The Ultimate Guide to Recycling During the Holidays in 2023

The Ultimate Guide to Recycling During the Holidays in 2023

Posted on Nov 15th 2023

Those who try to exercise sustainability but love to celebrate the holiday season find themselves wondering how to harmonize both goals.

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 responsibly buying and recycling many of the basics. This guide is made for you if you seek to minimize waste and build a more circular economy where goods are reused and recycled rather than landfilled.

Wrapping Paper

Few things rival the thrill of a wrapped gift, and it isn’t easy to imagine a holiday season where wrapping paper is foregone altogether.

But is wrapping paper eco-friendly? Can you recycle wrapping paper? This question is complicated. The answer is 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, we recommend looking for holiday gift wrap made with as much recycled content as you can find and states that it can be curbside recycled.

Can you recycle 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 fully printed wrapping paper that isn’t glittery, shiny, or flocked with velvet?

In almost all cases, yes.

However, wrapping paper is typically very low grade and contains clay, making recycling difficult. 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 particular location for recycling.

Some communities set aside a separate pickup or drop-off day for this 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 other options, especially plain kraft or white paper.

Can you recycle Kraft packaging paper?

Absolutely! We recommend using 100% recycled Kraft packing paper, which is easily recyclable (and even compostable). Not only are these much more sustainable options, but 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 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.

  1. Wrapping paper to reuse to wrap gifts or other purposes (arts and crafts, holiday decor, etc).
  2. Wrapping paper that appears to be pure paper with no glitter or foil (versus a paper and plastic or paper and foil composite). These are the ones that are typically recyclable.
  3. Wrapping paper with metallic elements to it or is extremely shiny.

Be sure to remove bows, ribbons, and excessive tape from wrapping paper before recycling.

Lower Waste Gift Wrap Alternatives

While recycled, recyclable packaging paper is excellent, 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 double as gifts! Or find decorative reusable bags - sometimes, even a reusable paper bag is nice enough to do the trick with some nice tissue paper.

Gift bags can be a great alternative to gift wrap. They are easy (no wrapping or tape), work well when giving 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 bags can’t be recycled, they can almost always be reused- don’t throw them away as soon as you open them! And if you are gifting an item, check to see if any gift bags you’ve saved and stored could work for your gift.

If you have to purchase gift bags and can’t reuse the ones you have on hand, consider using durable ones that can be reused repeatedly. Beautiful gift bags and sacks of muslin and hemp give your holiday gift a beautiful, natural look. Encourage recipients to reuse the gift bags or take them back if that makes more sense.

Alternatively, consider using 100% recycled kraft paper bags. These are simple, beautiful, recyclable and pair beautifully with tissue paper and renewable hemp twine.

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

  1. Gift bags to reuse. We’ve found that the majority of gift bags fall into this category.
  2. Gift bags that are made entirely of paper.
  3. Gift bags that likely can’t be reused and have plastic or metallic additions.

In most municipalities, the second category is recyclable. 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, typically made of polyester or nylon and other materials, are not recyclable. If you receive these, save them to reuse 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, Raffia ribbon, or hemp twine to finish off a gift. You can also use paper-based GreenWrap, an EcoEnclose offering typically used instead of plastic bubble wrap®. Wrapping your gift with an outer layer of GreenWrap gives it a beautiful finish.

How to recycle: Traditional bows, ribbons, and gift tags are rarely 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 makes them unrecyclable - curbside recyclers do not accept them. 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 keep 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. The good news is they can be composted in a home or industrial compost facility.

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

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

Holiday Cards

Americans send 2.65 billion Christmas cards annually - enough to fill a football field ten 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 a note with updates from your year, go with e-cards instead.

That said, sending and receiving holiday cards is an important and special tradition for some people. If that is you, look for 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 (not personalized with family pictures) can often be cut up and used as decorations. Kids love creating ornaments out of them, which 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

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.

However, like with other holiday packaging and wrapping, ensure your tissue paper doesn’t have foil, plastic, glitter, or excessive ink 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 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 creased when used, so saving wrinkled tissue is no problem.

Check your local waste management company’s recommendations to see if they would like your tissue paper recycled or composted.

Corrugated and Cardboard Boxes

What to look for and buy: Many of us acquire a LOT of boxes throughout 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 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, 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 more challenging 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” 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. If that isn’t an option, look for recycled content, such as our 100% recycled poly mailers.

How to recycle: Save any plastic you can for reuse. First, to recycle plastic film, remove any paper-based labels, such as a paper label that might be affixed to a plastic bag. Save all your plastic film in one bag or location in your house and bring it 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.

Christmas Trees

What to look for and buy: The debate between natural versus artificial trees is heated! 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 the farm hosts trees that provide oxygen and combat climate change instead of barren land.

So go with a cut tree over a traditional artificial tree, but seek one from an organic tree farm to ensure your tree does not contribute to groundwater and soil contamination (and is healthier for your home). Look for locally grown ones to avoid the high carbon footprint of 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 cannot plant them outdoors when the season is over.

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

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

Consider a more modern or unique “non-tree.” Rather than trying to find a fake tree that looks real, 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 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 compared to a live tree from a carbon footprint perspective.

Recycling your Christmas tree: What NOT to do! Don’t burn your live tree. Some of the most popular Christmas tree varieties, including firs, pines, and spruces, have a high sap content that can burn 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 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 discard your tree personally, you can rent a chipper, mulch it, 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 the best way to discard or recycle your tree. Most will pick up trees in the two weeks following Christmas. Some also have designated drop-off sites.

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

Second, remove 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 complicated to take off.

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

If you opted for an artificial tree instead, your best option, after saving it for reuse the next holiday season, is to donate it. Like many local, independent nonprofits, Goodwill and the Salvation Army accept used artificial Christmas trees. 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 want to purchase new ones, choose LED lights instead, which require less energy and money to light. Put lights on a timer so you only run 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, you’ll find that a string or two of your holiday lights aren’t working year after year. When that’s the case, don’t toss them in the trash or your recycling bin.

Find a recycling center accepting holiday lights and discard your goods there. You can do this by contacting your recycling facility or using the recycling database. Most Lowe’s and Home Depot locations offer a holiday light recycling receptacle in the weeks after Christmas. Home Depot boasts that its stores have recycled over 2.5 million holiday lights 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 feel good that you recycled your lights, but you also get a coupon for a future purchase!

Are you curious about what becomes of your lights? They are shredded into small pieces and separated into 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.

Gift Cards

Giving or receiving gift cards is an excellent option in many ways. It means your recipients are likelier to get something they’ll like and use versus an unwanted gift that wastes away in a closet. 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; their material and small size make 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 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!

Our expert recycling tips are 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. Cheers!