Learn how to add a layer of mystery and magic to gifts without adding waste.

Gift wrapping is fun and necessary for many occasions, but there are the environmental costs of resource extraction, manufacture and waste disposal to be considered. You can create attractive gift wrap yourself by reusing paper, fabric or even using the Sunday comics. If you prefer buying gift wrap, look for recycled content gift wrap paper whenever you can find it.

The environmental cost of gift wrap

This holiday season Americans will use over 4 million tons of gift wrap and shopping bags. That’s almost 6,000 football fields of paper and more than 30 million trees, each and every year. Add in the wrapping paper used in the UK, mainland Europe, Canada and the rest of the world, and you have a lot of waste.

Gift wrapping psychology

People didn’t always wrap gifts, though the tradition has been around for a long time. So why do we insist on hiding presents when they’re going to be torn open, often within hours of wrapping them in the first place?

A now famous study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in the early 1990s looked at our relationship to gift wrap and its effects on our attitudes. The results are interesting for any gift giver: apparently receiving a gift wrapped in pretty paper and bows cues us to feel happy. This happy feeling positively influences our impressions about whatever is inside, making us more apt to like what we receive.

If simply wrapping a gift can make someone more likely to enjoy our gift, it’s likely we’re going to keep up with the tradition. But are there alternatives to producing and throwing away boatloads of paper, bows, and tape every year?

The problem with recycling gift wrap

While some cities will accept plain wrapping paper in their collection boxes, many won’t. There are a few reasons for this.

  1. Much of the gift wrap we buy contains non-paper components like metallic colored shapes, plastics, glitter, and even velvet. Removing these is nearly impossible and not cost effective.
  2. Many gift wraps contain intense dyes that are difficult to filter out during the recycling process. Ink diminishes the overall yield, and requires industry to use added chemicals to remove it.
  3. Wrapping paper is often made from thin, poor quality paper that lacks enough fibers to recycle properly.This includes tissue paper; while often free from metallic inks and dyes, tissue is so thin it usually can’t be recycled into paper again. Cardboard makes up 70% of recycled paper market because its substantial fiber content gives manufacturers something to work with. Only a fraction of wrapping paper is ever recycled.

Tape, gift bags, ribbon

These materials present their own problems. Virtually none can be recycled, though some can be reused. Gift bags are even more likely to include non-paper materials, while many ribbons are made from plastic or plasticized fabric.

Recyclable wrapping paper

In recent years, new products have appeared on the market with content that’s 100% recyclable (and in some cases, recycled). If you feel that nothing else will do, consider wrapping paper printed on renewable newsprint with plant-based inks. In many locations, these can go in with your newspaper recycling, though it’s wise to check with your local municipality before you buy.

Fabric gift bags

Do you have scrap fabric lying around? Fabric gift bags make beautiful, personal and unique gift wraps for all gift-giving occasions. Even better, they’re reusable and made of recycled materials.

To make your own gift bags, start by gathering all the scrap material you can lay your hands on. Thrift shops are a good source, as are the “discontinued” bins in your local fabric shops. (Sometimes the most garish fabrics which wind up in the discontinued bins are great for gift bags.)

The gift bags will look richer and last longer if they are lined, so collect any fabric you can get your hands on, no matter how plain, for the inside of the bag. Old cotton bedsheet material works well for this.

Simple to Make. Here’s How:

  1. Cut two pieces of your fabric and two pieces of the lining material all to the same size. Any size, any shape rectangle will do. A variety of sizes is useful, and square or "close to square" rectangles are the most versatile shapes.
  2. Put each fabric piece on top of each lining piece, fold over the top edges and sew. Just the top edges. Now you've hemmed the opening edge of the gift bag.
  3. Stack both sets of fabric with the lining (inside) faces to the outside. The decorative fabric pieces will be facing each other on the inside of the "sandwich". Be sure the hemmed edges are both on top. Sew the three un-hemmed edges with a simple running stitch, 1/4" in from the edge.
  4. Turn inside out. Set a generous length of ribbon about 2" down from the top, and tack it to the bag with a few stitches in the middle of the ribbon length.
That's all there is to it! The bags are ready to use, or ready to give as gifts themselves.

Furoshiki: The art of Japanese folding and wrapping

Used for over 1200 years in Japan, this ancient art of folding and tying cloth is seeing a resurgence in popularity. The word furoshiki literally means “bath spread,” and originates from a time when Japanese bathers used cloth to wrap their clothes. Today the term is commonly used to describe the Japanese art of wrapping presents in colorful fabrics.

More versatile than regular gift bags, furoshiki fabric lays flat and doesn’t come sewn or with drawstrings. This means you can adjust each piece smaller or larger within confines of material simply by wrapping. According to 1 million women, the object you’re planning to wrap should be one third of the fabric’s diagonal line. This will give you enough extra fabric to secure the parcel with a knot.

When practicing furoshiki, use square or rectangular fabric that reflects the season or the recipient. Thinner fabrics tend to work better for knotting, though you can fold thicker fabrics without tying. Almost any print will do, but keep in mind that fabric printed on both sides will look beautiful no matter how you wrap it. Before you wrap, finish the edges of your fabric by hemming or trim with pinking shears.

