That’s a Wrap: Some Alternatives to Traditional Gift-Wrapping

Looking for a greener Christmas? Re-think your gift wrap. According to Stanford University:

  • If every U.S. family wrapped three gifts in repurposed materials, the gift wrap saved would cover 45,000 football fields.
  • If every family reused two feet of holiday ribbon per year, the ribbon saved could tie a bow around Earth.

Feeling like a planet-despoiling bastard yet? Don’t beat yourself up too badly. I use some holiday paper myself. But I obtain/use it in very specific ways:

  • Buying during post-holiday clearance sales — they’re practically giving the stuff away
  • Re-using wrap when possible
  • Using non-traditional wrap
  • Getting paper and gift bags in non-traditional ways

You can frame the “to wrap or not to wrap” question in three ways: frugal or eco-friendly, or both.

A lot of people are seriously concerned about the amount of paper we produce and quickly discard. The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day see an extra 25 million tons of garbage in the United States. How much of that waste is Pokemon wrapping paper, holographic gift bags, and curly ribbon that will still be curly (and recognizably ribbon) after 50 years in a landfill?

That bothers me. But like companies that use environmental mitigation to offset the effects of development, I’m as eco-friendly as I can be while still indulging in a certain amount of despoilation. All year long I recycle, cook from scratch, buy clothes from thrift stores, walk or take the bus, and do other things to limit my impact on the Earth.

But I also take a lot of plane trips, which apparently have a major environmental impact. I choose to eat meat. I don’t purchase strictly organic foods or green goods. And every few years I buy holiday gift wrap.

Why only every few years? Because I make it last, that’s why. That’s where the frugal part comes in.

Go paperless
The first and most obvious alternative: Don’t wrap at all. If you’ve got friends/family/a partner who also feel that gift wrap is an eco-disaster, agree to put the presents out completely nekkid.

Yes, it spoils the excitement of wondering what you got for Christmas. The knowledge that you’ve kept a bunch of wrapping paper out of the landfill will have to substitute for that holiday frisson.

Or try temporary camouflage: Burrito-up gift items in bath towels or sheets. House smaller presents in old sour-cream containers and larger ones in pillowcases, or in cardboard boxes you got free from local stores. Rubber-band them shut if you can, to save on strapping tape, or tie them closed with the shoelaces you’ve taken from worn-out shoes.

(You do take them out, don’t you? And cut the buttons off shirts you’ve worn to shreds, before you cut them up to use for cleaning rags? If not, hand me your Frugal Hacker badge right now. You can have it back once you’ve earned it.)

Tip: Liquor stores discard tons of boxes, especially during the holidays, which drive us to entertain or to drink (or both). If you’re required to separate the recyclables, plan to flatten those booze boxes one or two per week for a while. Otherwise your neighbors will discuss an intervention.

You can also repurpose a cigar or shoe box. Erin Huffstetler opens the side seam of cereal boxes, turns them inside-out and re-tapes them to house shirts and other gifts. “Let your kids stamp or paint on designs,” says Huffstetler, who writes the Frugal Living Guide for

I think that’s clever. But if an empty Rice Krispies box just isn’t festive enough, how about a tin? I end up with these every year because they’re sent to me full of homemade treats. I also find them at rummage sales for practically nothing and, occasionally, in the “free” boxes at yard sales. If you don’t want your gift sliding around you can wedge it in place with crumpled-up newspaper.

Bag it
Decorative gift sacks are increasingly popular. My theory is that a lot of people are as bad as I am at wrapping packages but are too classy to give lumpy presents. (My gifts look positively glandular.) Gift bags would seem to be the perfect solution. But unless they have handles that can be tied shut, you need to add tissue paper to cover up the presents.

Fiendishly clever of the gift-wrap companies, isn’t it, selling an easy-to-use item that requires a corollary purchase?

A close relative of mine uses gift bags made of super-strong paper, versus the flimsier, single-use varieties. Since she gives only to people she’s known a long time, they’ve accepted that it’s one of her idiosyncrasies to ask for the bags back. Pick the right gift sack (and the right recipients) and you won’t have to buy wrapping supplies for years.

If you’ve got a sewing machine, you could make simple cloth bags to cover the goods. (Hand-stitching is possible, obviously, but more time-consuming.) Look for fabric remnants at thrift shops. You might even luck into a holiday-themed pattern; how often do people plan to make gifts but wind up donating that holly-printed flannel? Watch for old sheets or Christmas-y dish towels, too. But not Christmas guest towels, because it’s a known fact that these should never be used.

