If You Must Wrap, Remember...

Unlike many environmentally-unfriendly activities, wrapping presents is actually inconvenient for most people. It takes up time, rather than frees the individual from it. It takes energy, and it costs him or her money.
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My Scrooge projections tell me that this isn't the year when everyone will stop wrapping their holiday gifts. If anything, though, it may be the year when more people stop buying gift wrapping. Green beggars can't be choosers.

The commodities related to gift-wrapping are plentiful: there's stick-on bows, spools of ribbons, gift bags with hangtags, and those stickers to place on presents that say "to" and "from" with multiple designs that often clash with the patterned wrapping paper beneath them. These stickers also come with a waxed back sheet, doubling up on the pointless wastefulness.

I'm sorry, if there was a point to these stickers other than selling you something you don't really need, please let me know.

Then there's reams and reams of paper. Wrapping paper, paper boxes, paper shopping bags. Tissue paper that goes in the shopping bags. Tissue paper that goes in the gift bags. Tissue paper that never gets used because it's slightly crinkled. Wrapping paper that never gets used because they're "scraps" after the paper was custom-cut to fit a present. The US generates an additional 5 million tons of waste during the holidays - four million tons of them wrapping paper and shopping bags. It's widely estimated that packaging accounts for a whopping 30% of landfill space in the US. It's hard not to scream this statistic out loud when seeing someone holding a crisp, heavy-gauge paper bag from a boutique, carrying in it something that couldn't be heavier than a sock. The American public has a strong attachment to packaging and wrapping, let's just face it. It's a powerful branding tool for companies - the iconic Tiffany & Co. bag is a prime example. But it serves no more purpose than mimic these archetypes and add beauty when a gift is wrapped at home. (If you want to surprise someone with your gift, hide it first.)

Unlike many environmentally-unfriendly activities, wrapping presents is actually inconvenient for most people. It takes up time, rather than frees the individual from it. It takes energy, and it costs him or her money. None of these detractions have seemed to slow the fervent purchasing of wrapping paper. About half of the 85 million tons of paper products Americans consume goes toward packaging, wrapping and decorating goods.


Some have advocated spending a little more to help out the earth by buying recycled wrapping paper. "Recycled wrapping paper" of other sorts - newspaper, comic strips, magazine collages - is another option that's just as earth-friendly but actually free (as long as you have the materials on hand - and who doesn't or can't easily obtain them?). If this look is not quite your style, then my suggestion is to wrap with reusable textiles - silk scarves, cloth napkins, beautiful bows, ribbons, brooches and jewelry. A blue chiffon scarf secured with a long, small-beaded necklace served as the "wrapping" for my mother's box of perfume one year. She gave me back the scarf and necklace and didn't have to toss out or recycle anything, nor dirty her fingers from newspaper ink. If giving back the wrapping things is not an option, then further creativity always is. Your friends might just be wowed by receiving a present wrapped in the spruce trimmings of a Christmas tree or wreath, or a pastiche of dried leaves from the lawn. Even a ribbon wrapped around a gift - solo - is elegant if subdued, and is more apt for reusing by the giftee.

Of course, I'm only human and hence capable of creativity under certain circumstances just like anyone else, usually mysteriously. But I know who I can forget the wrapping paper ritual altogether with - my brother, for instance - because he or she will care little. So many of us, I suspect, already don't care. I know when it matters, too, like with a bottle of bubbly for a boss. Hopefully these divides will begin to bridge and cultural norms shift toward the less-frills-is-more end of the spectrum as greater environmental awareness and thriftiness inform consumer choices. Spending not where wasteful tradition lies, for the sake of so-called beauty is a start.

"This is all totally unsustainable," Britain's Liberal Democrats spokesman said of holiday-related waste. He was referring to the UK's 83 square kilometers of wrapping paper and 125,000 tons of plastic packaging in 2006, a disturbing but laughable sum in comparison to the US's bulging landfills of Christmas cards, gift wrap, packaging materials and in some cases (some 7% and 2.5 million of them), real Christmas trees. At 4% of the global population, the US still produces some 25-30% of the planet's waste. Let that be a humbling reminder to us this year.

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