by Adam Noonan6 minute read
Gift giving is one of the rituals of Christmas, tracing its origins back to the early centuries of Christianity. The modern convention is to take the things we buy (an estimated £548 worth per UK adult for 2021), and cover them in colourful, often shiny, wrapping paper before placing them under the Christmas tree, ready to be unwrapped by the people we care about.
It’s hard to imagine a product more inessential, with a shorter lifespan, than wrapping paper. As people who are aware of the environmental impacts of the materials we consume, is wrapping paper a festive adornment we should try to do without?
Wrap your head around the problem
Thinking about this topic, I wondered to what extent the British public cares about wrapping paper – is it just a concern to the greenest among us? However, WRAP reports that in Christmas week 2019, “wrapping paper” was the most searched term on RecycleNow.com. Some retailers also seem to believe that concern about wrapping paper is sufficiently widespread that steps to avoid it could be a selling point. In a popular high street store recently, I found this paper shopping bag that was begging me to turn it into wrapping paper at the earliest opportunity.
Before we go too far, it’s important to understand the scale of the problem. What are the environmental impacts associated with wrapping paper, and isn’t paper recyclable anyway?
We use a lot wrapping paper, most of which is used only once before it’s torn off and thrown away. Defra estimates that around 50,000 trees are used to produce the wrapping paper used in the UK each year. It’s hard to find figures relating to the impact of wrapping paper specifically, but the impact of paper production is significant. For example, it is estimated that between 4 and 19 litres of the water is used to produce a single sheet of A4 paper. With a 50cm x 20m roll of wrapping paper containing the equivalent of about 160 sheets of A4 paper, that means the water used to create one roll could be anywhere from 640 to 3,040 litres.
That water, once used, is likely to contain quite a few pollutants. As well as organic material such as paper solids, lignin and alcohol, the outflow from paper production will often contain inorganic chemicals such as cholates, chlorine and metal compounds.
The paper making process is also quite energy-intensive, which leads to carbon emissions. The overall carbon impact of paper isn’t simple to account for. While it’s hard to accurately calculate the carbon sequestered inside a single tree, we estimated this in a previous Isonomia article to be around half a tonne of CO2 sequestered per tree over a 25-year period. According to Defra’s figures, this means that around 25,000 tonnes of CO2 are embedded in the wrapping paper we use every year. Not a huge amount, but it all adds up as part of our Christmas carbon footprint, while we might also ask whether we would prefer those trees to remain in the environment.
The carbon embodied in the paper might not be an issue if more of the paper we use to wrap our presents was recycled. While the latest available estimates from 2014 show paper and card recycling stood at around 73%, reams and reams of wrapping paper won’t be recycled due to the presence of tape, ribbons, glitter and adulterations which make recycling impossible for some paper and risks wider contamination if incorrectly placed in recycling streams.
For these reasons, not all local authorities will accept wrapping paper, so it’s best to check your council’s website for guidance on this. According to RecycleNow.com, if wrapping paper is accepted you will need to ensure that plastic tape and decorations are removed and the paper isn’t coated with foil or glitter. Only simple paper wrap that passes the ‘Scrunch Test’ can be recycled. This means that the paper remains crumpled when you squeeze it in your hand, rather than springing back into shape like an elastic band.
Of course, we have options. We can reduce our wrapping paper consumption and forego the decoration and excitement it provides, or we can carefully remove the paper for reuse and deny ourselves the thrill of the quick reveal. However, we also need to make sure that we enjoy Christmas and spending time with family and friends. Reaching into a carrier bag and handing your Uncle Gerald a pair of unadorned argyle socks seems to be lacking a little bit of mystery; while instructing your niece to carefully open her present and hand back the wrapping paper undamaged and carefully flattened could seem a little po-faced.
However, there are ways to keep the fun alive, while limiting some of the impacts of gift wrap. Without changing your Christmas traditions too much you can plan ahead and choose more sustainable wrapping paper options. You could purchase wrapping paper that includes recycled content and that can be recycled by your local services. Japanese style wrapping uses minimal tape, and the usual plastic tape can be replaced with a paper-based tape to lower contamination risks. Although reusing wrapping paper can be difficult, reusing gift bags is an easy option, while old newspaper, paper bags and envelopes can be repurposed as wrapping if you feel your creativity flowing.
Cloth wrapping is also a fun and reusable way to package gifts. We have a long tradition of wrapping gifts in cloth containers at Christmas, with children putting stockings out for Santa. My Ghostbusters themed stocking is entering its third decade of use now that I’ve passed it on to my son. Meanwhile, Japanese style fabric wrap is an elegant and reusable option, which can be a good use of old textiles that you already have.
That’s a wrap
It’s easy to get wrapped up in environmental rights and wrongs of the things we do at Christmas, but if it is done in a sustainable way that minimises waste then there’s no need to lose sleep the night before Christmas. We can argue that wrapping paper doesn’t provide utility, but it looks great under the Christmas tree and gives each gift an air of mystery.
And the amounts of wrapping paper we consume may be falling naturally anyway. Although it’s hard to imagine an empty space under the Christmas tree ever being the norm, for most of us Christmas has always been more about experience than consumption. Many of us experienced a very different Christmas last year, when we were not free to travel and visit friends and family as we usually do. The trend for people to prioritise their time and income towards experiences rather than possessions is described as the ‘experience economy’, with data showing a shift towards spending on experiences and away from possessions across most age groups since 2001. In fact, a recent poll found 42% of Brits would rather be gifted an experience than a ‘thing’ this Christmas, with around one in five intending on gifting such a present. Experience based gifts, such as a spa day, theatre tickets or learning how to make your own cheese are not so easily wrapped and as time goes by, we may be seeing a little less under the Christmas tree – while what remains can be wrapped in newspaper, fabric or reused gift bags!
Featured image: Mark Buckawicki via Wikimedia Commons