Recycling Christmas Cheer

Christmas is coming, so now is the time to plan your strategy for setting out less post-Christmas garbage than any other family on your block!  (We often achieve that goal, and we’re in a mostly Jewish neighborhood.)  Reusing things not only saves you money and helps the environment but also creates a treasure trove of things to use next year that are already imbued with happy memories–and they just get better, year after year!

Gift wrap

Open presents by slitting the tape with your thumbnail and unfolding the paper.  Even young children can learn to do this (they may have trouble slitting/breaking the tape, but they can minimize ripping of the paper, anyway)–my son has seen gifts unwrapped this way all his life, assumes that’s the right way, and always looks shocked at birthday parties when the kid wantonly shreds wrapping paper!  Yes, it’s slower; that stretches out the anticipation and tantalizes you with gradually increasing glimpses of the gift.  Fold the paper and keep it in a box to use again next year.

It’s true that paper doesn’t look quite as good the second time around, but with a little creativity you can position it such that the creases and bits of tape are hidden, or you can cut off the damaged parts and use just the nice parts.  Rely on pre-used paper for smaller gifts, and save the new paper for bigger ones.

Use old gift wrap to make origami ornaments.  Use a sewing needle to poke thread through the topmost point, and tie it into a loop for hanging on the Christmas tree.

When a piece of wrapping paper has only small areas that still look nice, you can cut out sections (one snowman, a cluster of bells, etc.) to use as gift tags on presents wrapped in a larger piece of the same paper, or to decorate a gift wrapped in solid-colored paper or a tablecloth (see below).

Damaged gift wrap can be cut up to make a paper chain to decorate the house for the remaining 12 days of Christmas, used for a game of Pass the Parcel, or crumpled or shredded for cushioning things inside boxes of Christmas presents you mail next year.

If you have nibbling pets, let them shred worn-out gift wrap to give their habitat a festive look!

Alternatives to gift wrap

Going forward, you can buy less gift wrap by making your own!  Here are 5 ways kids can wrap gifts with reused materials.

If you’re giving someone a towel, T-shirt, or other flat fabric item as well as some other gift, try wrapping the other gift in the fabric and tying a ribbon around it.  Two gifts in one!

After Christmas, many fabric stores have clearance sales on fabric with holiday motifs, so that’s the ideal time to buy some and make cloth gift bags for next year, if you have (or can borrow) a sewing machine.  You could make a drawstring or just tie the bag shut with a ribbon.  Cloth bags are much easier to use than wrapping paper, and they look great year after year!  They add value to gifts, and you may get them back the next year!

Ribbons and bows

If they still look nice, save them to use again!  We just toss them into a box.  Bows that were self-adhesive can be re-stuck with a loop of tape.

Satin ribbons are almost infinitely reusable.  The crinkly plastic ribbons are trickier because, once untied, they never look the same again…but you can cut off the crumpled part and use the smaller remaining bits.  Try cutting several ribbons about 4″ long, holding them together in a bunch and taping the middle to a gift, and then curling the ends.

Gift tags

Tags that are tied onto a package can be used again, if the giver is someone who will be wrapping gifts in your home next year.  Sometimes taped-on tags can be reused, too, if the tape will peel off or fold over without damaging the tag.

Christmas cards

If there is no writing on the inside front of the card, cut it off and use it (or pictures cut out of it) next year as a gift tag.  You can tape it on or punch a hole in one corner and tie a ribbon through it.

Product packaging

The typical family gift-opening session creates a heap of assorted boxes, blister-packs, clear plastic bags, twist-ties, foam blocks, odd little disks of various materials, tissue paper, and so on.  Some of this stuff is going to have to become garbage.  But look through it, as you pick up, and see what you can use:

  • Boxes might be good for storing something else.
  • Bags can go to a dog-walker for waste disposal purposes.
  • Twist-ties from packaging often are stronger and longer than the ones you get with trash bags or in the produce department, so they may work better for your twisting needs, for instance binding up that extension cord that keeps slithering out from behind the bookcase.
  • Fluffy packing materials can be used when you mail packages.
  • Tissue paper can go into your collection of reusable gift wrap.

