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How to recycle seasonal waste

Tracey Smith

11th November, 2009

From unwanted gifts to wrapping paper, how much rubbish will you produce this Christmas? Here are some suggestions for minimising your festive footprint

Ah, ’tis the season for peace and goodwill to all men – and backaches for all bin men.  The Christmas crud will soon be upon us, and there will be more packaging, paper and scrunchy plastic in our homes than our heads can cope with and our rubbish collectors know what to
do with.

I’m not doing a ‘Bah, humbug’ here – on the contrary: I’m a trashy realist, and an optimist at that – I’m here to help you cut it right back.
Remember, one man’s iffy gift is another man’s treasure, and savvy shoppers can simply rewrap unwanted presents and give them to someone else.

If you can’t find anyone to offload them onto, be gracious: post the items on Freecycle and do somebody a good turn. You’ll find plenty of unopened bargains and untarnished hardback books at your local high-street charity shops. Pick an outlet with a cause close to your heart and do everyone a favour.

Virtually lovely gifts

If you really want to be clean of the wrapped present scene, make your intentions known to your friends and family. Tell them you’d rather have something like this instead:

■ A digital subscription for a great magazine (that’s how I get my Ecologist delivered!). It’s often cheaper than the paper version, you have a fantastic search facility at your fingertips and you’re not cluttering up the recipient’s house either – a win, win, win situation.

■ How about a ‘green experience break’, many of which are featured in the Lonely Planet Code Green: Experiences of a Lifetime book, or see ‘Green Places’ on the Alastair Sawday’s website for more ideas (

■ If you’re looking for something on a lower budget, book a rural craft course such as those offered at the Magdalen Project in Somerset.
There’s bread, sausage and cheese-making, even green woodworking, and its straw-bale building course might set your recipient up
to do their own eco-build. See

■ Or how about a nice slice of rainforest? Not literally, you understand. The lovely Ru Hartwell at Treefl ights will plant you a
beautiful gift that will outlive you and your recipient. See

If you simply cannot avoid going to a big store to buy your presents, then consider unwrapping your purchases at the point of sale. You are not legally obliged to take any packaging home and can leave erroneous
plastic, polystyrene, cellophane and cardboard for the retailer to responsibly dispose of. Leave the problem of packaging at their doorstep and don’t take it all home.

The landfill tax and other impositions might eventually make them rethink what they stock on their shelves.

Paper malarkey

As the recession deepens, rubbish becomes a resource. From this year, collect all the posh ribbons, bows and the really nice wrapping paper you receive with your presents, and stick it in a box to reuse next year. Dig out last year’s wrapping paper and cards and be sure to use them all up before you buy any more.

In Britain, we spend more money per head on greeting cards than anywhere else in the world – around £1.3 billion a year, according to Mintel. It’s the most successful greetings card industry in the world, and in 2006, 800 publishers knocked out more than 2.87 billion of them. Keynote’s market report claims we send an average of 55 per person per year.

Have your very own Blue Peter moment and make your own. Kids are not a prerequisite (though they can be very creative and might help you unlock your unhoned skills), but once you get going there will be no stopping you. Buy a pack of pre-creased plain cards from a local craft shop and get a little rubber stamp with something funky on it (I use a fat chick – don’t ask) and press it on to the back of your designs to give them a personalised touch.

Here are a few suggestions of things you could liberate from your bin in order to decorate cards and tags:

■ Pictures from magazines or catalogues
■ Tissue paper
■ Buttons and toggles
■ Sweet wrappers
■ Beads from broken necklaces and bracelets.
■ Interesting bits of paper and scraps of wool,
embroidery thread and material.

Take Mary Poppins’s advice and use some ‘brown paper packaging tied up with string’ to wrap it all up. It’s dead cheap and you can buy great rolls of the stuff. Add a matching design from your card to make it look swish.

Food for thought

And finally, don’t be a martyr providing all the munchies this year. If you’re having a bit of a do, make it a sustainable event. Ask your guests to bring along a contribution to the table that they have grown or sourced locally from a thoughtful producer, and if they feel so inclined, why not let them cook it too!

Get everyone involved in the preparation and celebration of the food. Make the kitchen the party central. Jamie Oliver has hit it right on the head with his ‘Pass it on’ campaign – have your guests swap their cooking tips and techniques with a glass of wine in hand and Wizzard playing in the background.

And if you do find yourself at the deli counter buying up every nibble known to man, go armed with your own set of sealable containers to put the food in and say ‘no’ to unnecessary plastic pots. They might be
taken aback, but they shouldn’t refuse you. If they do, change your shop.

Wrapping up

Christmas is a wonderful time, but the whole commercial element does get a bit much, particularly when the retailers start hanging out the tinsel in mid-October. What chance does a reforming consumer stand against that kind of onslaught?

There’s only one way and that’s head-on – with a positive attitude and with any luck, your new and improved approach to reducing your rubbish will last a lot longer than your New Year’s resolutions.

For more ideas on ways to reduce the amount of rubbish you produce, visit

This article first appeared in the Ecologist in Dec/Jan08


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