Insights and Impact

Which is Worse: Wrapping Paper or Gift Bags?

Megan Litke, AU’s director of sustainability 

Megan Litke

When it comes to acting sustainably during the holiday season, Americans are on the naughty list. 
According to the National Environmental Education Fund, we toss 25 percent more waste—an extra one million tons of trash per week—between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. And it’s not just fruitcakes and other food waste. Wrapping paper is a massive problem. 
Americans spend $2.6 billion on gift wrap each year, and we think we’re doing the right thing by recycling it. In fact, most wrapping paper has a plastic coating that gives it sparkle and shine—and makes it unrecyclable. The same is true of most tissue paper, bows, and ribbon. 
But there are plenty of ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle and avoid the dreaded coal in our stocking. 
If you have small kids, you can wrap gifts with the artwork they’ve created at school. Not only is it an easy way to reuse what you already have, but it will be even more meaningful to Grandma than store-bought wrapping paper. Magazine pages (like this one!), maps, calendars, dishtowels, scarves, and even socks are also good alternatives.
So are gift bags. Even though they likely have the same plastic coating as wrapping paper, they are easily reused. My family has passed the same gift bags back and forth for years—some of them are even held together with duct tape. It’s become a fun way to reduce our environmental impact.
If every American family wrapped just three presents in reusable materials, it would save enough wrapping paper to cover 45,000 football fields. By making small, incremental changes, we’re not only acting on our values, we’re also creating new traditions.