Recycling wrapping paper? Gift bags? Here's what holiday packaging can go in blue bins

Wyatte Grantham-Philips, USA TODAY

'Tis the season for gift giving. And waste.

If you're surrounded by endless wrapping paper, festive bows and Christmas cards this holiday, it's important to note proper recycling protocols – especially for paper products, the most recycled material in the U.S, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Millions of Americans can also do their part during the holiday season by recycling paper-based products at home," Heidi Brock, President and CEO of the American Forest & Paper Association, said in a statement to USA TODAY.

Brock added that a common mistake people make at the end of the year is "wishcycling."

"The act of putting something in the recycling bin in the hope that someone else will figure out what to do with it actually impedes the recycling process," she said, urging communities to help educate consumers about local guidelines.

Not everything can go in those blue bins. Glue, ribbons and glitter-dusted decorations can clog the recycling process. Most nonpaper products need to be tossed or reused.

Each holiday gift wrap is disposed of differently at the end of the year. Unsure of what to do as you pack up this season's festivities in a sustainable way?

Recycle? Reuse? Or trash? Here's what you need to know:

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Wrapping paper

Brock said plain wrapping paper can be recycled. Sheets with foil, glitter and plastic or poly coatings cannot. Additional nonpaper embellishments should also be avoided.

According to Lisa Skumatz, National Recycling Coalition chairperson, wrapping paper should be separated from your regular curbside mix. It can be recycled with special programs for collection and drop-off in some cities.

Try reusing wrapping paper that can't be recycled. If Christmas morning causes damage beyond repair, trash it – and maybe consider sturdier gift bags to easily reuse in the future.

“We do discourage people from using wrapping paper because it is difficult to recycle and instead encourage people to either use reusable gift bags or other types of materials or use recyclable material like calendars, maps, etc," said Randy Moorman of Ecocycle, a recycling nonprofit in Colorado.

Gift bags

Gift bag recycling requirements are similar to wrapping paper. Plain paper bags can be put in the recycling bin – but not bags made with plastic, foil, or fabric according to Brock and the American Forest and Paper Association.

If a paper bag has rope handles, beads, or other nonpaper decorative elements, remove them before recycling.

If your bags don't fit recycling requirements, they will need to be trashed or reused. The good news is, they are easy to preserve.

Ribbons and bows

Ribbons and bows are not accepted at recycling bins. The decorations can clog production at recycling plants.

To fix the problem, "the facility then needs to shut down all the equipment so they can get in and cut out all the junk,” Peter Spendelow, a materials management specialist for Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality, previously told USA TODAY.

When ribbons and bows are too ugly to reuse, trash them. Otherwise, save them for next year – tape can be a perfect substitute adhesive.

Holiday cards without glitter, plastic, or metallic accents can be recycled.
Holiday cards without glitter, plastic, or metallic accents can be recycled.

Christmas cards

Don't forget to sort holiday cards.

According to the American Forest and Paper Association, cards and envelopes made of paper can be recycled. But those with glitter, plastic, or metallic accents should be tossed in the trash.

Most recycling processes will remove stamps.

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Cardboard boxes

Online orders are on the rise this year and cardboard boxes need to be recycled properly.

In short: don't forget to flatten and remove nonpaper packing materials.

Packing peanuts and bubble wrap are not recyclable. And unflattened boxes take up more room in recycling trucks – causing crews to make more trips.

"This year many gifts will arrive to households in corrugated boxes, which are designed to be recycled," Brock said. "These recycled paper fibers can be used at least seven times to make new paper products. We ask consumers to remove any nonpaper packing materials, break boxes down flat, keep them dry and clean and place them in the recycling bin."

Contributing: Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Christmas 2020: Wrapping paper, packaging you can and can't recycle