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The List: The Ultimate Guide To A Green Holiday Clean Up 5

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From gift-wrap to trees (both real and faux) the holidays mean more household waste than usual. Here’s how to responsibly dispose of it all!

With Christmas just a few days away, I can sense that our recycling bin and trash cans are filling faster than usual. And it’s not just my imagination: Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the amount of trash going to our nation’s landfills increases by nearly one million tons a week! That’s an increase of around 25 percent, compared to the rest of the year.

Part of the problem, at least in my home, is not knowing what to do with some of this seasonal waste. It can be confusing to know how to properly dispose of things we don’t deal with as much the rest of the year, such as wrapping paper, decorations, special packaging, and other festive odds and ends.

Before the big day, I decided to do a little research so that I’ll be better prepared with responsible ways to deal with the aftermath of our celebrations, whether it’s recycling, repurposing, or as a last resort, throwing in the trash. After a quick poll of some of my friends’ biggest holiday-trash quandaries, I’ve come up with a pretty comprehensive list.

Read on to learn how to responsibly dispose of (or upcycle!) holiday trash.

1. Wrapping paper

In most cases, regular wrapping paper is recyclable with the rest of your paper in your curbside bin. Since tape, which isn’t recyclable, can contaminate the paper, you should rip off any pieces of tape from wrapping paper. The exceptions to recyclable wrapping paper include paper with metallic details, glitter, or unusual finishes like flocking, which all should be reused or sadly, thrown in the trash.

Upcycle it!

Encourage everyone in the family to open gifts carefully so you can save the paper. Smooth it out, fold it, and store it flat until next year.

2. Tissue paper

Those layers of tissue wrapping paper that cradle a gift are usually not recyclable because the paper fibers are too short to be recycled into new paper. If you have a compost bin, you can rip tissue paper into large shreds and compost it.

Upcycle it!

Save used tissue wrapping paper in a bag to use as packing material next time you’re packing up fragile items in a box. Or use it in a decoupage project.

3. Ribbons and bows

They look great on a box, but bows and ribbons are not so great for recycling equipment — in fact, they can cause major problems, just like plastic bags, by getting tangled in machinery. Bows and ribbons should never go in your curbside bin.

Upcycle it!

Reuse ribbons and bows that are still in good condition, or turn those big bows into a festive wreath for next year’s decorations.

4. Nonworking strands of lights

As much as I try to replace the tiny bulbs to extend the life of my light strands, eventually I give up and have to pitch them. String lights are rarely accepted in curbside programs, but many cities hold recycling events where they are collected. Some scrap-metal recyclers, like Rockaway Recycling in Rockaway, NJ, will even pay you by the pound for old Christmas lights. Perhaps there’s something similar in your area?

Upcycle it!

Use those tiny bulbs to make cute jewelry. Or, if the lights still work, you can crochet around the plastic cord and make little paper shades for the bulbs, to use them in a non-Christmas setting.

5. Cardboard boxes with plastic window inserts

So many product boxes — especially for toys or cosmetics — come with plastic windows so you can see the goodies inside. Some recycling facilities accept the boxes as-is, and the plastic is separated out during the recycling process. I prefer to rip the plastic windows and other non-paper components off the box. Ask your hauler about their policy for boxes with plastic.

Upcycle it!

Covered with contact paper or spray-painted, a cardboard box could make a nice container to organize toys, craft supplies, or other items. And the window is handy for seeing the contents.

6. Holiday cards

Like gift-wrap, most holiday cards can be recycled in your curbside bin, unless they have glitter, non-paper adornments, or metallic ink on them. Photo cards, printed on glossy paper, are usually recyclable with other mixed paper. Check with your recycler for specifics.

Upcycle it!

One of my friends uses last year’s postcards to make decorative tags for gift bags or gift boxes. She simply cuts out images or designs from the cards and glues them to the bag or box. I also love the idea of cutting cards up in the shape of holly leaves and forming them into a wreath.