As for those odd little disks and interestingly-shaped plastic things, children and other creative people often can find uses for them.  For instance, my almost-5-year-old son was annoyed that his toy helicopter didn’t look like it was flying because its rotors were still, unless he spun them with his hand which was very cumbersome…so he and his dad found two clear plastic disks of the appropriate sizes, placed them over the rotors, and taped them from underneath; now it looks like they’re whipping the air!


The heavy-duty cardboard boxes from some toys and appliances, and boxes used for mailing gifts, usually stand up to several uses.  Mail things in them, store things in them, use them for moving or give them to a friend who’s moving, open up a box to use as a sled (you don’t even need snow–on cardboard, you can sled down a smooth grassy hill!), or help a child cut windows in a box to use as a hide-out for himself or his toy animals or dolls.

If a box has too much printing on the outside to suit your needs, unfold it, put it together inside-out, and secure it with packing tape.

Mailing envelopes

These also are good for reuse, either for mailing things or for sorting papers.  Remove old labels or cover them with stickers, like

Holiday stickers sent by charities

Use these to decorate gifts and gift tags, cover price tags on gift items, and cover old labels on mailing containers.  If you’ve gotten way more return-address stickers than you’ll ever need, take the ones that have a holiday picture at one end and cut off that end, creating a bunch of tiny holiday stickers.

Alternatively, hide the stickers from your child and then use them as a free stocking stuffer!

Plastic tablecloths

If you attend any events where those thin, semi-disposable plastic tablecloths are used and are going to be thrown away, wipe them clean, let them dry completely to prevent mildew, and store them for next year.  (They take up very little space.)  Not only can they be used as tablecloths again, but they are great for wrapping large, awkward gifts–they are less likely to tear than paper.

Leftover food

Don’t throw away anything edible!  Check out my recipes for using miscellaneous fruit and vegetables and bread.  If you have leftovers from a cheese-and-crackers tray, shred the cheese and melt it over macaroni, and turn the crackers into crumbs for any recipe that requires crumbs.

Consider freezing excess leftovers (of things that can be frozen) and defrosting them later, when you’re no longer tired of eating them and they’ll be a pleasant reminder of your merry Christmas.

Serve vegetable and fruit trimmings to vegetarian pets, and serve meat scraps and appropriate bones to carnivorous pets.  If you don’t have the right kind of pet to enjoy your scraps, consider offering them to a neighbor’s pet.

Put inedible parts of plant foods and eggshells into your compost pile.  If you don’t have one, you can start at this time of year!

Coffee grounds and tea leaves can be put onto the soil around a plant (in a pot or outdoors) right away; they’ll biodegrade there (with no unpleasant odor), repel insects, and make the plant perky!  Coffee grounds also are great for scrubbing cast-iron pans.

Paper napkins, etc.

Of course, it’s more environmentally friendly to use real stuff, but if you must use paper napkins, you can compost them.  Paper plates that are made from just paper (no plastic coating) also will break down into dirt in a year or less.

If you must use disposable cups, minimize the number of cups your guests use by providing markers so they can write their names on their cups.

Are you tempted to put paper towels in the bathroom so that everyone doesn’t catch the latest winter virus by sharing a cloth hand towel?  Consider using this method to provide cloth hand towels for a crowd.

Food packaging

Any plastic or glass food container with a tight-fitting lid can be washed and used to pack up leftovers for guests to take home.  (If you have extras of these, consider leaving them in the kitchen of your church, office, or other communal place for use by people who spontaneously need to store some food.)

Food bags, including the bags inside boxes of crackers and cereal, are good for storing leftover baked goods, sandwiches, snacks for the post-Christmas family outings, or food for the freezer.

If you’re having a big gathering and need name tags, make them out of thin cardboard from food boxes: Just cut it into rectangles, punch holes in the top corners, tie on some yarn or reused gift ribbon to hang around the person’s neck, and write the name on the blank side.

Don’t miss my article about making your own Christmas tree out of trash!

Check out more ideas for a green Christmas at Kitchen Stewardship.  Visit Your Green Resource for lots of articles on environmental topics.

11 thoughts on “Recycling Christmas Cheer

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