A variety of tutorials exist for furoshiki wrapping styles, but to complete the most basic wrap, place your gift in the center of a piece of fabric and draw up one set of opposite corners, tying snugly. Draw the other opposite corners into the center and repeat.

Comic strip wrapping paper

If newspapers still come to your door, save those Sunday newspaper colored funny sheets! These large sheets of color comics are perfect for wrapping kids’ gifts. They look fun and colorful, and add an extra touch of interest to the gift. (They’ll be read and re-read, and passed around for others to enjoy.)

If you want the wrapping to look more ‘finished’, put a piece of clear cello over the comic sheet wrap. Of course the price is right, and the discarded wrap is still recyclable.

Calendars, wallpaper and more …

Homemade gift wrapping


What to do with last years’ calendar? If it’s a large size calendar, cut out the pictures and use them for gift wrap. The pictures are bright and interesting, the coated stock is glossy and finished looking, and the weight of the paper makes the wrapping extra-deluxe.


You can also collect the ‘discontinued’ books of wallpaper samples from your local paint and wallpaper shop. The pages are large enough to provide great wrapping paper for small and medium sized gifts.


Another wonderful source for gift wrap is old maps. Road maps, topographical maps, out-of-date aeronautical and marine charts all work well and can be ‘matched’ with the gift, e.g. a topo map to wrap a gift of outdoor gear, or an old marine chart for a boat-related gift.

Recycled Gift Wrap

How about re-used gift wrap for gift wrap? Be a little careful when opening large presents and you can reuse the paper. It will need to be cut down to clean up the taped and torn edges, but enough good paper will remain to be useful for wrapping smaller presents. Also, high-quality ribbon, especially fabric-ribbon, can be ironed flat to look like new.

Sheet Music

Purchased at the thrift store or used from old study books, sheet music gives any gift an old-world feel. If available, use music that corresponds to the holiday you’re celebrating.

Scarves and Aprons

Silk scarves or cotton aprons make a wonderful, useful wrap for a present that may or may not correspond to what’s inside.

Children’s Art

One of the very best sources for wrapping paper children’s art. Children are prolific artists, and they love to see their work acknowledged. Over the course of the year, save your children’s artwork (especially large pieces) for use during the holidays and other gift-giving occasions. Use your children’s’ artwork, with their permission, to wrap gifts for the holidays. The relatives, especially, will love the personal touch.

Newsprint Roll-Ends

Ask at the office of your local newspaper for newsprint roll-ends. These roll-ends are usually picked up for recycling, but often the people at the office will let you have a couple rolls for a few dollars each, or even free. These rolls are usually about 36″ wide, and even a “thin” roll-end can have a lot of paper still left on the roll.

For gift wrap, you can cut an oversize piece for the gift and decorate it with crayons or felt markers or even rubber stamps. Water-colors can be used if you don’t mind the paper ‘puckering’ a bit from the water.

Simple, diagonally-laid lines or ‘squiggles’ make a good pattern, especially if you use a variety of colors. Don’t worry about the edges or the uniformity of the pattern: it all looks good once the gift is wrapped.

You can also decorate the paper after the gift is wrapped, but you may want to use two layers of paper so the colors you apply don’t bleed through to the gift.

Finish off the gift package with a ribbon or bow, and the result is a unique, personal gift – and the paper is still recyclable.

Tea Towels and Cloth Napkins

Other useful additions to your gift, which can double as a wrap, include a clean, new tea towel or a cloth napkin. Both are something everyone can use in the kitchen or around the table. Wrap and secure with a knot, fabric ribbon, or yarn. Tea towels sewn into a bag for bread or lettuce storage also make great alternatives to gift wrap.


A homemade or store bought pillowcase in cheerful fabric makes an excellent and practical wrap for a larger gift.

Natural finishing touches

A short walk through the forest, a nearby park, or even your backyard will provide you with plenty of natural materials to use in trimming your gift package.

Pine cones, fir or cedar branch tips, dried oak or maple leaves and other small natural pieces can be tied together with twist-ties and secured to the package. Avoid using berries, as they can easily fall off and be potentially toxic to small children and pets.

For a more festive look, the pine cones can be brushed lightly with glue and dusted with glitter. A bright red ribbon can also be used as a tie at the top of the pinecones.

Gifts trimmed with green materials, such as evergreen branch tips, should be wrapped within a few days of giving. Green branch tips will dry out; they should not be used for gifts being sent through the mail.

The effort and imagination evident in a personally designed gift box can be as appealing as the gift within. A package decorated with natural materials not only spares you (and the environment) the cost of manufactured trims; it’s also a subtle reminder of the beauty in even the smallest bits of our natural world.

For practical gift-giving ideas, visit Eartheasy’s online store.

Visit these Eartheasy pages for more ideas on Sustainable Giving:

Tips to Give By
Sustainable Christmas
Naturally-Powered Toys
Educational Toys and Games

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