The bags don’t have to include a drawstring or Velcro unless you want to show off. Just tie it closed with a piece of ribbon, string, or raffia.

Tip: Did you buy rolls of ribbon at that post-holiday clearance sale? Cut a single long piece into 1/8th-inch-wide slivers. Each will hold bags closed just as well as a wide ribbon would. The ends may even become curly, and you can pretend that you did it that way on purpose.

Or how about putting gifts in reusable shopping bags? It’s possible to ask for these bags back, too, unless you want to make them part of your gifts. You’re looking for environmental mitigation, remember? Encouraging others to eschew plastic bags counts.

More than one way to wrap
I haven’t bought clearance holiday wrap for at least two years yet my supply is still pretty ample. In part that’s because whenever possible I save the paper from gifts I receive and use it the following year to wrap items of similar size. If there are marks where tape or ribbon was removed, I cut down the paper to fit smaller items.

I’ve heard of people using a warm iron on the opposite side of gift wrap, to make it nicer for reuse. Since I barely iron my clothing, I’m unlikely to press paper. If you do this, please don’t cause any house fires.

(Speaking of which: Don’t throw commercial gift papers into a fireplace or wood stove. They burn so fast and so hot that they could create a flash fire. Besides, the inks could contain metallic materials and heavy-metal compounds, according to Consumer Reports.)

You don’t necessarily need to buy paper designed specifically for presents. Some other possibilities:

  • Newspaper end rolls. If there’s a newspaper or printing company in your area, ask if you can buy an almost-finished roll. These still contain a ton of paper that can be used as-is or customized any way you want. Rubber-stamp it. Flick a loaded paintbrush at it. Let your kids draw holiday pictures on it. Or do the messy-but-fun activity of dipping their li’l hands into water-based acrylic paint and making hand prints on the paper. (And if your recipient is a “CSI” fan? Have them leave only their fingerprints.)
  • Secondhand finds. Sometimes I find gift wrap at thrift stores or yard sales. But I’ve also seen rolls of butcher paper or brown at thrift shops; these can be decorated as noted above.
  • Grocery bags. Cut open paper ones and use the non-logo sides for wrapping. Let your kids decorate them with bright paint.
  • The Sunday funnies. These make great gift wrap year-round. Don’t subscribe? Harvest them at coffeehouses on Mondays. Tip: Discarded wrapping paper of any type can be crumpled up for use as packing material.
  • Old maps. Doctors Without Borders sends me several huge maps of the world every year. Maps also end up in the free box at yard sales, and may be given free of charge at visitors’ centers.
  • Periodicals. Small gifts can be wrapped in pages from magazines, calendars, catalogs or even comic books. You may luck into these in the “free” bin at yard sales.
  • Foreign-language newspapers. Weeklies written in Chinese, Korean and Spanish can be found in my neighborhood. The interesting typefaces could be a hit with someone who knows or is trying to learn those languages.
  • Dumpster paper. A whole lot of gift-wrap items will be tossed after Dec. 25. I’ve pulled gift bags, colorful tissue, ribbons, and large pieces of wrapping paper out of the recycle bin. Note: You don’t necessarily have to get down and dirty. I’m more of a dumpster wader than a dumpster diver, myself. A few years ago I found a large, still-shrink-wrapped roll of Christmas paper outside the dumpster. Still slowly making my way through it because of its design — not everyone appreciates the delicacy of Batman holiday wrap.

Frugal and/or reusable finishing touches

  • Raffia
  • Strips of tulle
  • Fabric “ribbons” cut with pinking shears
  • Shoelaces (come on, everybody needs an extra pair — and some are really cool-looking)
  • Strings of beads
  • Hemp twine

Which brings me to a fairly obvious point: These solutions might not work for everyone. Your fastidious Great-Aunt Mildred might not care for a repurposed grocery bag tied with wild grapevine you gleaned from the woods behind your house.

In fact, I wouldn’t do offbeat wrapping for anyone I didn’t know well. For example, your new sweetheart’s parents may look at gifts hidden inside old cottage-cheese containers and think not “eco-warrior” but rather “illegitimus frugalis.”

As always, do what works for you. But no matter how you wrap or don’t wrap your presents, the same rule applies: Every time someone opens a present early, Santa Claus kills a puppy.

Happy holidays.

More about...Frugality, Giving

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