basket of used wrapping paper and ribbons by Christmas tree

After Kris Kringle has come and gone, the gifts have been opened, and the turkey has been eaten (with plenty of leftovers to spare), I’ll wager that many of you find yourself thinking … now what?

After the holiday ends, the Christmas cleanup begins. How do you dispose of the wrapping paper, decorations, and other holiday trappings in an eco-friendly way? We’re here to break it down for you, from the smallest gift box to the tree itself.

Wrapping Paper

Despite the name, wrapping paper isn’t always a paper product. Metallic-looking wrapping paper is often made with mylar (a polyester film) or foil, while glossy wrapping paper is made with a thin, glossy plastic coating — both of these likely render the wrapping unrecyclable. The same goes for sparkles and glitter.

One option for dealing with all the wrapping paper is to save and reuse it. This works best if you remove the paper in one piece, but if you’re more of a rip ‘n’ tear sort, you can still keep wrapping paper scraps to use as gift tags or for wrapping small gifts.

If your used-paper stash is overflowing and you would like to dispose of it, use Earth911’s handy Recycling Search to find out if wrapping paper can be recycled in your city or town. Simply type “wrapping paper” into the search bar, and complete the form with your ZIP code. You should get results that indicate where your municipality prefers you dispose of these festive wrappings.

Gift Boxes and Gift Bags

Most gift boxes are cardboard, which many recycling programs will accept for recycling. Gift bags, on the other hand, are glossy or shiny. Like glossy and shiny wrapping paper, they’re likely not recyclable. But the good thing about both gift bags and boxes is that they are reusable. I never have to purchase a new gift bag or box; I just reuse the ones I’ve received.

However, if they have gotten damaged to the point you don’t want to use them again, check out our Recycling Search for locations where you can recycle gift boxes and gift bags. Be sure to add your ZIP code to the search form to get local results.

Christmas
Unfortunately, glossy wrapping paper and plastic ribbons can’t be recycled. But you can reuse them!

Ribbons and Bows

I absolutely adore people who use fabric ribbons and bows to decorate gifts they give me — it allows me to add to my ribbon stash and use them to gussy up my gifts to others! There’s really no reason to throw out fabric ribbon; if you don’t want it (and why on earth wouldn’t you?), I’m sure you can find someone close to you who does.

I also suggest keeping and reusing plastic ribbons and bows, but for an entirely different reason. These inexpensive adornments cannot be recycled, and if you don’t plan to keep or reuse them, they have to be thrown out. One more reason to invest in some thick fabric ribbon, or simply avoid it altogether!

Christmas Cards

Despite trying to reduce paper use whenever I can, I still really enjoy sending and receiving paper cards in the mail. Something about it just feels incredibly joyful and festive. I try to buy cards made of recycled paper whenever possible. Cards with recycled content reduce the demand for virgin fiber — saving trees, energy, water, and producing less waste. And by purchasing products made with recycled content, you demonstrate to corporations that there is a demand for sustainably made products, which encourages more businesses to follow suit.

As for the holiday cards I’m lucky enough to receive, after displaying them for the Yuletide season, I like to carefully cut off the front of the card and use them for gift tags for next year’s presents. I recycle the written-on back portion of the card and feel good about reducing my recycling by 50%. An added bonus of reusing my cards like this is that I never have to shell out for brand-new gift tags!

If you happen to receive a card that’s made from 100% paper with no sparkles or shiny bits, it should be recyclable. However, since most holiday cards have a shiny plastic coating, metallic glints, or glittery sparkles, you probably can’t recycle them. But here are some more ideas for upcycling Christmas cards.

Oh, Tannenbaum…

Within the eco-friendly world there’s a rich tradition of debating whether it’s better for the environment to get a real tree every year or buy one artificial one to reuse for a lifetime. Digging into that debate itself is a topic for another post (check out Real vs. Artificial Christmas Trees), but I’m firmly in the “real tree” camp.

After you’ve removed all the ornaments — that includes those strands of plastic “tinsel” — and carefully packed the angel away for another year, don’t toss that tree in the garbage! Many cities have tree recycling programs that turn your old Christmas tree into mulch or compost. This is another time to take advantage of our Recycling Search to find out whether your city participates in a program like this.

Do take note that recycling your tree is time-sensitive. Most cities offer recycling services during a set time period only. Just one more reason not to put off post-Christmas cleanup and get ready to welcome the new year with a fresh slate!

Editor’s note: Originally published on December 26, 2016, this article was updated in December 2019.



By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.