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Doesn’t it make your eye twitch to see the mounds of plastic ribbons going into the trash on Christmas morning? Or make you uncomfortable to wonder just how they make wrapping paper so shiny and colorful, who made it, and where? (Hint: Asia.)
In fact, much of that glossy stuff isn’t recyclable – the glittery and metallic papers contain plastics, so they need to go into the trash, some municipalities don’t accept any wrapping paper, and tissue paper is often already made from recycled content, meaning it can’t be recycled again, according to Recyclebank.
But gift wrapping gives us the same challenge as dressing fashionably. You want it to look sophisticated, neat, and pretty, just without all the waste, exploitation, and environmental impact. That is not always the easiest thing to pull off.
So I decided to really dig into this problem this year, try out all the internet suggestions for eco-friendly wrapping ideas, and share what I learned with you, complete with illustrative pictures of the results. (Hat tip to The Art of Living Simple and Martha Stewart for generating some of these ideas for me.)
If you could be so kind as to give me feedback in the comments on your favorites, that will help other readers with their wrapping adventures as well!
I love the Japanese tradition of furoshiki fabric wraps. To make it easy, I like Wrappr’s reusable, biodegradable, zero-waste gift wrap, which comes in some absolutely gorgeous designs. These fabric squares are made from machine washable 100% organic cotton which can be reused in a wide variety of ways. Each original design is created by an independent artist who gets a cut of every sale. Your gift recipients can either re-gift their Wrappr, hang it in their home or office as wall art, use it as a face mask or grocery bag, style it as a scarf, and more. Plus, all of the packaging is recycled and biodegradable, too. Check out their library of tutorials for how to wrap and reuse your Wrappr.
Hit Up That Low-Brow Antique Shop
You know that fusty “antique” (read: junk) shop that every town has a few of? This place is great for affordable and sustainable gift wrap ideas. You just have to have an eye for what will translate into a chic present accessory. When you’re there, look for:
- Tea or kitchen towels
- Decorative brooches
- Vintage cards
- Old maps
- Jars and cookie tins
I swung by Junk in Williamsburg, and had a ball digging through jewelry, ornaments, scarves, and linens until I got together a tidy passel of wrapping items. The most expensive thing was this beautiful map tea towel, at $10, which I’m sure my recipient will continue to use. The glass icicles were $0.25 apiece, the jingles bells were $3 – I cut them off the cheap rope they were on to class them up. Everything else was $2 or under, and all of it can be reused for another present, or hung on the tree. The vintage cards were especially useful as retro-chic tags, and the maps are both the perfect weight for wrapping. Plus, you can pick out a map that has special significance. I got a map of Nevada so I could wrap my fella’s small present with Black Rock Desert, Burning Man’s location, on the front.
Save Up Those Odds and Ends
You have some stuff you can use. As someone who gets a lot of cool products in the mail, I have a lot of:
- Tissue paper
- Dust bags
… that I’ve been diligently collecting all year. I used all of these in my wrapping process. You’ll also see in my wrapping some sparkly wrapping paper my dude bought last year, and some Japanese washi tape I got as a gift a couple years back from the moms. Happy to use both up, as long as they are on hand! The below gift is using a dust bag from an artisan boutique and vintage bells. When you shop at sustainable and ethical makers of high-quality goods, you end up with some gorgeous wrapping materials.
Tip: Use a hair iron to smooth out kinked ribbons. Then use the ribbons how they were originally intended: to seal packages closed in lieu of plastic tape.
Reuse Some Materials
I actually love to indulge in potato chips every once in a while, but I feel bad about it. Not because of the health, but because their packaging is never recyclable. However, you can reuse their packaging, because it’s silver on the inside – perfect for gift wrap.
Newspaper is another great material that is frequently recommended for wrapping. I actually only get the New York Times digitally now, but I stopped into a Chinese convenience store in Chinatown and bought a Chinese-language newspaper for a cool $0.50. (Newspapers are printed that morning in the same city, making them more affordable and sustainable than typical wrapping paper!) The result looks worldly, is neutral in content, and a step up from an American newspaper.
I also scrounged up an old sweater I was getting rid of. I think if you tie it correctly, it can look chic, if a bit lumpy. But I sort of dread the moment when my recipient looks at the stained sweater and is like, “Uh, I don’t have to keep this right?” It seems a bit awkward. So I skipped that, but it’s available to you if you can make it work.
Steal Some Christmas Tree Sprigs
NYC has New York State-grown Christmas trees being sold every five blocks. I stopped at one by my apartment and asked the guy if I could have some small branches that had fallen off. He looked at me like a weirdo, but said it was fine.
Homemade eggnog decorated with twine and pine tree sprigs. Get my eggnog recipe here.
Support a Local, Sustainable, Ethical Maker
This is from Brooklyn stationary artist Museum Lab (formerly Frances Lab). The icicles are from the antique store, and the washi tape I had on hand. Or you can go on Etsy and looking for wrapping paper made in your area.
Besides wrapping paper, you can also buy an ethically made scarf or organic tea towel for an elegant and useful paper alternative. See my Shopping Guide for online suggestions for where to get one, or try an NYC market or store – I’ve listed ones for you here.
Buy Reusable Wrapping Bags
This is by far the easiest option for wrapping presents. Just shove your item inside, tie it, and voila! A beautiful present. The sustainable part is that it will get used over and over for probably years before it finally falls apart. I got a three-pack from Bag-All‘s store in Manhattan.
Swing by the Florist
I didn’t get any, but you can put the finishing touch on dozens of gifts by getting a spray of holiday berries from the florist. Also pick up some natural and bio-degradable packing material while you’re there, so you don’t have to resort to packing peanuts or bubble wrap.
Get Some Eco-Friendly Basics From the Art Store
You’ll need neutrals among all this chaos of vintage, newsprint, scarves, and leftover ribbon. I suggest getting plain white paper or brown Kraft a.k.a. postal paper from the craft or office supply store. The benefit of using plain paper is that it doesn’t need to be taped to stay put on the package, just tied with ribbon. (The glossy paper has a tendency to slip, so requires tape.) You could also get some white chalk and black charcoal to label the presents with, some brown or white twine, or simple white or red cloth ribbon to round it out.
Use One of the Thousand Totes You Probably Already Own
I’ve talked about my reusable tote bag problem before, and how they may not be as eco-friendly as we think. But, chances are high that you already have a ton of them sitting in the closet, so you could choose a cute one and use it as a gift bag. Then perhaps your recipient will use it again too!
Or, If You Want to Get Extra Fancy: Make Your Own Custom Wrapping
If you’re the type of person who likes to go the extra mile, you can create your own custom eco-friendly tissue paper, stickers, and tape with noissue. noissue was created for small businesses, so their minimums are super low, which means it’s accessible for individuals too. Just upload your own design, receive your product in 2-3 weeks, and your friends and family will be extra-impressed. You can read more about noissue here. Use code ECOCULT10 for 10% off your first order.