As the pile of wrapping paper grows on the living room floor, the annual holiday-morning question inevitably arises: What do we do with all this? Does it all have to go straight into the trash? Can wrapping paper be recycled? What about this sparkly stuff? Does it matter that it has tape on it? This year, your holiday doesn’t need to be interrupted by a disposal debate. We’re here with the answers.
It’s tempting to assume the answer to the recycling question is in the name itself: It’s wrapping paper, after all. Surely it can join the rest of your cardboard boxes and junk mail in the recycling bin? As you may have guessed, however, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Paper vs. “Paper”
The truth is, a lot of wrapping “paper” on the market isn’t actually paper at all. Metallic, glittery, and see-through papers are all at least partially plastic, meaning they can’t be remade into other paper products. Even some wrapping paper that is pure paper isn’t worth putting in the bin. Super thin wrapping paper, for example, doesn’t contain enough of the quality fibers extracted during the recycling process.
But it’s not all bad news! Regular matte paper (even if it’s colorful) can be recycled, no problem. If you want to make sure your wrapping paper is recyclable, just put it through the scrunch test, which works just the way you’d think it would: Crumple a piece of the wrapping paper in question. If it stays scrunched, it’s good to recycle. If it springs back flat, it has to go in the trash.
Dealing With the Rest of it
What about the rest of the pile of discarded wrapping materials? Tissue paper is best placed in the compost, while you can approach gift bags the same way you would paper (just make sure you take off the handles). Bows, ribbons, and tape should all stay out of the recycling bin.
Reuse What You Can
The best thing to do with your discarded wrapping paper and assorted accouterments is to reuse whatever you can! Sturdy wrapping paper that hasn’t been ripped can be folded up and used again next year. Bows and nice ribbons, too, are easily stowed and reused. Alternatively, you can turn to more sustainable wrapping alternatives like newspapers, fabric, boxes, and reusable bags.
When in Doubt, Throw it Out
Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of “wishcylcing”—a.k.a. erring on the side of assuming things are recyclable because you figure it’s worth a try. Despite our best intentions, this kind of pitch-and-hope mentality can cause headaches for your recycling company and interfere with the process. Brent Bell, the VP of recycling operations at Waste Management, told Mother Jones in 2019 that a quarter of the material they receive is garbage that has to be extracted and thrown away. So, if you’re not sure whether a sheet of wrapping paper can be recycled, do the (admittedly counter-intuitive) ecologically safe thing: Put it in the trash.