Of the 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated in the United States in 2018, almost a quarter was paper and paperboard, making it one of the largest components in our trash cans. Around the holidays, the colorful wrapping paper, decorative cards, and numerous boxes people use at Christmas contribute to the problem.
In the US, for example, an estimated 4.6 million pounds of wrapping paper is thrown away every year. Additionally, there are about a billion Christmas cards that get thrown in the trash, with the total wasted cardboard during this season estimated to be more than 330,000 tons.
In response, some companies are working on creative ideas to help cut back Christmas packaging waste through reuse and upcycling, and below you can find ways to upcycle your own packaging and Christmas card waste into something useful!
Paper waste is on the decline (for now)
While the Environmental Protection Agency reported paper and paperboard as the largest percentage of all the materials in MSW in 2018, this actually marked a decrease since 2000—from 87.7 million tons to 67.4 million tons. This is partly attributed to the decline in print publication during this era, as well as the digitization of other paper-heavy activities, such as office work and business mail.
This downward trend isn’t as steep as it could be with people increasingly shopping online which requires many more boxes and packaging materials to ship individual goods. Back in 2018, it was estimated that around 165 billion packages were shipped in the US each year—a number which is likely to have increased in the wake of the pandemic with e-commerce sales up 32.4% this year alone.
Why is Christmas paper waste a problem?
The cardboard used for the packages shipped in the US in one year was estimated to require more than 1 billion trees. While not an exact figure, this is a stark insight into why all this packaging might be a bad idea.
Deforestation, even done “sustainably,” has a profound environmental impact, reducing the planet’s ability to deal with rising CO2 levels. Moreover, the process to create paper materials also produces pollutants which can cause “severe harm to the aquatic life [and] disturb the food chain.” This is in addition to the energy consumed and greenhouse gases created from the production of paper materials.
It isn’t just the production that has a severe impact, but also the product’s end-of-life. If cardboard isn’t reused or recycled, it can end up in a landfill, taking up valuable space and breaking down to produce more harmful pollutants. That said, cardboard is one of the easiest materials to recycle both at home and within businesses, provided they are properly equipped to deal with it. In fact, 92% of all cardboard boxes used in the US last year were recycled.
Unfortunately, things aren’t always that simple during the holiday season. Christmas wrapping paper waste, for example, is especially problematic since it is very often not just paper. Any glitter, bows, stickers, tape, etc., on the paper mean that it’s going straight to landfill. That said, if packaging can’t go into recycling systems, there are some more creative ways to reuse it.
Some innovative ways companies are tackling Christmas waste
Recently, companies are actively looking at how this Christmas paper waste, and packaging waste as a whole, can be reduced. Some are looking towards zero waste alternatives such as no packaging or reusable bags, while others are creating ways to reuse paper and cardboard packaging once it reaches the end of its original purpose.
Christmas packaging waste can’t be discussed without looking at Amazon, which is estimated to have shipped about 5 billion items worldwide through Prime in 2018 alone. During this same year, Amazon announced the use of “SmileCodes,” which users could scan in order to access arts and crafts projects for their boxes. It’s a well-known phenomenon that children would often rather play with cardboard boxes rather than the toys they contain, so this innovative way to cut back on cardboard waste could make gift giving even more exciting!
In a similar move, Samsung announced this year that its Lifestyle TVs will now come in what they have dubbed “eco-packaging.” What this means is that the packaging, made from corrugated cardboard, has a design printed on it that guides the cutting and folding required to make various useful household objects. To keep people on track, the TVs also include an assembly guide for the cardboard creations. The furnishings currently on offer include a magazine rack and, for cat-lovers everywhere, a palatial cat house that means even your furry friends have something to look forward to on Christmas morning.
Target is a major retailer that over the past several years has entered the online sphere through an increase in its e-commerce offerings. As part of this, back in 2018, they started printing boxes with designs such as a van, house, and as tongue in cheek, a box.
This approach didn’t require customers to actually change the box in any way, but in the hands of children, the packaging is used and reused while still being able to be recycled.
Getting creative with your Christmas packaging waste
There is a good chance that you will be receiving at least one cardboard box over the next few weeks. To help extend its use beyond the unwrapping, here are a few simple ideas for cardboard crafts.
Boring box to holiday treat
Using your box as a box might not be the most creative of projects, but it is worth noting that reuse is always better than recycling. Jazz up the cardboard you receive from online stores with some holiday drawings and use these to send your presents to friends and family. For those looking for a little more involvement in the process, you can also turn old cards into small gift boxes using origami techniques.
Rope wrapping cardboard boxes
For longer-term use of your upcycled boxes, consider rope wrapping them. This can be done in a number of ways depending on the look you’re going for, but the basic premise is having rope (or string, depending on the size) on the outside and material lining on the inside. If done well, these can look fantastic and only require a cardboard box, rope, glue scissors, and fabric (like an old piece of clothing).
Make a Ukulele from your Christmas card waste
Thinking a little more… outside the box? This project is ideal for children and takes upcycling cardboard waste to a whole other level. The plans and step-by-step instructions are available on Make It & Love It, and these recycled instruments only require cardboard and office supplies.
There are so many possibilities for reducing your holiday packaging waste and any number of creative ways to upcycle packaging this season. To learn more about creative ways to achieve sustainable waste management, subscribe to our blog, or speak with our TRUE Waste Advisors for insights into how to implement sustainable waste management practices in your business.