten boxes out. Remove internal components such as foam and filling. If adhesives are easy to remove, do so, though the majority of recyclers can accept boxes with glue and tape on them. Then drop in curbside recycling.

Plastic Bags and Bubble Wrap

What to look for and buy: Grocery bags, poly mailers, bubble wrap and plastic “pillows” that are used in shipping boxes -- plastic film is everywhere. 

First, see if you can avoid using plastic bags or bubble wrap at all, opting for reusable options instead. If that isn’t an option, look for recycled content wherever possible, such as our 100% recycled poly mailers.

How to recycle: Save any plastic you possible can for reuse.

To recycle plastic film, first remove any and all paper-based labels (such as a paper label that might be affixed to a plastic bag). Save all of your plastic film in one bag or location in your house and bring it all to the grocery store where you can drop it off in their #2 and #4 recycling bin.

Christmas trees

What to look for and buy: The debate between real versus artificial trees is a heated one! Here’s where we land.

A cut Christmas tree is harvested from tree farms, many of which are family owned and operated. These farms often plant two or more trees for every one they cut, and often use rocky soil that does not support other types of agriculture. This means that instead of barren land, the farm hosts trees that provide oxygen and combat climate change. 

So go with a cut tree over a traditional artificial tree, but seek one out from an organic tree farm so you can be sure your tree did not contribute to groundwater and soil contamination (and is healthier for your home). If at all possible, look for one that is locally grown so you can avoid the high carbon footprint associated with shipping a tree.

Check out Local Harvest to find listings for organic tree farms nationwide.

Potted trees are also a great option! However, we know they aren’t realistic for many people who don’t have the ability to plant them outdoors when the season is done. 

That said, real trees are pricey, inconvenient and they can aggravate certain allergies. 

So if an artificial tree is best for your household, keep in mind if a few important things.

  1. Consider a more modern or unique “non-tree.” Rather than trying to find a fake tree that looks like a real one, do something unique - like a wooden or cardboard tree, a tree painting, or arranging books in the design of a tree.

  1. If you are going for a “real tree” lookalike, choose a PE plastic tree (over a PVC tree). These artificial trees have branches are made from injected-mold polyethylene (PE) instead of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which is traditionally used. PVC off-gases volatile organic compounds and is made from non-renewable, petroleum-derived plastic. Many artificial trees made from PVC also test positive for lead.
  2. Find a used artificial tree
  3. Shop for durability. Studies have shown that an artificial tree must be used up to 20 times to compare to a live tree from a carbon footprint perspective

Recycling your Christmas tree:

What NOT to do! Don’t burn your live tree. Firs, pines and spruces, which are some of the more popular Christmas tree varieties, all have a high sap content that can burn very quickly and explosively. The dried needles can burn in a flash, causing a fierce fire. The needles can produce sparks that can fly into your room setting your rugs, furniture and other décor on fire.

Some people think about composting their Christmas tree in a home compost. While this is technically possible, it is typically not recommended because of how long (a year or more) it would take for the tree to decompose into valuable compost.

If you’d like to personally discard of your tree, you can rent a chipper, mulch your tree, and use it for your garden. 

However, we recommend taking advantage of city recycling programs. Why? Because municipalities typically take your tree and use it in the best way possible for their particular needs - mulch, soil erosion protection, refuge for fish or birds, etc.

Contact your municipal waste management service to find out the best way to discard or recycle your tree. Most will pickup trees in the two weeks following Christmas. Some also have designated drop off sites.

Two important notes: First, don’t flock your tree (spray it with fake snow). Yes, it offers a pretty look, but it renders the tree un-mulchable. Flocked trees end up in the landfill -- what a waste! 

Second, take off all ornaments, lights, tinsel, and anything else you’ve decorated the tree with. Anything you accidentally leave on will contaminate the mulch your tree turns into. Think about this when decorating your tree and try not to add anything that is extremely difficult to take off.

Be sure to check what other requirements your hauler has. For example, some ask that you cut up the tree into smaller pieces.

If you opted for an artificial tree instead, your best option, only after saving it to be reused the next holiday season, of course, is to donate it. Goodwill and the Salvation Army accept used artificial Christmas trees, as do many local, independent nonprofits. If this is not feasible, contact your local recycling facility to learn if they accept any components of an artificial tree. If they don’t, landfilling your artificial tree is often the only viable alternative.

Christmas lights

What to look for and buy: Reuse your old holiday lights for as many years as possible. But, if and when you are looking to purchase new ones, choose LED lights instead, which require less energy, and money, to light. Put lights on a timer so you are only running them when people are around to enjoy them.

How to Recycle: Your first and best option is to save your lights for next year! But, of course year after year, you’ll find that a string or two of your holiday lights aren’t working. When that’s the case, don’t toss them in the trash or your recycling bin. Find a recycling center that will accept holiday lights and discard your goods there. You can do this by contacting your recycling facility or using Earth911.com recycling database. In fact, most Lowe’s and Home Depot locations offer a holiday light recycling receptacle in the weeks after Christmas. Home Depot boasts that over 2.5 million holiday lights have been recycled by their stores since they launched this program in 2008.

Curious what becomes of your lights? They are shredded into small pieces and separated into the copper and various plastics. Some American companies do this work, but most of it happens in Shijao, China, the Christmas light recycling capital of the world.

This picture, taken by Adam Minter for The Atlantic is an eye opening inside look into what actually happens to these difficult to recycle items

Gift cards

Giving or receiving gift cards is a great option in many ways. It means your recipients are more likely to get something they’ll like and actually use (versus an unwanted gift that wastes away in a closet somewhere). That, and the popularity of gift cards isn’t slowing down: 80% of adults plan to purchase a gift card for at least one person on their holiday list.

But what to do when the gift card is used up and the cashier hands it back to you? Gift cards are made with PVC, and their material as well as their small size makes them infeasible for most municipal recyclers to accept.

While some stores will take those gift cards back to be reused or recycled, if you receive a gift card, be sure to ask the store about what happens to the gift card after you use it!

Additionally, Best Buy and EarthWorks, which manufactures 100% recycled PVC gift cards, will take them (regardless of who the original card is for).

And there you have it! 

Expert recycling tips for a more sustainable and earth-friendly holiday season. Remember - in the world of free shipping and Amazon two-day delivery, there are creative and easy ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle for a greener, more sustainable earth.

Want the best tips for planning for the holiday season?

Explore our Ultimate Eco-friendly Holiday Gift Guide for trendy yet sustainable gifts to kickstart the festivities and connect with us on Facebook and Instagram for 10 Days of a Zero Waste Holiday. Cheers!