Can You Recycle Wrapping Paper (And What Kinds)?

Is wrapping paper recyclable? Good question! Here's how to figure out which kinds of wrapping paper go in the recycle bin, the garbage or back in the closet.

Each year we use millions of pounds of wrapping paper, most of which ends up in the landfill. North Americans consume more than one-third of the world’s festive paper. Worldwide, it’s a $17 billion industry that’s expected to grow nearly 50 percent by 2025.

There are ways to reduce all that waste. According to a report from Stanford University, if every American family wrapped just three presents in re-used material, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields. And using one less greeting card would save 50,000 cubic yards of paper.

But can’t we just recycle all of that paper? Yes and no. It’s trickier than it sounds.

“Paper is not infinitely recyclable,” says Randy Hartman, senior director of affiliate operations at Keep America Beautiful.

“Each time paper is recycled, the length and strength of the fibers in the paper is diminished. [Also] improperly recycling wrapping paper can result in diminished overall recycling, contaminating both fiber as well as other recyclable streams. That, coupled with the generally low fiber content of recycled paper, places it into the ‘better to throw it out or reuse it’ category.”

What’s Not Recyclable

Wrapping paper, greeting cards and gift bags cannot be recycled if they contain any non-paper additives like:

  • Glitter (tiny plastic that also becomes a problem in oceans);
  • Sequins;
  • Foil;
  • Artificial texture, like velvet;
  • Sticky gift labels;
  • Plastic;
  • Metallic flakes;
  • Heavy lamination;
  • Excessive tape.

To determine if it’s recyclable, try the scrunch test. Crumple it up into a ball, then release it. If it keeps its shape, it can probably be recycled. If it tries to flatten out, then toss it.

Also, bows and ribbons cannot be recycled, even if made from paper-like raffa ribbon.

“Ribbons of any sort should never be placed in a curbside recycling collection program,” says Hartman. “They tend to wrap around the mechanical equipment which results in equipment downtime for maintenance.”

What Is Recyclable

Plain wrapping paper can be recycled, but usually not effectively. Some local recyclers accept it in recycling bins. Others offer seasonal collection events, and many request it just be put in the trash.

“While wrapping paper is technically recyclable, it is not typically supported in most curbside recycling programs,” says Hartman.

Because it’s so thin, it doesn’t have many quality fibers for recycling. It’s often loaded with ink and has a high clay content, too, creating extra sludge in processing and additional chemicals to recycle. That means it’s just not an efficient thing to do.

Plain paper greeting cards are recyclable. So are plain gift bags, as long you remove the handles. But Hartman says it’s better to reuse the bags as long as possible.

All of those cardboard boxes are ideal for recycling as well. “The key is to make sure they are broken down and placed into the recycling bin so they don’t capture or embed other recyclable items,” says Hartman. “Reusing and recycling cardboard boxes not only saves on the use of virgin pulp from trees, it saves on energy and water consumption as well.”

Some recyclers will accept tissue paper. But according to Hartman, it contains so little recoverable paper fiber that it’s not worth it. But many compost facilities will accept it if it’s free of glitter and coatings, so check your local rules.

How To Recycle Wrapping Paper

Remove all ribbons, gift tags, excessive tape or staples and other decorations. Check with your local recycler to see if they accept it or not.

“Then, if placed in the bin, it should be tightly folded so that other recyclables do not get captured or embedded into the wrapping paper,” says Hartman. “[Because] of its irregular size, flattened aluminum cans and PET (plastic) bottles can become tangled into the wrapping paper, making it difficult for mechanical separation equipment to sort and collect these higher valued recycling items.”

Some places, like Eco-Cycle in Boulder, Colorado, have an app that tells you whether items are recyclable, and if there’s a good reuse for them. It recommends donating ribbons and bows to a local thrift store for artists.

Wrapping Paper Alternatives

If you’re diligent enough to open presents carefully, then wrapping paper, bows and ribbons can be reused many times. If you have kids and patience isn’t an option, consider alternative, reusable materials such as Kraft paper decorated with leaves and pine cones, newspaper and magazine pages, fabric, gift boxes and bags, baskets and brown paper grocery bags.

You can also get creative and reuse the paper you can’t recycle for other creations, like gift envelopes, confetti, packing materials, holiday trays and drawer linings.

Karuna Eberl
Karuna writes about wildlife, nature, history and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites including National Geographic, National Parks, Discovery Channel, Atlas Obscura and the High Country News. She's also produced a number of independent films and directed the documentary The Guerrero Project, about the search for a sunken slave ship. She and her husband, Steve, wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town. She holds a B.A. in journalism and geology from the University of Montana. Member of OWAA, SATW.