"Wrapping paper" is a deceptive term. All those sparkly bright colours and shiny, smooth finishes actually destine expensive gift wrappings for the landfill rather than recycling. Some dyes used to create those bright colours are toxic to the environment and the glossy finishes are from non-recyclable plastic coatings that are applied to the paper. Glitter encrusted paper is particularly bad for the oceans as the tiny bits of microplastic irretrievably find their way into our water systems and oceans and look like food for all kinds of small sea creatures - even most "biodegradable" glitters don't truly degrade in the oceans. The ribbons, and long strips of tape and strings we use to tie our gifts end up strangling animals. And those glossy foil wrappings and decorations blow out of landfills and inevitably become litter...

Gifts are something worth celebrating, but is the mess that our wrappings cause really the best way to do that?

What can I do?

Being environmentally responsible doesn't mean you can't have fun, so we aren't asking you to give up your wonderful traditions. Pledge #21 asks you to be responsible about what you use to wrap and decorate gifts. It's easy, here are some tips:

  • Save the planet and your wallet and use brown paper to wrap gifts instead of the overpriced colourful wrappings found everywhere. Make it a family project to decorate these wrappings yourself, or simply buy one of the options that are already stamped with a pattern. You can save money and buy bulk rolls of brown paper from places like Merrypack or Green Home.
  • You can reuse the paper bags from retail or grocery stores or reuse gift bags and boxes you've received earlier.
  • Reuse newspaper, old maps, magazines cut-outs or colourful fabric off-cuts - let your creativity shine.
  • Give a gift in a gift: wrap your gift in a pretty tea towel or scarf. A reusable shopping bag can be used as a gift bag, and as an add-on to the present.
  • Make the wrapping a joke - use a cereal box or resealed coffee tin to disguise what is inside.
  • Use hemp or twine instead of nasty plastic tape or ribbons - avoid strings that have been chemically treated as these take longer to biodegrade.
  • Use a sprig of something natural instead of a ribbon for décor.
  • If you're buying for a friend or family member that you know isn't living a very green lifestyle (yet), give them their gift in a nice reusable shopping or tote bag.

Make your pledge a permanent commitment by leaving an Ocean Pledge.

Why does it matter?

Giving a gift to someone is usually a very special gesture. So, even if you don’t take the environmental consequences of non-recyclable gift wrap into consideration, choosing gift wrap that is also a gift, or that you have decorated yourself, will make any gift extra special. And you can feel good about not contributing to habitat and biodiversity loss.

Here are a few indications of the environmental cost of gift wrappings:

  • The paper component of wrapping paper degrades anaerobically in landfills, which contributes methane to the growing greenhouse gas crisis.
  • The 83 square kilometres of wrapping paper end up in landfill in the UK every year (no stats for SA unfortunately). That's with an average of each household using four small rolls, which is similar to what many households here use.
  • 40 million rolls of plastic sticky tape are used in the UK to wrap those gifts.
  • A ton of recycled paper saves about 4 megawatts of energy, 17 trees and 1.8 square metres of landfill space.
  • In the UK, it was found that waste generated per household went up 30% over the Christmas season.
  • There is a social impact too - it's estimated that 1 in 10 people have an argument with their family members over the amount of waste thrown away during the holidays. Another way our décor spoils the moment.
  • The dyes used in wrapping paper often contain toxic heavy metals, such as lead, which leach into the environment.
Being sustainable doesn't mean your gifts can't look great.

Myth-busting: Paper is paper, is paper

Not true! As we said above, some papers are treated with chemicals and special films. This makes the paper non-recyclable, and in some cases, also non-compostable.

Plastic, plastic, plastic... wrapping paper really is an environmental disaster. Fortunately, there are easy alternatives. Credit: christmasstockimages [CC BY 3.0]

Who can I follow?

Check out the ancient Japanese gift wrapping technique that combines beautiful prints with unique knot tying – an elegant way to reduce plastic when sending gifts.

Take the 28 Day Challenge! Make your Ocean Pledge!

This post is part of the #28DayOceanPledgeChallenge! You can find the other 27 posts and challenges on the Two Oceans Aquarium website, or by signing up for the Challenge newsletter below to receive one challenge a day for 28 days: