Can You Recycle Your Wrapping Paper? Here's How to Tell

Not all holiday gift wrap can be recycled. (iStock)

It’s that time of year, again. Family meals, bands of merry carolers, decked-out Christmas trees, inflatable reindeer. And, don’t forget … the presents.

But from stocking stuffers to gifts that barely fit under the tree, in some cases the ribbons, glitter and even paper used as wrapping can’t be recycled.

Robert Reed, a spokesperson for Recology San Francisco, says that over the holiday season, crews collect 17%  more tons of recycling, compost and garbage.

“We see a big increase,” Reed said. “A lot of consumption.”

Reed suggests gift givers go green by making more sustainable choices about not just what they buy, but what they wrap it in.

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Avoid Shiny Paper and Glitter

If your wrap of choice is designed with glossy, reflective material, chances are it will end up in a landfill. That’s because shiny wrapping paper is often made with Mylar, a plastic film coated with aluminum.

“We encourage people to avoid metallic wrapping paper,” Reed said.

Metallic gift wrap typically doesn’t contain enough paper fibers to be useful in paper mills and can even contaminate other recyclable material. Laminated paper and paper coated with plastic or glitter should also be avoided.

And those shiny stick-on bows and sparkly nylon ribbons?Unrecyclable.

But simple matte wrapping paper, even the colorful kind, can be tossed in the blue recycle bin without concern, Reed says. As for tissue paper, the San Francisco Department of the Environment says it should be composted, except if it contains metal or plastic, in which case it can be neither composted nor recycled. Keep in mind different counties will have different requirements for specific items.

Recyle Now, a United Kingdom recycling program, suggests a rule of thumb for which wrapping paper can be recycled and which can't. It's called the Scrunch Test: Wrapping paper you can crumple up is a good candidate for recycling. But if it resists your scrunching, that could mean it's not recyclable.

Newspapers, Tea Towels, Tote Bags

But whether the paper you tear open over the holidays is recyclable or not, and no matter what the specific rules are in your area, recycling experts agree you can avoid the problem altogether by using sustainable alternatives to traditional, single-use gift wrap.

"Reusing something is always the most sustainable option, and it can often be the most creative option as well," said Charles Sheehan, spokesperson for SF Environment, in an email.

Reed suggested the tried-and-true method of repurposing the Sunday comics, maps, magazines and brown grocery bags.

Earlier this month, New York Times subscribers received free recyclable wrapping paper in the form of a sponsored advertisement. And the cover to the Times' Puzzle Mania section on Sunday, geometrically patterned with bright-colored cubes, included a suggestion to use it as gift wrap.

A way to bypass paper altogether: Package one gift inside another. For example, put a coffee mug into a reusable tote bag, and voilà: two presents.

Earth 911 offers a list of 11 eco-friendly substitutes for wrapping paper, including cotton tea towels, which could pair well with gifts for the kitchen.

"We would encourage you to ... think about including Mother Earth on your gift list," said Reed.