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According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American uses two pounds of wrapping paper a year. Photo: 5ko at Wikimedia Commons
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American uses two pounds of wrapping paper a year. Photo: 5ko at Wikimedia Commons

Reducing gift wrap waste

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There may be nothing prettier than beautifully wrapped gifts under the Christmas tree. But some environmentalists say the cost of that beauty is too high - and they want people to stop wasting so much paper on gift-wrapping. Julie Grant has more.

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Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

Transcript: Julie Grant, December 21, 2009

Americans produce 6 million extra tons of waste between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

All that trash is enough to make Bob Lilienfeld cringe. He runs what’s called The Use Less Stuff Report. Lilienfeld says, one way people can reduce all the holiday waste is to stop wrapping presents.

“When you think about, wrapping paper is one of the most disposable items we have. It doesn’t provide any real functional value. And it’s used for basically a minute. And then it’s torn off and thrown away. So, from the environmental perspective, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Based on the last available data by the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American uses two pounds of wrapping paper a year. Lilienfeld says about half of that is used during the holiday season.

“If you cut that in half, down to a pound, that would save, what are there, about 300-million people in the country? We’re talking 300 million pounds. That’s a lot of paper.”

But it’s so pretty. And some people say that paper does serve a good purpose. Besides being pretty, it also helps to hide the gift.

Lizzie Post is the great, great-granddaughter of Emily Post – famous for her etiquette advice. Post says a wrapped gift is part of holiday decorum.

“You don’t want to just plunk down a box, straight from the store, and say, ‘here you go.’ That sort of has a lackluster feel to it.”

And it’s a tradition. Gift wrapping has been around for a long time - maybe as far back as 105 A.D. and the invention of paper. They started selling mass produced wrapping paper in the U.S. somewhere around1920.

Post says it looks nice, it shows care, and it’s fun.

“I think we’ve gotten used to the idea of unwrapping something or unfolding it and having that element of surprise there. And I think we wouldn’t want to lose that. That’s a nice tradition that we’ve all gotten used to.”

But Post says there are lots of creative ways to wrap gifts that aren’t wasteful. She suggests using cloth, reusing wrapping paper, or buying gift wrap made from recycled paper.

And after talking with a few shoppers, you can see how tough it would be to get people to stop wrapping gifts altogether. Here’s what a few had to say.

Shopper 1: “It would be hard for me to imagine that we would get to a point that we would say, ‘gee it’s pretty wasteful, so we won’t wrap any presents this year.’ I doubt that that would cross our minds.”

Shopper 2: “Why are they telling me to ruin a Christmas tradition? I mean, as if I didn’t already feel guilty enough about the mass consumerism that is Christmas. Now I’m being told not to wrap gifts. No, I’m certain they’re right about the mass of waste it’s going to create.”

The environmentalists who want us to use less paper don’t want to ruin the holidays. Bob Lilienfeld just wants people to look around for new ways to make gifts surprising – without piling up the trash.

“Go down to your basement, open your closets, go up to your attic and look at the paper that you already have on hand. And odds are you already have enough wrapping paper to make it through.”

At least for this year. At his house, Lilienfeld says he’s buying concert tickets for his teenagers, so they don’t need wrapping. And he’s hiding the gifts for his 3-year old – a scavenger hunt can be so much fun!

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

Copyright © 2009. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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