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How to wrap your gifts zero waste style!

Updated: Oct 9, 2022

I've always hated the wastefulness of wrapping paper. In the old days, my family always used to manage to fill a big black bin bag with rubbish at Christmas, even though there have never been more than 7 of us, and that rubbish was always just shoved into the bin without a thought. I could never help thinking what a waste it was, even before I was aware of the environmental impact!

Here in the UK we use 227,000 miles of wrapping paper each year. And because very little of it is recyclable, over 83km2 of which ends up in our bins! Not to mention 40 million rolls of sticky tape! What a WASTE!

Plus, I've always found it really hard to wrap things neatly with paper. Over the years I eventually managed to make regular-shaped things like books or DVDs or Lego boxes look quite decent, but odd-shaped gifts like socks or candles or teddy bears… how on earth do you make those look good? Plus you've got all the faff of deciding which colour paper to use for which gift, and cutting out a piece of paper only to find it's not quite big enough, and losing the end of the sticky tape, sourcing a ribbon or bow or whatever to try and make up for the imperfections in the wrapping… I never found it much fun. Eventually, paper gift bags became more readily available (and cheaper!) and I embraced them joyfully. With a gift bag, all you have to do is open it, pop the gift in, tape or clip it shut and add a label! All right, you've still got the issue of finding one the right size (why are they always the wrong size and shape for everything? Why are there no CD-shaped gift bags?) but at least once you've got it, it's easy! And best of all, they can be used again and again. We've got gift bags that have been shuffling back and forth between my household and my mum's for years! But even carefully looked-after paper gift bags don't last forever, at least not without starting to look a bit battered! So what can we use instead? To my mind, there are two main criteria for more sustainable gift wrap:

1. Make it reusable 2. Make it from sustainable materials Let's take a closer look. 1. Reusable gift wrap

This comes in many forms:

Reusable gift bags – as I said, you can reuse many regular paper gift bags but they do wear out fairly quickly and are usually not recyclable due to their mix of paper and plastic materials. If you want something that's really reusable, it's far better to go with fabric bags - which are also much more versatile and easy to fit odd-shaped gifts into! I made those below using this tutorial (and adapting it a bit because I never can leave well enough alone)!

If you're not handy with a sewing machine, there are loads available ready made, such as these gorgeous ones from Bluebellprettyquilts on Etsy.

Furoshiki – the Japanese art of wrapping gifts in pieces of fabric. You can use any scraps of fabric you already own, or you can buy official fabric that's been cut and hemmed ready for use. Or you can use things that can be re-used later such as tea towels or silk scarves. Buy them second hand from a charity shop (or even just ask your neighbours if they have any going spare) for even more brownie points! There's a beginner's guide here.

If that seems like too much hard work, you can even buy fabric that lays out flat and you put the gift on and just close it with a drawstring such as this from Lilywrap! I think that's such a fabulous idea!

As for gift tags, you can even buy reusable gift tags too. Try searching on Etsy for chalk board gift tags', which can be written on and rubbed out over and over again!

2. Natural, biodegradable materials

If you still want to use single use gift wrap (perhaps to wrap presents for people you don't know, or who you know won't reuse that fancy reusable gift bag you spend £XXX on!) then there are a number of options that are an awful lot more environmentally friendly than glittery, plasticky wrapping paper!

New paper - Opt for plain brown paper which can be composted after use. Stick it together with compostable brown paper tape or Washi tape made from natural materials. Or tie it up with biodegradable twine. Decorate the paper with natural paints if you want something more interesting than plain brown, or tuck bits of seasonal foliage, herbs or dried orange slices into the string for prettiness and a lovely natural perfume!

Reused paper - All sorts of salvaged paper can be used: newspaper, magazine pages, comic book pages, maps from that out of date atlas, old sheet music... And best of all, it's free! Tie it up with good quality ribbon that can be reused again and again. (I have a whole box full of different lengths and colours of ribbon just for this purpose, much of it salvaged from old clothing, bags, and the thin ribbons they put on clothing to help hang it up, which I never use for that purpose so just cut them off and keep them in my box!)

You can also reuse normal wrapping paper received around presents from other people. Just open it carefully, cut off any torn bits, and fold up to store for next year!

As for gift tags, all my life we've been saving last year's Christmas cards to use as next year's name labels! Just cut them up into suitable shapes (pinking shears give a pretty effect here), punch a hole and thread through a ribbon from your stash or a bit of twine to tie it onto the present.

Of course, there's also a third option:

3. Both reusable AND biodegradable!

Gift bags made from natural materials like cotton, linen or wool. There are loads of fabric gift sacks available, which can be reused over and over (for far longer than a paper one) and when they are eventually past their best they can be composted. If you're going for cotton bags, try and find some made from organic cotton as this uses much less water (an incredibly precious resource) to grow than normal cotton.

There are also some wool gift bags available - either made from felt or knitted from pure wool like my own reusable, personalisable 100% wool gift sacks:

Gift boxes made from natural materials e.g. cardboard that can be recycled or composted, or baskets made from rattan or grass or wood (just cover the contents with a cloth or tea towel and tie with a ribbon)!

Again, there are a lot of boxes out there that you can repurpose. For example, I've recently discovered Moshulu for quality, long-lasting, sustainable shoes and slippers that are also colourful (a company clearly after my own heart!) and their shoe boxes are not only wonderfully sturdy and reusable but also incredibly pretty and perfect for just wrapping up with a ribbon to turn them into gift boxes!

Jars are also really good for gifting small things, especially homemade cookies or truffles. You can leave the contents visible for prettiness or put the jar in the middle of a square of fabric and gather it up around the jar and tie with a ribbon.

Just for a laugh, here's a picture of my first attempt at sustainable, mostly reusable gift wrapping, way back in 2016. It wasn't perfect, and quite possibly I went a bit overboard with the pompoms, but apart from the brown paper on the big box at the bottom (for which I didn't have any fabric big enough) it was all reused. The knitted bags were sample squares I'd made when I was just starting out on knitting and trying out different stitches. The fabrics were bits and bobs from my stash (the gorgeously Scandi tartan was a cut-up pair of old pyjamas!) and the ribbons were all being reused for the umpteenth time. Overall I was very pleased with the results and I've got better and better at it each year!

And here's what I'd progressed to by last Christmas (you may recognise some of those same pieces of fabric still in use)!

So what about it? Are you going to ditch the single use (mostly unrecyclable) wrapping paper this year and go for something else more sustainable instead?

Whatever you do, have a wonderful Christmas!


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