7. Metal cookie tins

The tins that fancy cookies, chocolates, or popcorn come in are made of aluminum or steel, so they’re recyclable with other similar metal.

Upcycle it!

But then again, why would you want to recycle them when those tins are so good for upcycling? Reuse tins for next year’s batch of Christmas cookies, decoupage them (perhaps with the aforementioned tissue paper?) and use them to hold bulk items like beans or coffee, or spray-paint them to use for gift containers with a personal touch.

8. Plastic clamshells from baked goods

The brittle, clear plastic container that your office party’s cookies came in is probably PET plastic. (Look for the #1 resin code on the bottom of the container.) Rinse any crumbs from it and put it in your curbside recycling bin.

Upcycle it!

These containers are great for packing a to-go lunch or car snack, or using to organize office supplies or craft supplies.

9. Real Christmas trees

Here’s a good reason to motivate to get that tree taken down by New Year’s: Many cities offer a Christmas-tree recycling service where they’ll pick up (or you can drop off) your real cut evergreen, and they’ll turn it into mulch for city parks.

Upcycle it!

If you don’t have a service like this in your area, you might find some uses for an old tree around your home or garden. This article has ideas ranging from turning it into a wildlife habitat to making a didgeridoo!

10. Artificial Christmas trees

An artificial tree that’s still in good condition can often be donated to either a thrift store, or to a local church, hospital, shelter, or school that’s in need of holiday decorations. If the tree’s not in usable shape, look to see if your city has a recycling facility or scrap metal recycler that accepts old Christmas trees; they’ll break it down into recyclable components.

Upcycle it!

Use a wire cutter to cut off the branches and form them into swags or wreaths. You can use these as holiday decorations next year.

11. Packing peanuts or foam packaging

Thankfully, most shipping companies don’t use Styrofoam or packing peanuts to protect the contents of their boxes anymore. But if you still receive some in a delivery, you’ll likely be able to find a drop-off location for them at your local supermarket or even a shipping office.

Upcycle it!

If you’ve got room, save the peanuts and reuse them to pack something fragile. Or use them for craft projects, like a floating keychain or fun jewelry.

Because the recycling policies of different recycling services differ from place to place, it’s best to check with your local service before you recycle anything that you’re not sure about. And then take pride in giving yourself one of the best holiday gifts of all: The satisfaction that comes with making a positive difference!


What is your biggest recycling challenge around the holidays? Sound off in the comments below. 

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About the Author
Jessica Harlan
Jessica Harlan

I love finding new ways to green my family's life as painlessly as possible, and sharing those ideas with folks who want to do the same.

  • Heather B. 11 days ago
    Might seem a no-brainer, but included in the list of greeting cards to NOT recycle should be cards with sound or lights.
    • Gina L. 2 days ago
      You can also tear apart those type of cards, the noise makers, shiny stuff, etc and recycle the major paper product.
  • tommy b. 13 days ago
  • E W. 21 days ago
    shred the old wrapping paper and use between gifts and in gift bags.
    Use boxes with lids, wrap the box pieces separately in Christmas paper place a bow on top and the name of the person who's gift its is. Place under the tree for all the gifts for that person.. No more wrapping gifts everybody has its own box and all gifts can go in there if they fit. After the Season is over, the boxes will store the tree ornaments.
  • Erica M. 23 days ago
    My grandma made a game of saving wrapping paper, bags, bows, and ribbons for year after year. We always joked about who got which bit of paper or which bow from the year before. Now I'm the paper saver in my family, and everyone comes to me for wrapping supplies. We use it to cover old fragile books, or boxes upcycled into office supplies as well. It also works as a drawer liner in a pinch too, and the little splashes of color bring joy.
  • Chris G. 24 days ago
    I buy a lot of my holiday items at the good will outlet. I get new wrapping paper, cards, ornaments ets. I get new gift bags all the time there. I also recycle my wrapping paper whenever possible.
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