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Is Most Gift Wrapping Recyclable? How To Tell In Less Than A Minute

A Flatlay Of Christmas Decorations And Gift Box
Image by Marc Tran / Stocksy
December 23, 2020
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When I was growing up, my Christmas mornings were pretty typical: A Christmas Story marathon played in the background as my family carried through the ritual of opening presents, collecting wrapping paper on the floor as we went. By 10 a.m., when the paper pile was almost as tall as I was, my mom would toss it all in a black trash bag and—I think?—recycle it.

Back then, there was a more laissez-faire attitude about recycling. If you weren't sure how to get rid of something, throwing it in the blue bin and crossing your fingers seemed to be the logical and responsible thing to do.

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But looking back now, with a better understanding of what happens when you recycle wrong, I really hope we just trashed that stuff. China's decision to stop accepting U.S. recyclables because they were improperly cleaned and sorted has me wondering what kind of paper, if any, we can safely toss in the blue bin.

I posed the question to Beth Porter, a waste expert and author of Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine: Sorting Out the Recycling System. She got back to me with a smart trick for figuring out if a wrapping paper is recyclable in 20 seconds or less. It's called the scrunch test: "If you scrunch up the paper into a ball and it stays in a ball, then it can most likely be recycled. If you scrunch it and it starts to unfurl right away, then it's made with foil or plastic and shouldn't be recycled," she explained.

If it doesn't pass the scrunch test, do NOT recycle it. Instead, try to reuse it for future gifting. And if your paper is metallic or glittery, don't bother doing this: It's definitely not recyclable. Tissue paper can't go in recycling either since its fibers are too short.

If your paper passes the scrunch test, you can go ahead and recycle it. That is, after you remove all of its bows, ribbons, and other decorations: "Those items can't be recycled, and even ribbons that aren't shiny and coated in plastic shouldn't be recycled because they're tanglers in the machines," explains Porter. "Tanglers," anything that could potentially get tangled in machinery, are one of the three most problematic waste categories for recyclers. The other two are "tech" (e-waste) and "tiny items" (anything smaller than 2 inches that can slip through a machine's cracks).

Keep this rule in mind as you're looking for wrapping paper this season. Better yet, ditch buying paper altogether and wrap presents in materials you have lying around the house such as newspaper, magazines, scarves, etc. And if you're still on the hunt for a present worthy of its wrapping, check out mbg's 2020 holiday gift guide.

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Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.