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There comes a moment, after the presents have been unwrapped, the lights taken down and the holiday cards tossed aside, when every reveler must decide how to dispose of their festive waste.
Millions of Americans wrap, ship and unwrap presents in the month of December. We generate about 25 percent more waste than usual during the holidays, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, equating to an extra 1 million tons of waste in landfills per week.
Holiday waste disposal can be tricky, and depending on the material and recycling guidelines in your community, you could be doing serious environmental — or even physical — harm by tossing certain holiday decorative items in those big blue bins.
While most wrappings and cards are easily processed, glitzy paper products with foil or plastic pieces could send your recyclables to a landfill. Christmas lights and tinsel are so detrimental to recycling plants that they can halt processing lines several times a day.
Here’s a guide to how you can properly dispose of your holiday trash.
Recycling plants can process most gift wrap along with other paper products, producing hefty recycled bales. These bales are then shipped to paper mills to be repurposed into other goods, like cardboard liners.
The mills dump the bales into a water-filled vat and shred them into a pulp, almost like a blender. As the paper fibers come apart, giant screens fish out any unwanted materials, like soft plastics.
Recycling your leaning tower of Amazon Prime shipping boxes is surprisingly impactful — recycling one ton of paper saves 17 trees. However, it’s crucial to break down cardboard boxes before they get tossed in the blue bin. Compact boxes take up less space in crammed recycling trucks, meaning fewer trips for trucks.
These cardboard boxes, which are mostly made of simple paper, can even be recycled with their packaging tape, because the recycling process can typically remove the extra plastic and adhesive — up to a certain point, anyway.
If your wrapping paper or holiday cards contain plastic pieces, glitter or photo paper, they can taint your recycling.
Normally, the paper recycling process can handle a few plastic bits. When you recycle an envelope with a plastic address window, for example, the paper is processed while the plastic is separated for the landfill.
Nonetheless, the system can only deal with so many impurities. Sometimes, contaminants in bedazzled cards and wrapping can slip through the sorting step, ending up in the recycled bale and reducing its purity levels. Low purity makes recycled paper less attractive to buyers at paper mills — and can also affect commerce on a global scale.
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For instance, Chinese manufacturers have become fed up with paying extra for impure recycled products, said Jeffrey Morris, an economist with Sound Resource Management Group. Earlier this year, China stopped accepting a lot of recycled materials from the U.S., causing waste management companies’ stocks to fall and driving up domestic recycling costs.
You can still recycle cards if they’re made of simple paper materials, but if you like the glam, you can tear off and recycle the paper portion and trash the rest.
“Contamination is such a big problem for us, at particularly this time of year,” said Mike Taylor, director of recycling operations at Waste Management, North America’s largest residential recycling company. “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Though items like Christmas lights, garland, ribbons and bows may contain plastic or paper components, they also tie up the recycling process. Taylor describes these items as “tanglers.”
Tanglers get caught up in the spinning disks of sorting machines. Workers must then shut down and manually detangle the clogged equipment, which halts recycling for anywhere from five minutes to more than an hour. This nuisance not only takes up a lot of time — it can happen five to 10 times per day — it also puts workers at risk.
“The folks in the sorting process are really quality control, but more and more, people are grabbing items that shouldn’t be there,” Taylor said. “That is dangerous — if they reach for a strand of Christmas lights, it could injure their hands, it could spring back and strike them someplace else.”
WATCH: 4 scientific tips to make your holiday cookies burst with flavor
Along with tanglers, organic materials like Christmas tree branches, garland and holly can also contaminate recycling. Taylor noted that holiday food waste, as throughout the rest of the year, can lower purity levels. He said it was important to rinse out containers and check out local guidelines to see what could go into the recycling bin.
A popular replacement for wrapping paper: newspaper. It’s an efficient material because it can be recycled up to seven times and uses gentle, soy-based inks, said Sara Smith, who five years ago founded Wrappily, a wrapping paper company that contracts printing presses from around the country to print custom designs on 100 percent recyclable newspaper.
Smith, whose father and grandfather owned printing presses, lives in Maui, where there are limited recycling opportunities. Amid the neverending stream of bridal and baby showers that came along with her and her friend’s weddings and growing families, she became the “loony person at the end of the party,” smoothing out wrapping paper for reuse.
There are other ways to make your wrapping recyclable that won’t draw weird looks at a party. There are a number of home solutions, like old newspaper, maps and pillowcases to cover presents, a greener way of keeping the element of surprise intact (the last tip courtesy of our own Vicky Stein.)
Remember also that many gift decorations can be used more than once.
“Ribbons and bows are problematic, [but there’s] a really good reuse option,” Morris said. “A lot of bows can just be picked right off, and then you can reuse them with double-sided tape.”
Gifters can save and reuse packaging materials for future presents. Packing peanuts, gift bags and tissue paper, for example, can be easily stored and reused.
You could also painstakingly unfasten the tape on wrapping paper, remove without tearing, neatly fold it and optimistically stash it for next year, assuming your presents will be exactly the same size and shape. What a thrill for the kids.
Jamie Leventhal is an Associate Producer of Digital Video for the PBS NewsHour. She started at NewsHour as a Science & Social Media News Assistant, and covers topics on science, global health and tech. She earned a journalism degree from Northwestern University, and has previously worked at Popular Science and Quartz.
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