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Brightly wrapped gifts aren't always environmentally friendly

It’s Christmas time – and Hanukkah, too. The festivities include time with family, delicious treats, and brightly wrapped gifts.

The paper on those brightly wrapped gifts offers a pretty picture, and the act of tearing into a present, not sure what’s inside, all the more fun for young and old.

But what does all that paper mean for the environment?

In the United States alone, 25 percent more trash is thrown away during the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day than the rest of the year combined, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Much of that garbage begins its life as festive gift wrap. Each year, four million tons of trees are turned into gift wrap and holiday-themed shopping bags, only to be dropped into landfills, the Clean Air Council said.

“Wrapping paper stays on presents for an average of five days. The presents are opened and tons of paper, ribbons and boxes are thrown away,” said Genevieve Adamski in The Pointer, the student-run newspaper of the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point.

Sometimes the gift wrap doesn’t even make it to the gift recipient. Almost half of Americans said they would rewrap a gift if it didn’t look the way they wanted, according to information gathered by the website CreditDonkey.

It’s not just the U.S., either.

In the United Kingdom, the gift wrap thrown away each year could be laid end to end and wrap the equator nine times, said Lucy Siegle in The Observer.

The city of Barrie, Ontario in Canada reports that the average Canadian family’s waste increases up to 45 percent during the holidays, much of it wrapping paper from brightly wrapped gifts and supplies needed to create those beautiful, brightly wrapped gifts.

Don’t let statistics put the bah humbug in your holiday spirit, though. Like most industries, some paper is better than others. Taking a few steps can make your Christmas a little greener, to go with merry and bright.

Many types of holiday wrapping and greeting cards can be recycled. However, metallic, glittered and laminated paper can’t be recycled in many locations. Unless you plan to reuse them, those types of gift wraps are probably on the “avoid” list.

Some gift wraps that are heavily dyed are also difficult to recycle, so look for wrapping that is decorative without being overdone.

“If you don’t go wrap-free, buy unbleached paper, as high quality and free of glitter penguins as you can. Encourage careful opening and reuse,” Siegle said.

Gift bags are a good option because they’re often reused several times, she added.

Some gift wraps contain seeds. While those are a great gift for anyone who loves flowers, make sure they know that the paper belongs in their yard or garden, not the garbage.

If you have the time and inclination, you can use stamps, stencils, and paint to turn brown paper grocery bags into unique, recycled, and recyclable gift wrap.

Whatever you do, don’t burn the wrapping paper you can’t recycle or reuse.

“Decorative wrapping paper … can contain lead, synthetic inks, plastic film, chlorine or metal-based foils, which release toxic and carcinogenic compounds into the air when burned,” Eviana Hartman wrote in the Washington Post.

Leftover wrapping paper, holiday cards, and other paper products can be turned into do-it-yourself projects instead, from lining drawers, boxes, and bookshelves to wrapping textbooks to origami paper to creating decor for next year’s Christmas season.

The EPA also suggests saving ribbons and bows to be reused instead of throwing them away.

A few other ways to cut down on waste this holiday season:

  • Bring your own bags when holiday shopping, or put smaller purchases into bags with larger items instead of requesting a new bag.
  • Purchase rechargeable batteries and chargers to go with any battery-operated toys or games.
  • Be sure to recycle the batteries in any greeting cards that play music.
  • Recycle the cards, too. Card fronts decorated with glitter or foil can be cut off and used in art projects, or donated to preschools or elementary schools for next year.
  • Choose “experiences” as gifts for people who will appreciate them – concert or sports tickets, museum or zoo memberships, spa gift cards, or day trips.
  • Buy a living Christmas tree that can be planted when the season is over. If you buy a cut tree, be sure to recycle it.
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