Eco Wise

Using or Burning Holiday Gift Wrap Is Not Environmentally Friendly

(The Washington Post)
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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Dear Sunday Source:

This is the time of year when all of us with school-aged children are asked to buy and sell gift wrapping as PTA fundraisers. I would like to know if there is an environmental impact to all this wrapping. Is it all bad? Is metallic paper worse than regular? Is it true that burning the wrapping paper from all those presents in the fireplace on Christmas morning produces a toxic smoke?

-- Jane Temoshok, Arlington

This one's easy: Wrapping paper, from an ecological point of view, is a pretty worthless use of trees. Each year in the United States, 4 million tons go from logs to landfills to make wrapping paper and holiday shopping bags, according to the Clean Air Council, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization.

And about burning it in the fireplace: Don't! Decorative wrapping paper, much of which is made in countries such as China that have looser environmental regulations, can contain lead, synthetic inks, plastic film, chlorine or metal-based foils, which release toxic and carcinogenic compounds into the air when burned. Metallic paper may or may not have a greater environmental footprint than other types, but it's certainly not meant to be inhaled. Who's most vulnerable to this indoor pollution? Children, whose systems are still developing. (Not to mention that burning household trash other than yard waste is illegal in many places.)

Of course, fancy wrapping is part of the joy of gift-giving for some. "I love surprises," says Takoma Park resident Diane MacEachern, the author of "Big Green Purse" who blogs at "What I hate is seeing so much beautiful paper just being ripped up and tossed aside. Honestly, these days, it's a little embarrassing to put bags full of ripped-up paper out on the curb for trash pickup."

A better approach: saving and reusing gift wrap and scrap paper (and, yes, newspaper). If scraps are too small for rewrapping, MacEachern suggests cutting them into gift tags, using them as packing material, making a decorative garland or, at the very least, recycling.

Another increasingly popular idea is to present gifts in reusable materials and containers, such as decorative boxes, scarves, vases, tote bags or even bento-style lunchboxes. Many of these items could be sold for a PTA fundraiser, and because they're mementos that last, they set a more sustainable example for kids.

Then again, selling things is still selling things. "My daughter's school just gave up trying to sell stuff no one really wanted and asked parents for a flat contribution," MacEachern says. "It worked pretty well!"

-- Eviana Hartman

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