What to Do with All That Holiday Plastic

By guest blogger Beth Terry, author and green-living pioneer

A common question I get from readers of my blog at the end of the holiday season is what to do about plastic gifts, wrapping, and other holiday accoutrements from well-meaning friends and family.  For those of us working to reduce the amount of plastic we consume and the plastic waste we produce, the holidays can be challenging.

At this point, I’ve developed quite a few strategies to avoid acquiring a lot of holiday plastic in the first place. I let my friends and family know early on in my plastic-free experiment that I would appreciate gifts of experiences or donations to charities instead of “things,” which reduces the chances that they will get me presents made from or packaged in plastic. And if I order gifts for others, I’m very careful to request no plastic packaging in the box. I reuse gift bags, boxes, bows, and ribbons from gifts given to me at previous holidays.

Nevertheless, despite my best efforts, I sometimes still end up awash in unexpected plastic at the end of the holidays. Here are a few ideas for what to do with some of it:

1) Packing peanuts, bubble wrap, and air pillows. If you’re not going to reuse them yourself, you can donate these back to a local mailing store like Mailboxes, Etc. Visit the website of the Loose Fill Council to find a drop-off location for packing peanuts.  Whatever you do, do not put these kinds of packaging in your recycle bin. They will not get recycled, but will cause problems for sorting equipment. Or, if you’re really feeling motivated, summon your inner activist and mail packaging back to companies, along with a note asking them to switch to a more sustainable material.

2) Plastic gift wrap, ribbons, and bows. Save these to wrap gifts in the future or for art projects. If you have too much of this stuff already, donate them to a creative reuse center or local school or community group for art projects. Check out the ReUse Alliance website to find reuse centers that will accept donations. Once again, these things cannot go into your regular recycle bin.

3) Plastic toys, dishes, and other kids’ items. Many plastics contain toxic chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol A that can be transmitted to your child. But what to do with plastic gifts can be a tricky issue. We don’t want to offend the gift-giver or appear ungrateful, but at the same time, we want to keep children safe. My first suggestion, if you don’t want your children to have these things, is to try to return them to the store where they were bought. If the giver has included a gift receipt, this shouldn’t be a problem. If not, you may still be able to exchange them for a different item. Many stores relax their exchange policies for a period after the holidays.

If the store will not accept the item for return, then the question of regifting or donating comes into play.  Some people feel okay donating these items to a secondhand store, reasoning that it’s better for someone to buy these items secondhand than to create demand for them by buying them new. But other people don’t feel comfortable donating an item that they feel is too toxic for their own child. In the case of PVC (polyvinyl chloride), one of the most toxic plastics, the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice actually recommends either asking the manufacturer to take it back or disposing of it at a hazardous waste facility! Learn more about what items contain toxic PVC and what you can do to avoid it at http://chej.org/campaigns/pvc/.

4) Plastic Christmas trees and lights. As with toys and other consumer goods, Christmas trees and strings of lights can also contain PVC, and one of the chemicals often used to stabilize PVC is lead. Lead in trees can be released in the form of dust as the tree breaks down over time. Now that the holidays are over, it may be a good time to rethink the kind of tree and lights you use next year. Contact the manufacturer to find out if your tree and lights contain lead. If so, do not allow children to handle them. Pack them up for the hazardous waste facility. And check out the Soft Landing guide to childproofing for the holidays for good info on lead-free trees and lights for next year.

What other suggestions do you have for what to do with holiday plastic after the holidays are over? And what do you do to reduce the amount you end up with in the first place?


Beth Terry is the author of the blog MyPlasticFreeLife and the best-selling book Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too (Skyhorse, 2012). A founding member of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Terry gives presentations on living plastic free and why, despite what some critics assert, our personal changes do make a difference. She spearheaded the successful Take Back the Filter recycling campaign in 2008, and her life and work have been profiled in Susan Freinkel’s book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, Captain Charles Moore’s Plastic Ocean, and the award-winning film Bag It. She lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and two rascally kitties.



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2 Responses to What to Do with All That Holiday Plastic

  1. Irma January 3, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

    Thank you Beth. These are terrific tips and easy to put into practice. I’ve often wondered what to do with those packing peanuts.

  2. Hannah January 9, 2013 at 11:11 am #

    Great post! I like to live as plastic free as I can too, and I never even thought about the PVC in our fake tree! Going to have to check that out!

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