Oakland Tribune: Recycling Expert Advises, "Just Do the Best You Can, and Enjoy Your Holiday"

All that glitters isn’t recycling gold

Published by the Oakland Tribune Dec. 23, 2011.

By Angela Hill

It’s a mystery wrapped in cellophane, swaddled in Bubble Wrap, stuffed in a cardboard box and adorned with a festive metallic color-changing fiber-optic bow: What the holiday hoopla do you do with all the gift-wrap leftovers?

A lot of people have no clue, says Bruce Olszewski, director of the Center for Development of Recycling at San Jose State University.

“When I go to various relatives’ houses for gift-giving, I see some look at the wrapping in puzzlement, trying to figure out how to recycle it,” he says. “Some just grab and shove everything in garbage can. And then I panic when I see someone going to the fireplace with it all — a lot of wrapping papers have metals in them, and you don’t want to be inhaling that stuff.”

To be sure, most of us here in the eco-supportive Bay Area are confident about recycling tin cans and plastic bottles. But we rarely deal with sparkly ribbon curling around a package or plastic film embracing a plate of gingerbread men.

Not only is proper disposal a mystery, but holiday waste is a big problem. Some estimates put the additional waste generated by the holidays at nearly 25 million tons, in this country alone.

“We should encourage everyone to reuse things,” Olszewski says. “This is what our parents and grandparents used to do. And they got along just fine.”

It doesn’t have to be a burden. Make it easy, especially during the holidays. Put out a bag for recycling when you’re opening gifts. And make it fun. Have your kids check out recycling websites and tell you what to do.

And above all, Olszewski says, don’t stress about it.

“If you occasionally put something in the wrong bin, you’re not going to go to environmental hell. You don’t have to be perfect. Just do the best you can, and enjoy your holiday.”

So in the spirit of giving to the planet — or at least not giving it grief — we present you with some tips on what to do when you find yourself surrounded by a mountain range of festive refuse. Be advised, each city and county have different recycling requirements, so double check with waste collectors in your area.

Wrapping paper

Recyclable if it’s just paper. But if covered with sparkles or metallic foil designs, it’s a composite material and not easily recycled. In that case, put it in the trash, or save it and use it again next year as most thrifty moms usually suggest anyway.

Ribbons and bows

Non-recyclable. Reuse next year, or throw in the trash. “A big problem with ribbon is not just what it’s made of, but its actual physical structure — stringy stuff gets wrapped up in the recycling machinery and jams it,” says Rebecca Jewell, recycling program manager for Waste Management at the Davis Street Recycling Center in San Leandro.


Non-recyclable. Packaging tape or even Scotch tape clogs recycling equipment. Throw it in the trash. “Tape is just plastic with goop on it,” Olszewski says.

Christmas lights

Non-recyclable. They also wrap around machinery. Some cities have special drop-off sites for discarded strands. There’s currently a drop-off kiosk for lights at San Jose’s “Christmas in the Park” event, says Cecilia Rios, acting supervisor for the city’s Recycle Plus program.

Cardboard boxes

Recyclable. But even better, reuse them. Cardboard tubes and tissue paper should also be put in the recycle bin.

Bubble Wrap

Non-recyclable because it’s made of multiple plastics. Either reuse it, put it in the trash or check with packaging stores and delivery companies.

Some will accept clean Bubble Wrap, assuming you haven’t popped all the bubbles in a frenzy of furious festive popping.


People know this as Styrofoam, the brand name for those solid white chunks that hold electronic components and other things safely in place. Generally non-recyclable, but some cities will accept it. Otherwise, reuse or trash.

Packing peanuts

Non-recyclable. Reuse, trash or try to return to a packaging company. Whatever you do, bag it up so it doesn’t fly out during trash pickup. It can end up in storm drains and be ingested by wildlife.

Cellophane, plastic wrap

Reuse or trash, or take to the grocery store with your plastic bag recycling, Jewell says.

Hard plastic

“Clamshell” packaging, also known as the kind that’s impossible to get into without a blowtorch, usually recyclable, but varies per city.

Food waste

Many cities accept food scraps in the same bins for lawn clippings.

Some offer drop-off sites for excess cooking oil from deep frying.

Earth-Friendly ideas

In case you’re still wrapping gifts or planning ahead for next year, consider the immortal words of a certain mid-epiphany Grinch: Christmas “came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
While that’s truly an environmentalist’s dream, a naked gift isn’t very festive. So try some other ways of wrapping and presenting presents. Such kindness to nature might help your heart grow three sizes today. Here are some ideas from the Center for the Development of Recycling:
Try reusable baskets, tins, scarves, gift bags, boxes, fabric bags. Make the wrapping part of the gift. Use comics for kids’ gifts, the finance section of the newspaper for a wallet, or the Home & Garden section for a household item.
Decorate grocery bags or butcher paper with old cards, crayon drawings or rubber stamp prints.
Trim gifts with dried flowers, pine cones, cotton yarn, twine, shoelaces, hair ribbons, paper or fabric ribbons.
When shipping gifts, pack with air-popped popcorn, newspaper or scrap paper.
Use old greeting card cutouts for gift tags.
Save boxes to use year after year. Between holidays, you can use them to store ornaments or ribbon.
Mail old holiday cards to St. Jude’s Ranch for Children, Recycled Card Program, 100 St. Jude’s St., Boulder City, NV 89005. The kids earn money by creating new cards from the old.

recycling info

Santa Clara County: www.ReduceWaste.org
Alameda County: www.StopWaste.org
Contra Costa County: www.co.Contra-Costa.ca.us/depart/cd/recycle
State of California: www.CalRecycle.ca.gov
Electronic recycling: www.eRecycle.org
Center for the Development of Recycling: www.RecycleStuff.org, 800-533-8414

Metallic ribbon is non-recyclable and can clog recycling machinery. Throw in the trash or save for next year.
Metallic wrapping paper is a composite material and is not easily recycled. Throw in the trash or save for next year.
Bubble Wrap is non-recyclable because it’s made of multiple plastics. Reuse or take to local packaging store.

Fabric ribbon. Save it, iron and reuse next year.

An old road map, held with only three small pieces of tape, makes for eco-friendly wrapping, plus it can be thrown in the recycle bin.
Packing peanuts: non-recyclable. Reuse, trash or try to return to a packaging company.
Gift tags made from old Christmas cards
is a great way to recycle.

Flashing fiber-optic holiday bow with battery, attached with tape, is non-recyclable and should be disposed of or saved for next year.