Loriee D. Evans

Wrap Your Gifts in Green

Weeks of shopping, days of wrapping, hours of decorating and carefully arranging gifts underneath the tree -- and it's all over in a few minutes. While the kids chortle over new toys, you contend with a mountain of shredded paper, ribbon, and bows. It leaves you wishing you'd asked for a bulldozer.

Now multiply your small mountain of holiday rubble by millions of families nationwide. That's a lot of trash. Americans throw away 25 percent more garbage between Thanksgiving and New Year's, or an extra one million tons each week of gift-wrap, bows, fruitcake, turkey leftovers, and other festivity-induced offerings that don't make it to the New Year. According to the Use Less Stuff Report (ULS), a bi-monthly newsletter on waste reduction, if every household would reuse just two feet of ribbon each year, the resulting 38,000 miles of ribbon could tie a bow around the earth.

But a gift outlasts its presentation, and if chosen well, is meaningful with or without fancy entrapments. "Little kids just want to get to what's inside the paper," says Bob Lilienfeld, editor of the ULS Report. "They don't sit and look at bows or count the sheets of wrapping paper you used. You have a real opportunity to use less paper, because they really just want to get to the present."

Kids of all ages and cultures express kinship and friendship through gift-giving, so whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, you're bound to face the pressure to wrap a trinket or two. The trick is to avoid adding to that five million tons of holiday garbage. Instead of relying on rolls of gift-wrap, try shrouding your offerings in creativity. Our gift for the holidays is a list of practical and fun ways you can reduce your impact on the planet this season by wrapping gifts in "green."

Alternative Kinds of Paper Wrap

Festive paper wrappings don't just come in shiny red rolls. For example, do you buy fresh flowers for your house when family comes? What do you do with the floral-motifed paper or brightly-colored tissue protecting the blooms? Don't toss it, because that paper has another job to do: wrap up holiday gifts.

On that colorful theme, dig through your travel materials and pull out old maps you don't plan to use again. These large sheets are just the right size for books, small shirt boxes, ties, and other medium-sized gifts. And speaking of shirt boxes, simply stuff clothing into a shopping bag and wrap it up. You save on the freshly-minted paperboard -- which, of course, is both reusable and recyclable if you receive a few new outfits in those department store boxes yourself.

For more options, head for the refrigerator. Is it plastered with works of youthful art that only a grandparent truly appreciates? Then have the kids wrap their gifts to grandma and grandpa with their own artwork. If you're not willing to part with the art, wrap gifts in paper grocery sacks, and set the kids to work creating holiday originals with markers and crayons. Just don't be surprised when the folks ooh and aah over the wrapping more than the gift. But even if they're not enraptured by the artistry, they can simply recycle the packaging after you and the kids have gone.

Now that it's November, the 2002 calendars have nearly finished their tour of duty. So rip the first ten months off the wall, and use the eye-catching photos to wrap small gifts like jewelry boxes. For more photos, try old magazines -- which are recyclable, unlike most gift-wrap paper. You can match photos to a recipient's interests, like shots of anglers from an outdoor magazine for an avid fisherman or pictures of baked goods for a cook. The searching and pasting takes a little effort, but in the spirit of the holiday season, you show that you care.

Bags and Boxes

Now let's say you have an odd-shaped gift you're not sure how to package, or maybe you'd like to set an example by giving reusable packaging. Those popular gift sacks make great gift-wraps, but why buy them new when you can make your own? Simply save those little structured shopping sacks with handles that finer stores use to bag purchases. Sit down with your sack collection at a spacious work area with several tools: scissors, tape or glue, and scraps of holiday wrapping paper, ribbon, and/or a holiday themed magazine. Cut out holiday photos from the magazine or season's greetings from the gift wrap scraps, paste them over each bag's store logo, and presto! Holiday gift bags. Once you've placed the gift in the bottom of the bag, filch through old shoeboxes in the closet for tissue to stuff into the bags. You can use markers to color a holiday theme on the tissue.

After you run out of bags, use the same creativity on the shoeboxes. After you cover up the tennis shoe logos with festive magazine photos, spruce up the top of the box with old, sparkly costume jewelry. Or collect holly branches, red berries, pinecones, cedar sprigs, and other natural decorations from outside. A glue gun works wonders for adhering twigs to a box top, but good old Elmer's suffices in a pinch.

