Zero-Waste Gift Wrap

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Zero-Waste Gift Wrap

Save money and keep trash out of the landfill this holiday season with these zero-waste gift wrap ideas using compostable or reusable materials instead of traditional wrapping paper.

By Melani Schweder
November/December 2018

We have a rather peculiar tradition in my family.

Each December, as the holiday gifts are unveiled, the wads of gift wrap morph into ammunition to be hurled at unsuspecting loved ones. This annual wrapping paper battle can linger on for hours, and often results in many trash bags filled with waste. Even though these gift wrap wars have gotten smaller over the past few years, they’ve started to bother me more and more.

Photo by Babett Lupaneszku

On my slow journey to zero waste, I’ve begun to notice just how much trash we make on a daily basis. I thought that this realization was overwhelming enough, but then watching the boom of holiday-related debris was the final straw for me. The use-it-once-and-toss-it (literally and figuratively, in our case) mentality of gift wrap suddenly seemed the height of wasteful consumerism. I knew I had to say something. So, over the past three holiday seasons, I have incrementally transitioned to zero-waste gift wrap. When you look at the statistics, it’s easy to see that even these seemingly small changes, when adopted by lots of people, can make a positive impact.

During the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, our waste production increases by more than 25 percent. This adds up to nearly 6 million tons of extra trash during the holidays, 4 million of it from wrapping paper and shopping bags. We use enough ribbon to stretch 38,000 miles — long enough to tie a bow around the Earth. Americans buy more than 2.7 billion holiday cards each year, and that amount of paper could fill a 10-story football stadium.

Photo by Babett Lupaneszku

Gift wrap is big business. According to research done by Hallmark, 98 percent of consumers say they wrap their gifts during the holiday season. The gift wrap industry as a whole brings in $3.2 billion every year, with the bulk of that revenue showing up during the holidays. What many people don’t realize is that the majority of traditional gift wrap supplies aren’t recyclable. Gift wrap (including tissue paper) that’s dyed, laminated, or contains additives, such as glitter, foil, or other plastic, is destined for the landfill. The same is true of polypropylene ribbon, tinsel, plastic foam, and many other common gift-related materials. Even if most of this was recyclable, recycling isn’t a long-term solution to our trash problem. We’ve got to do better.

While I don’t expect my entire family to adopt my new reusable gift wrap decree, they’ve been surprisingly open to my ideas. I even noticed a few gifts last year that looked like mine, beautifully devoid of any single-use plastic or paper trimmings. It really is all about leading by example!

Photo by Kira auf der Heide

Some families have adopted a more minimalist holiday routine, swapping gifts for experiences, or giving to charity, and I think that’s a fantastic idea! However, in my family, I know physical gift-giving isn’t going to be phased out anytime soon, so we must instead focus on making our annual celebrations a little less harmful to the environment. Switching to reusable, zero-waste gift wrap is the perfect place to start. We can still enjoy the meaningful exchange of beautifully wrapped gifts, without having to haul multiple trash bags to the curb when we’re done.

Basic Materials

These are the foundational pieces of zero-waste gift wrap, which you can either leave plain, or build upon.

Photo by Aleksandra Jankovic

Recycled paper bags: Chances are good that you have some of these already lying around your house. Sturdy paper grocery bags make beautiful, minimalist gift wrap for small to medium-sized gifts, and work best for square or rectangular items.

Newspapers: When I was a kid, I loved receiving presents wrapped in the Sunday comics. Newspapers are easy to come by, and they make for interesting gift wrap that’s practically free and always recyclable.

Photo by Steve Cukrov

Cotton, nylon, or muslin bulk bags: If you have a stash of reusable bags for grocery or pantry items, consider having them do double-duty during the holiday gift rush. Choose one that’s large enough to hold the gift, cinch or fold it closed, and add an embellishment if you’d like.

Scarves: One of the most beautiful zero-waste gift wraps I’ve used is a simple scarf. Colorful
silk scarves work wonderfully, and they’re easy to tie using the traditional Japanese furoshiki technique (see below).

Napkins: Cloth napkins work beautifully for wrapping small items, and they can be tied in furoshiki style, just like scarves. I’ve also used flour sack cloth on occasion, which is typically cut a bit larger than a dinner napkin.

