What To Do With Packaging, Unwanted Gifts, and Holiday Decorations

The holidays are here which equates to a lot of waste. Last year we shared “6 Tips to Reduce Waste For The Holidays” focusing on gift-giving ideas and how to prepare for less waste. This year, let’s address the aftermath of all the festivities and how to reduce your waste, avoiding adding things to the landfill, including what to do with packaging, unwanted gifts, and holiday decorations.


Modern gift wrapping paper and greeting cards can’t be recycled because of its layered composition of paper with plastic in the form of glitter, gloss, and metallic coating. Ribbons are also a plastic-paper composite that can’t be recycled, and are disruptive at recycling centers where they get caught in the machines.

What to do: Roll up ribbons and save them in a box. Gift wrap also makes fun holiday dinner crowns (pictured below), notebook covers, decorative boxes, paper to line your sock drawer, homemade gift tags for next year, or you can also shred gift wrap up to make your own festively beautiful crinkle paper. Greeting cards are great for scrapbooking.

Holiday dinner crowns with gift wrap paper

Use your wrapping to create holiday dinner crowns. Photo: Christine Wong


An estimated 5 trillion plastic bags were used in 2019, which is equivalent to 160,000 bags a second. If you place each bag side by side they would wrap around the world seven times every hour and cover an area twice the size of France!

What to do: Single-use plastic bags aren’t accepted by most curbside programs but they are accepted at store drop-off programs found at major grocery and retail chains in the United States. Find a drop-off location near you at plasticfilmrecycling.com


According to Finder, the top unwanted gifts are Clothing & Accessories (34%), Household Items (18%), and Cosmetics & Fragrances (14%). Plastic is ubiquitous in all of these categories.

What to do: Repurpose these, and any gently-used / newly-replaced items, by donating them to a local charity drop-off or to non-profit organizations who give to those in need. You could also keep these unwanted gifts in the original packaging and re-gift them to friends or colleagues for future occasions.


Lights are a big part of the holiday celebration. The tradition is borrowed from a pagan ritual of welcoming the return of sunlight after the start of the winter solstice since the days become longer. Back then, people used candles instead of string lights which contain pvc, lead, mercury and other types of toxic chemicals.  

What to do: If you wind up using string lights, be sure to recycle them properly when they stop working. Remember most curbside recycling centers don’t accept e-waste so don’t throw those string lights in the bin. Instead, call up your local hardware stores or even Lowe’s and Home Depot to see if they’ll recycle them. You can also mail in your used lights to Christmas Light Source, a company based in Texas that recycles lights year round. 


Gift card spending reached an all time high in December 2020 since people weren’t traveling as much. The majority of those cards were digitally sent, meaning no physical cards were exchanged. So try to avoid buying physical gift cards since the majority are made from PVC, the most harmful chemical to the environment and human health.   

What to do: Have lots of used gift cards? Cleveland-based Earthworks System accepts PVC cards for recycling for consumers and retailers via collection and mail in programs The PVC cards are chopped up and melted into PVC sheets which are then sold to create new cards.

Living Without Plastic

Using sustainable wrapping options will help reduce post holiday waste. Photo: Christine Wong


No biodegradable balloon option exists.  Even a natural latex balloon still has chemicals, plasticizers, and dyes that are not biodegradable. Most airborne balloons or their bits and strings wind up in the ocean where animals often mistake them for food or become entangled. 

What to do: Save balloon strings for reuse, untie balloons and keep them in a box to blow them up another time. Keep some of your favorite ornaments out on display in your home all-year round. Store Christmas tree stands, lights, and ornaments for next year, or donate these items to a charity shop. 

The holidays can a time of year to reduce your waste if you plan ahead, but for unexpected waste there are always creative solutions. We hope our tips on what to do after the holidays prove useful and alleviate the stress of creating waste. After all the holidays are meant to be a time of reflection and gathering with loved ones to celebrate each other.