If you have a large sturdy box, try starting a new family tradition. Choose an unusual or holiday family photo, protect it with clear contact paper or lamination, and then glue it to the box. Using a permanent marker, write a funny story about the photo underneath it. Then pass the box along -- with a gift inside -- to the grandparents, aunts, or uncles, with the stipulation that the next time they give someone in your family a gift, they must add their own photo and story. In a few years, the photogenic box could become a centerpiece for the holiday dinner.

Simple cloth bags also make handy reusable holiday packaging. Here's a quick primer on making them. Fold some festive fabric in half with good sides in and cut a rectangle of the desired size, but do not cut the folded edge (this will be the bottom of the bag). You now have a long rectangle when unfolded. At each end of the rectangle, fold the rough edge in toward the inside of the fabric and sew down with a sixteenth-inch seam, then fold it over once again (same direction) about a half-inch and sew it down, leaving a tunnel for a ribbon or cord drawstring. Then, starting at the bottom of the bag, sew the edges on each side. Turn it inside out, thread ribbon through the tunnel, insert gift, and give with a clean conscience.

Around the House

Now it's time to donate stuff you never use to the green holiday cause. Do you have a collection of old woven baskets hiding out on a closet shelf? The baskets make a quaint presentation, and you can simply crinkle a little tissue paper on top of the gift and tie a bit of ribbon on the handle. For small gifts, how about using the same technique on those chipped holiday mugs in the kitchen? For larger gifts, turn to reusable tote bags, like those used for grocery shopping, which can pack away new jeans, books, even computer accessories. Then the recipients will think of you every time they carry their groceries out of the supermarket.

For big gifts, like bicycles or CD racks, draft seasonal tablecloths or sheets into double duty. Simply drape the cloth over the present, and stick a bow on it. Or, if you don't have any colorful cloth handy, consider simply applying the bow to more unwieldy presents.

If your kids savor their rewards following a little effort, take some pointers from the annual Easter egg hunt. The whole family can get into the fun of a treasure hunt. Place the first clue under the breakfast cereal bowl, and hide successive clues throughout the house, each clue leading to the next and then finally to the "treasure." The family involvement is definitely in the spirit of the season.

Say It with a Gift

You can also minimize gift-wrap by minimizing the size of your gift. Gift certificates are a traditional standby for that hard-to-get relative, while savings bonds are still good choices for youth. If you want to give something more personal, pick up concert tickets for the teenybopper or game tickets for the sports fanatic.

Children, parents, and grandparents also find meaning in a gift of time. "My favorite gift was when I was twelve," says Lilienfeld. "We lived in New York, and my father took me and two friends to a Yankees game. Some of the gifts you remember the most are emotional things, the good times we spend with other people rather than inanimate objects. Memory is part of the gift."

How about a certificate good for a winter season's worth of snow shoveling? Or ten "chaffeur"-driven errands? Or three home-cooked dinners? If your folks live out-of-state, offer a weekend vacation with the family. Mom and dad might appreciate a few certificates good for baby-sitting sessions from the grandparents. These gifts save on paper, goods, and materials, and they make the most out of family relationships.

One of the best wrappings, though, is a gift itself. Hide a trowel and seed packets in a plant potter for the family gardener, place new earrings in a jewelry box for the ladies, or stuff new gloves and scarf into a warm hat for just about anybody.

A Green Holiday Season

Now that you have a few green wrapping ideas, you may need some extra supplies. Keep the cycle going by shopping antique stores, flea markets, and estate sells. Tablecloths and blankets are always big items, though you might have to search for holiday-themed material, ornamental boxes and bags can be had for a song, and old costume jewelry and other knick-knacks are available for decorating. You're reusing and reducing at the same time.

Of course, there's another way to go green. "The easiest technique for reducing gift wrap," says Lilienfeld, "is to reduce the number of gifts. There are diminishing returns with more gifts, and it becomes 'oh, another one.'" So when seasonal consumerism swirls madly around you at the shopping mall, pause to take a deep breath and think about the meaning of Christmas, the spirit of Kwanzaa, the history of Hanukkah. Then think about the unique personalities of those near and dear, and choose one or two gifts with special meaning, something they'll treasure long after the gift-wrap's turned to dust.