Is Holiday Wrapping Paper and Gift Wrapping Recyclable?

woman holding three red christmas presents boxes - Is gift wrapping paper recyclable? Most of the plastic stuff we use today is bad for the environment. Here are sustainable alternatives.
Photo by Jill Wellington on

Is Holiday Wrapping Paper and Gift Wrapping Recyclable?

Every year, winter holidays such as Christmas bring incalculable amounts of comfort and joy, as people gather with loved ones and share in holiday traditions. But they also bring literal tons of waste.

Each year during Christmas, an additional 5 million tons of waste is generated in the United States. Four millions tons of that waste is from wrapping paper and shopping bags.

Yes, this is a major gift-giving season. But some of the huge increase in waste can be chalked up to the sheer volume of consumption that takes place this time of year.

In business terms, the fourth quarter has historically been a make-or-break season for businesses. While one might expect businesses to do 25% of their sales in each quarter of the year, many consumer-facing companies do 28-35% of their total sales in the last three months of the year.

In fact, Americans spend as much as $767 billion dollars in November and December alone!

When you add gift wrapping to the mix, packaging waste gets out of control quickly! Some sustainability advocates suggest experience-based gifts rather than products in an effort to cut down on total consumption.

But, of course, that’s not always the easiest or most accessible option. In addition to cutting down on consumption, we can think about ways to make wrapping paper and gift wrap more sustainable.

brown cinnamon on paper wrapped package - Is gift wrapping paper recyclable? Most of the plastic stuff we use today is bad for the environment. Here are sustainable alternatives.
Photo by Alizee Marchand on

Can gift wrapping be recycled?

The good news is that 100% paper gift wrapping can be recycled. Unfortunately, many of today’s flashier wrapping paper cannot.

All of the additives to paper that make it glossy or shiny also make it unrecyclable. This means almost all wrapping paper ends up in the landfill, where the plastics in the paper can’t properly decompose.

And it’s even more of an issue in places that control waste by incinerating (burning) trash collections. Researchers have found that traditional wrapping paper contains heavy metals and dyes that are toxic to human health and the environment.

While some components of packaging are recyclable – like the boxes themselves – plastic inserts, bows, and strings are not. It’s important to remove these items from the recycling pile or they’ll make it harder for local recycling systems to do their job.

Even if all boxes, bags, and paper wrapping were appropriately recycled, we would still left with tons of gift wrapping waste.

Dealing with Wrapping and Gift Waste

So what can be done about this massive source of waste?

Most people do not want to avoid wrapping gifts altogether. Part of the fun of Christmas mornings is opening gifts and watching loved ones react in surprise to gifts being opened.

While I’m not super sentimental about gifts myself, I can appreciate that handing over an unwrapped present doesn’t have the same effect as when it’s tied with a bow or wrapped up in paper.

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

Alternatives to Throwaway Gift Wrapping

Fortunately, there are alternatives to traditional wrapping paper.

1. Newspaper and other recyclable paper.

You may have encountered people who wrap gifts with old newspaper.

Since newspaper can be recycled, this is one way to avoid wrapping waste. Other forms of paper that are not glossy or glittery can be used as well. Just remember to remove the tape (as best as you can) before putting it into the recycling.

2. Reusable boxes and bags.

You could also use ornate boxes or bags that you plan to reuse year after year for gifts.

The gift is still concealed and can be opened without generating short-term waste. Just remember to truly use the boxes and bags for many years, especially if you buy them specifically for gifts and are not just using bags or boxes that came with gift products.

3. Cloth wrapping.

Gifts can also be wrapped with holiday or other colorful fabric.

Once again, you get the concealment and unwrapping qualities of wrapping paper without the waste. The fabric can be reused (especially if it is a scarf or blanket). See how I wrap a gift with a silk scarf on my Pinterest page.

4. Recyclable wrapping paper.

Companies are starting to produce wrapping paper that is made to be both festive and recyclable! Companies like The Doodle Factory and Wrappily produce stylish holiday wrapping that is recyclable and sometimes compostable. 

Holiday gifting can be done with less waste if we are willing to make a few compromises.

We can reuse packaging or we can use paper without the synthetic glitz and glamor of plastic coatings and glitter. Ultimately, there is no need to taint holiday cheer and the joy of gift giving with millions of tons of excess waste.

More in Zero Waste

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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