Photo by Wesual Click

Decorative tins or boxes: Metal cookie tins, fabric boxes, and other similar items make for
ultra-simple gift wrap, and can be reused for many years to come.

Securing Materials

There’s no need for plastic tape or curling ribbons, which are made from polypropylene, a thermoplastic polymer. Instead, use one of these items to keep your gifts secured.

Paper tape: Most shipping and packing tape is made from plastic, so make the switch to paper tape to secure your wrap. You can find large rolls of compostable tape, as well as smaller rolls of decorative tape, sometimes called “washi tape.”

Photo by Tatjana Zlatkovic

Twine: Natural materials, such as cotton, hemp, jute, coir, or sisal, are tightly woven
to make this strong cord, which is a fantastic substitute for plastic ribbon.

Knots: If you’re using fabric to wrap your gifts, you can fasten it securely without
additional materials by simply using the right knots.


Photo by Steve Cukrov

These are the finishing touches for your zero-waste gift wrap, and they can add flair and personality, depending on your holiday aesthetic or the person who will receive the gift. Tie your embellishments up in your twine, tuck them into your fabric knot, or just stick them on the front of the package.

Nature elements: An herb sprig will add a fresh touch to your package. Rosemary, lavender, sage, and mint work well, along with small clippings of evergreen trees or holly. Pine cones and unusual-looking twigs are perfect for a rustic look.

Dreamstime/Oleksandra Naumenko

Foods and spices: Decorate your zero-waste gift wrap with a fragrant cinnamon stick, a slice of dried orange, a small pomander, or a length of cranberry garland.

Jewelry: Jewelry makes for a unique gift topper, especially large, chunky, or vintage pieces. Glittery broaches and pins, costume bracelets, or hair clips can all be easily incorporated into fabric-based wrap designs.

Bonus Tips

  • If you don’t already have scarves or fabric on hand, visit your local thrift shop. I’ve found many inexpensive, yet gorgeous, items there.

  • Photo by Aleksandra Jankovic

  • Consider making the wrapping part of the gift. Beautiful scarves, reusable tote bags, and durable embellishments can take your present to the next level.
  • Furoshiki, the Japanese art of wrapping with cloth, includes techniques that range from ultra-simple to highly decorative. The term furoshiki also refers to the cloth itself, but you can use your own pieces of cloth from home if you wish. Search online for furoshiki tutorials to try it out. There are many furoshiki techniques that can be used for things other than gifts, such as tying up your lunch, transporting a bottled beverage safely to a dinner party, or creating a purse in a pinch.

  • Photo by Dreamstime/Bogdan Sonyachny

The holidays are a time to celebrate the spirit of generosity, kindness, and joy while surrounded by loved ones, but it doesn’t require miles of ribbon or sparkly gift wrap to make the season feel meaningful. This year, add a mindful, eco-friendly touch to your festivities with these zero-waste gift wrap ideas, and you might be surprised who you inspire to do the same.

Melani Schweder is a certified health coach and reiki master and teacher based in Denver, Colorado. Connect with her at A Brighter Wild or on social media @ABrighterWild.

The Furoshiki Technique

There are numerous furoshiki wrapping techniques used in Japan, which differ depending on the item you wish to wrap, but this simple method for wrapping rectangular or square items will get you started.

Step 1:

Lay a rectangular or square piece of shibori-dyed organic cotton, linen, or other medium- to heavyweight tightly woven cloth out flat in front of you, with one corner pointing toward you.

Photo by Kim Lightbody

Step 2:

Place the square or rectangular gift item diagonally in the center, so the straight edges face the corners of the cloth, and you have a straight edge facing you. 

Photo by Kim Lightbody

Step 3:

Take the right-hand corner of the cloth and fold it over the item, and then tuck it underneath the item.

Photo by Kim Lightbody

Step 4:

Take the left-hand corner of the cloth and fold it over the item away from you, tucking it underneath.

Photo by Kim Lightbody

Step 5:

Bring the two free corners together on top of the wrapped package, and tie them together in a knot.

This article is Part 1 of a two-part series about zero-waste lifestyle changes. Stay tuned for our January/February 2019 “New Year, New You” issue, in which we’ll include tips for zero-waste grocery shopping.

Excerpted with permission from Botanical Inks by Babs Behan, published by Quadrille, August 2018.