The Ultimate Guide to Recycling at the Holidays
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.
Bringing eco-friendly principles into the holiday season requires a more thoughtful approach to so many traditions - ranging from the gifts you buy (can you buy less, gift experiences, or buy used?), to the food you select for gatherings (and potentially waste), and the amount of waste you generate.
In this post, we talk about waste in particular.
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.
Here, we answer some of the most common holiday recycling FAQs and provide tips on how to responsibly buy and recycle many of the holiday basics. If you are someone who seeks to minimize your waste and build towards a more circular economy in which goods are reused and recycled rather than landfilled, this guide is made for you.
No time to read all of this?
We get it! Check out our quick Guide to Holiday Recycling cheat sheet instead!
Wrapping Paper (And What Eco-Friendly Wrapping Paper Looks Like)
Few things rival the thrill of a wrapped gift, and it is difficult to imagine a holiday season where wrapping paper is foregone altogether.
But, is wrapping paper eco-friendly? Can you recycle wrapping paper? Well, this question is a little complicated. The answer is, maybe - it depends on what kind of wrapping paper you bought.
We see three categories of single-use wrapping paper:
- Glittery, foil inlaid paper that shouts, "hey, I am here for the holidays!"
- Fully printed wrapping paper, but without the foil and glitter
- Plain unprinted paper - in either Kraft or white
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.
Can you recycle the glittery, foil wrapping paper?
Usually not. Additionally, this paper is typically not made with recycled content.
Because of this, we recommend skipping these (unfortunately ubiquitous) wrapping options. Avoid anything shiny! Shiny means foil or metallic additions, which almost always render gift wrap unrecyclable.
Can you recycle the fully printed wrapping paper that isn't glittery, shiny or flocked with velvet?
In almost all cases, yes.
But, wrapping paper is typically very low grade and contains clay that makes 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.
Some communities set aside a separate pickup or drop off day for this type of wrapping paper, so that it comes in source separated.
The full coverage printing on this wrapping paper does mean that it isn't a high quality input into the paper repulping stream, and will be sorted into lower quality, lower priced bales. Given this, we recommend going with other options, especially plain kraft or white paper.
What about Kraft Paper? Can you recycle Kraft Packaging Paper?
Absolutely! We recommend going with 100% recycled Kraft packaging paper, which is easily recyclable (and yes, even compostable). Not only are these much more sustainable options, they are also aesthetically pleasing, with a sleek, clean look. For all of you wondering if wrapping paper is compostable, if you’ve gone with one of these options- absolutely! But, as we always say, please recycle these as this is a much more eco-friendly end of life outcome than composting.
How to recycle gift wrapping paper: 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, learn what your local waste management company does and doesn't accept when it comes to gift wrap, and whether they have dedicated drop offs or collection days for any gift wrapping materials.
Then, we recommend creating a method to sort wrapping paper. Separate wrapping paper into three categories.
- One for any wrapping paper you’d reuse, either to wrap gifts or for other purposes (arts and crafts, holiday decor, etc).
- 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). These are the ones that are typically recyclable.
- A third for paper with metallic elements to it or is extremely shiny.
Be sure to remove bows, ribbons and excessive tape from wrapping paper before it is recycled. See more about ribbons and bows below!
Lower Waste Gift Wrap Alternatives
While recycled, recyclable packaging paper is great, it is not as eco-friendly as many gift wrap swaps.
Instead, borrow the Japanese tradition of Furoshiki of wrapping gifts in gorgeous multi-functional cloths. Or use scarves that actually double as gifts! Or find decorative reusable bags- sometimes even a reusable paper shopping bag is nice enough to do the trick with some nice tissue paper.
Holiday Gift Bags (And How to Do Gift Bags Right!)
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.
Are gift bags recyclable? Again, this depends on the material the gift bag is made from.
Shiny, foil lined gift bags are not typically recyclable.
But, even if these gift bag can’t be recycled, they can almost always be reused- don’t throw it away as soon as you open it! And if you are gifting an item, check to see if any gif bags you've saved and stored could work for your gift.
If you have to purchase gift bags and can't reuse ones you have on hand, consider using durable ones that can be reused over and over again. 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.
How to recycle gift bags: Similar to gift wrap, we recommend separating any gift bags you receive into three piles.
- Gift bags you can reuse, either as gift bags or for other purposes. We’ve found that the majority of gift bags fall into this category.
- Gift bags that are made entirely with paper.
- 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
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).
But, know that traditional ribbons and bows, which are typically made of polyester or nylon (often with other materials for included), are not recyclable. If you find yourself receiving these, save them to reuse them any gifts you wrap up.
Skip traditional ribbons and bows and 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 other holiday décor.
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 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!
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.
Can tissue paper be recycled? While most municipalities accept tissue paper for recycling, some ask that you compost your (minimally printed) tissue paper instead, given how thin and short-fibered tissue paper is.
Like with other holiday packaging and wrapping however, make sure your tissue paper doesn't have foil, plastic, glitter, or excessive ink on it if you recycle or compost it. Additionally, try to reuse it as much as possible before you recycle it. Learn more: Tissue Paper, To Recycle or Compost?
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.
Check your local waste management company’s recommendations to see if they would like your tissue paper to be recycled or composted.
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 coating to them that makes them either challenging to recycle, or unrecyclable.
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.
Consider a reusable gift box instead of a corrugated cardboard box if that works for your gift. The major downside of reusable 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.
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. You can also send your film back to EcoEnclose to recycle for you, as part of our poly film take back program.
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.
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.
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.
Or, find a used artificial tree
Finally, 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.
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.
Alternatively, some companies have unique take back programs for holiday lights, including Holiday LED's free light recycling program. Not only do you get to feel good that you recycled your lights, you also get a coupon for a future purchase!
Curious what becomes of your lights? They are shredded into small pieces and separated into the copper and various plastics. Historically, this work happened in Shijao, China, the historic Christmas light recycling capital of the world. With the China Sword Policy going into effect in 2018, more and more domestic facilities have cropped up that recycled these lights.
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.
Can you recycle gift cards? Unfortunately in most cases, no. What do you 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 to help you sustainably package your goods this holiday season? Check out our Guide to Eco-Friendly Holiday Packaging for Every Industry.