Dec 222010

Alrighty, here’s the situation.  I’ve spent all month making green decisions – thoughtfully buying presents with little to no packaging, considering carefully what the recipient wants most so the gift doesn’t go to waste, mailing FSC-certified holiday cards, making garbage-free candy, buying a local tree, and continuing our switch to LED lights.  

But – the real problem with the holiday season is packaging waste.  Each year, U.S. household waste increases by 25% from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.  The vast majority of this waste is from wrapping paper, ribbon, gift tags, and gift bags.  Since my mission in life is to rid myself of garbage (and give none to others), holiday wrapping poses quite the conundrum.  Last year, I made drawstring bags from fabric (here’s a tutorial).  In theory, recipients can reuse these over and over to wrap presents.  This was as easy as sewing two squares together, turning them inside out, and adding a drawstring.  See last year’s post here.  Adam and I still have some of these from last year’s gift exchange between the two of us, and we’ll be using them again.  It remains to be seen whether any of our family members reuse theirs…. 

Anyway, we spent a long time deciding how to wrap presents this year.  While I loved the fabric bags and will return to them next year, we decided to use regular old wrapping paper this year.  Why?  Two reasons: 

First, we have some left over from years past and, since we’ve already bought it, we don’t want to waste it.  

Second, the majority of people wrap with paper and I wanted to help others find a way to do so without creating garbage in the process.  

Now, before I show you how we (sort of) accomplished wrapping without tape or ribbon, let me delve a little further into the issues surrounding green wrapping.  

The Internet is filled with ideas and tutorials for wrapping without wrapping paper.  The ideas are numerous, from wrapping with recycled materials (old newspapers, brown paper bags) to wrapping in another gift (glass jars, baskets).  I know people who wrap gift boxes in fabric and reuse these boxes year after year.    The problem is, these ideas aren’t one-size-fits-all like wrapping paper.  Newspaper is great – for small items.  The fabric-wrapped boxes are great – but only for items that fit in the box.  

And, while I love the idea of wrapping in something that is functional, this idea is not cheap.  I want to spend my money on a gift, not the wrapping.  I know I’m not alone here – when faced with the choice of $0.10 worth of wrapping paper or a $4 basket, most people are going to opt for the wrapping paper.  (If this is affordable for you, we received gifts wrapped in fabric and in towels last year, which I thought were great ideas).  

In other words, my criteria for a good wrapping material: cheap, easy, and able to be cut (or expanded) to fit a variety of packages.  

That said, I now faced the garbage-free wrapping paper dilemna.  For starters, wrapping paper is usually recyclable - with a couple of caveats.  First, it needs to be *mostly* tape-free.  It also needs to be free of ribbons, bows, and sticker tags.  You cannot recycle wrapping “paper” made of foil or plastic.  Try ripping it – if it behaves like newspaper, it’s recyclable.  

Keep in mind, though, that wrapping paper is essentially “designed for the dump,” which is one of my pet peeves.  Designed for the dump means an item was designed to be used for a very short period of time before being thrown away (think plastic bags, granola bar wrappers, or items like electronics that are designed to be obsolete after a year or two).  This time, that packaging does have a greater purpose – it sustains the tension before the big moment of surprise when you finally get to unwrap the paper and see what’s underneath.  After we use up what’s on hand, however, we’re going to have to come up with a new way to keep those presents hidden.   

How to wrap without tape and ribbon 

The next challenge becomes wrapping without tape.  This is where the “blues” part of the post comes in.  I KNOW it’s possible – after all, pioneers didn’t have tape, and they managed to wrap their packages in brown paper and string.  I have this feeling, too, that somewhere on the Internet I should be able to find some sort of origami-esque instructions for folding paper just so, holding everything in place.  The closest tutorial I could find, however, was from Beth at Fake Plastic Fish.  

Beth’s tutorial was extremely helpful but limited in that I was only able to wrap small packages this way.  Believe me, I tried – and tried, and tried.  I spent a whole day folding and unfolding.   Larger packages were impossible to wrap using the tuck and fold method.  This became my compromise – wrap small and medium presents without tape, and wrap big ones with it.  Here’s how to do it: 

Step 1: Pull the long ends of the paper together, tenting them over the package. Fold/roll them tautly together as you would if wrapping a sandwich in foil.


Step 2: Fold the corners of the package into the box in a clockwise manner in this order: left, top, right, bottom. The bottom tucks into a fold created by the right flap. It's an imprecise science....


These are barely tight enough to stay together on their own, so I wrapped them in pieces of raffia.  I really like raffia as an eco-friendly alternative to ribbon because it is all natural and biodegradable.  You could snip it off a present and toss it outside for the birds or put it in the compost bin.  Either way, it’s not heading to the dump.  Raffia strands tend to be short, so I just tied several together until I had enough to wrap the package.  Packages were topped off with the bows I made and wrote about last week.   We added homemade gift tags that remind recipients that the wrapping paper is recyclable. 

Is it worth it? 

A fair question, whether or not I ought to be spending my time trying to avoid what, three pieces of tape per present, when there are so many other, larger environmental problems out there.  I say yes, and here’s why: The very spirit of this blog is to challenge perceptions about trash.  I contend that necessity is the mother of invention – take the tape away (or foil or plastic bag or whatever) and you are forced to come up with an alternative solution.  We think that trash-free living is so impossible only because we’ve never really tried to live any other way.  We’re comfortable with our trash because it makes our lives so convenient – so easy.  I look at the items that pile up in my trash, the ones that are hardest for me to get rid of, and often, they are simple things like tape.  If I can challenge myself to do without tape, maybe something bigger and more impactful is next.  Trash-free life is about challenging yourself to think creatively, so throw off social norms in favor of the unknown.  

If you celebrate Christmas, I hope you have a peaceful day surrounded by loved ones.  Until Monday … adeiu.

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  4 Responses to “The green-wrapping blues”

  1. oh darn it all! I forgot that the self stick name tags cannot be recycled! I am using up all my old wrapping paper (no bows or ribbons) and will not buy any more, so I will vow to get creative throughout the coming year….One really good thing about not buying wrapping apaper is extra storage room. No more bulky tubes of paper to store! :)

  2. I love every part of what you’re doing and have learned a lot that we use everyday. But what about the xmass tree? We’ve been decorating ficus plant every year since we we ran out of yard space to plant the (expensive) living trees we bought. What’s your thought about the mass added to the waste stream every year by all those dead trees?

  3. Hi John! Christmas trees are something I’ve thought a lot about. I’d encourage you to look at last year’s post: for more information about our reasoning. Basically, though, a Christmas tree – if bought and grown locally – is like any other crop to be consumed. Granted, I’m not eating the tree like I would local strawberries or broccoli, but I am supporting a local, sustainable farming operation. There is inarguably no doubt that cutting a real tree is way better for the environment than investing in a fake tree. For some people, buying, decorating, then planting a potted tree is the best option. This is not an option we can afford this year. Hope this helps!

  4. Dear Amy and Adam: I am new to your blog and am excited to find someone who understood my concerns this holiday season. I made homemade beauty products as Christmas gifts and put them in used glass containers, then covered the jar with twine. I glued a piece of paper to the lid, explaining what the product contains, how it should be used, how long it would last, etc. I wanted to include “Please re-use container” in the message, but my husband thought it was enough to show people that we are re-using our old glass jars, how beautiful they could look with the twine wrapped around them, and that should do to inspire them to re-use the jars. I am, however, not convinced. What is your opinion on this? On one hand I don’t want to give garbage to others, and I want to inspire more people to be less wasteful, but on the other hand I don’t want to be preachy and tell people what they should do. Thanks!

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