Monday, 13 December 2021

Christmas Packaging - What can you Recycle?

A pile of wrapped gifts, under a small Christmas tree
Over Christmas, the UK population generates 25% more waste than normal. With waste collections becoming less frequent and rubbish bins getting smaller (in our county, anyway!), this can pose a real problem for households. Add to that, the strain on the environment, and this means it is even more important than ever to up our recycling and upcycling game to try to keep landfill to a minimum. This post aims to sort out the facts when it comes to recycling your Christmas packaging, as well as what you can do to ensure you don't end up with a lot more landfill waste this Christmas and some alternatives to traditional wrapping.


The best way to avoid adding to landfill is to change the way we do things. Not always possible, but sometimes there is a more sustainable product that does exactly the same job. Wrapping paper is a great example of this. There are bins full of shiny, colourful Christmas gift wrap at almost every checkout right now, but a lot of it can't be recycled. It might look fabulous, but after a short time it is torn off and in the bin, so choosing a non-shiny version is an easy win for the environment, as it can usually be recycled with paper. If you want to be sure it's definitely recyclable, you can buy recyclable wrapping paper from online retailers such as Rewrapped and Peace in the Wild. You could also consider using something quirky, such as newspaper or  basic parcel paper, with something like hemp twine or paper ribbon instead of shiny, synthetic ribbon. Or, you could dispense with the paper wrapping altogether and opt for a gift bag which can be used again. I always use a gift bag for my brother's family's gifts, as they always visit before Christmas, and it makes them easy to be collected, but this year, I opted for a reusable tote shopping bag, which I thought would be a lot more useful and cost about the same, so was much better value for money. The important thing to remember is that it's better to reuse, than recycle, and it's even better to avoid extra packaging altogether if you can.

There has been so much publicity about the damage that's being done to our world and how important it is to recycle every bit of rubbish we possibly can, but it isn't always clear how to recycle and the importance of getting it right. There are reasons why some materials can't be recycled, and if enough of those items end up mixed in with fully recyclable products, the whole batch could be contaminated and potentially end up in landfill, despite our best intentions. Making a little time to recycle right, can mean not having your efforts wasted at the other end of the recycling process. There are a lot of useful tools from the Recycle Often, Recycle Right campaign that illustrate how to recycle as much as possible of your household waste, while making sure it all ends up in the correct recycling location. Below are some of the most common Christmas recycling conundrums and what to do with them and remember, don't be put off because it sounds complicated, any recycling you can manage will still make a difference. 

Outer Wrapping

Cardboard boxes are easy to recycle, so it's a really good packaging to make the effort with. With the huge rise in online shopping, a lot of this year's gifts will probably arrive encased in cardboard and it's not too hard to flatten out the boxes ready for collection. We always use one big box to store all the smaller boxes in, and just keep adding to it over the Christmas period. It's worth knowing that it doesn't matter if the box has tape on, as some online retailers really love their tape! 

Bows and ribbons cannot be recycled and have to go in the general household waste. If you unwrap the gift carefully, though, it is entirely possible to reuse the ribbon, which is actually even better than recycling it. Those big, shiny, synthetic bows that are commonly used to decorate wrapped gifts are often robust enough to be used over an over again, saving money, as well as the environment. 

Wrapping paper can sometimes be recycled, if it is just paper. The more elaborate designs, where it's laminated or covered in glitter, can't and have to be put in the general rubbish for landfill. However, this paper is usually better quality, meaning it can probably be used again, if you are careful with the unwrapping. 

Plastic is probably the most confusing of all the packaging that might be recyclable. Most people are aware of the need to recycle as much plastic as possible, it's been in the news a lot this year, but there are so many different types, it can be hard to know what to leave out for recycling. This article from the BBC explains how different local authorities offer different recycling options and you can check your local authority's website to find out what plastic is recycled in your area. 

A close up of a shiny gold bow and red ribbon on top of a wrapped gift.

Inner Packaging

Polystyrene is one of the hardest items to recycle and it's not usually accepted as part of the doorstep collection. However, some local council's do accept it at their waste and recycling centre, so it is always worth checking. You can end up with a lot of it over Christmas and it is going to fill your bin, as well as end up in the ground for 100 years or so. 

Plastic bags and wrap can cause big problems if they are added in with other recycling. The separated recycling that households produce is added to 'streams' which make their way through complicated sorting systems where plastic cling wrap can get caught and shutdown the whole process. The good news is a lot of supermarkets, as well as your local waste management centre, will accept plastic bags and wrappers, such as crisp packets, in conveniently placed collection bins. Plastic cling wrap is not commonly recycled, more information about this can be found on the British Plastic Foundation website

Shredded paper recycling is at the discretion of your local council. Check on their website to see whether they will take it at the kerbside, or at the local waste management centre. If you can't find any way to recycle it, anyone you know who owns rodents or rabbits will probably be more than happy to accept it as bedding for their pets, which saves having to throw it away at all. 

Bubble wrap is made of the same material as plastic bags and wrappers, so you could put it in with your plastic bags and drop it off in the supermarket recycling bin, or leave it out for collection, if your local council accepts plastic bags. Consider hanging on to it, though, for next time you need to post something yourself, or for when you need to transport something breakable. It's good stuff, and costs money, so it's not always best to throw it away. 

A tote bag with a snowy scene on the front, full of gifts under a Christmas tree.

I read a quote recently, I can't remember the source, but it said something like; the world doesn't need a few people recycling perfectly, it needs everybody recycling imperfectly. Anything you don't put into your bin makes a tiny difference and every tiny difference adds up. I hope to try and make this Christmas as landfill-free as possible, and I am pretty confident that it won't make any difference to our enjoyment of the festivities. 


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