Originally Published on November 20, 2023. Last Updated on November 20, 2023.
The hustle and bustle of the holidays keeps us all busy, and by the end, we’re often left overloaded with unnecessary bits and baubles. The greeting cards and wreaths that were once festive are now just taking up space.
So, how do we dispose of these items responsibly? Not everything can be tossed in our curbside bins, so we’ve created a list of 20 common holiday items that can (and can’t) be recycled. We’ve also included the proper disposal methods or ideas for sustainable alternatives.
Traditional Recyclable Items
1. Paper Greeting Cards
If your mailbox was filled with heartwarming holiday wishes this year, you can put any plain paper cards and envelopes in your curbside bin. Laminated, foil, or glittery greeting cards should not be recycled.
2. Certain Kinds of Wrapping Paper
Regular wrapping paper can typically be recycled as long as it contains no non-paper additives. Laminated or dyed paper and paper containing metals, plastics, or glitter are not recyclable and should be put in the garbage can.
Try the “scrunch test” to see if your leftover wrapping paper is recyclable. Simply scrunch the paper into a ball. If it stays scrunched, it’s likely fine to recycle. If the paper unfurls when you let it go, keep it out of your curbside bin.
3. Plastic Bottles and Food Containers
Hats off to the generation that views margarine tubs and whipped topping containers as the perfect receptacles for leftovers. If you were sent home with tasty treats from a recent family gathering, you can recycle the plastic bottles and containers that held them. Clean out any remaining food bits before adding them to your bin—recycling centers don’t accept contaminated materials.
4. Baking Tins & Metal Cans
Did you host any holiday meals at your home this year? All those cans that held pumpkin puree, cranberries, and green beans can be recycled. The same is true for disposable pie tins and baking pans. (Just make sure to clean them first.)
5. Cardboard Boxes
Buy most of your holiday gifts online this year? You can recycle all the shipping boxes. Flattening and folding the boxes allows them to fit into your bin better, and it will save the hard-working individuals at your local recycling center valuable time.
Recycling centers won’t accept wet paper or cardboard, so don’t leave the contents of your curbside bin exposed to snow or rain. Either keep your bin covered or in your house until the day of pickup.
6. Paper Gift Boxes and Bags
Plain paper gift boxes and bags are recyclable. However, like wrapping paper and cards, any containing foil, plastic, dyes, or glitter are not.
Reuse these bags and boxes next year in your gift-giving. It will keep them out of landfills and save you money.
While these items don’t belong in curbside bins, there are alternative recycling methods for them.
7. Real Trees, Wreaths & Swags
Live trees, wreaths, and swags can be reused in many sustainable ways (just take off all lights and decor first):
- Give the foliage back to the Earth by composting or mulching it. Pine needles have lots of nutrients and can help aerate the soil, and woodchips will keep the underlying dirt moist during the cooler months.
- Use the branches for firewood and mix the ashes into your garden. Wood ash repels insects and contains beneficial nutrients like potassium that keep your plants healthy.
- Create a feeding area for fish by sinking live trees into the pond on your property.
- Start a bird habitat by placing your used pine tree in the backyard. Birds will flock to it for shelter in winter and nests in the spring.
Some cities offer live tree dropoff sites and curbside pickup for a limited time after the holiday season ends. Contact your local city department to learn the dates and locations.
8. Artificial Trees
Whether or not a faux tree can be recycled depends on what it’s made of. Many contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, which is tough for many facilities to process, but an online search can help you find centers near you that accept this rigid plastic. An alternative is to donate your artificial tree to a thrift shop—provided it’s still in good condition.
Single-use and rechargeable batteries contain valuable non-renewable materials that are easily recyclable and reusable. Your local solid waste district or municipality may collect single-use batteries for recycling or on household hazardous waste collection days—a quick call or online search will give you the answers you need.
10. Plastic Bags
Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic is thin and flexible, making it perfect for grocery and storage bags. However, LDPE can clog up the sorting equipment at recycling centers, which is why it can’t be recycled curbside. Some retail and grocery stores have dropoff bins for this kind of plastic, so take them there once you’ve collected a good amount of bags.
11. Plastic Gift Cards
If you’re the hard-to-shop-for family member who received presents in the form of gift cards this year, don’t toss them in your recycling bin once they’re empty. Most physical gift cards—as well as credit cards and hotel room keys—are made from PVC, which can’t be recycled curbside.
Some cities offer separate collection options, and there are companies that offer paid mail-in programs that accept these card types. Do an online search to see what’s available near you.
Did you know that POLYWOOD offers zero-waste digital gift cards?
12. Bubble Cushioning
Fun fact: BubbleWrap® is actually a brand name.
There are limited recycling options for this type of protective packaging because it’s made from LDPE plastic. Fortunately, just like the aforementioned grocery bags, many retail stores and grocers offer film and bag collection bins where you can deposit leftover LDPE.
Another option is to reuse this cushioned plastic to safely store delicate holiday decor when the season ends. Just don’t pop the bubbles—that’s where the protection is.
If you were gifted a lovely poinsettia in an equally beautiful ceramic pot, we have some good news and some not-so-great news: The plant is compostable, but the pot can’t be put in the recycling bin. Ceramic is fundamentally recyclable, but it’s extremely tough and resistant to high temperatures. This means it can’t be ground or melted down at standard recycling centers.
Some commercial recycling centers accept certain types of ceramics, and a quick online search will help you find one in your area. But why get rid of such a pretty pot? Reuse it as a home for a festive Christmas cactus, or donate the pot to charity so someone else has a chance to love it.
14. String Lights
Holiday string lights can be recycled—in fact, it’s highly encouraged because they contain reusable materials like glass, plastic, and copper. While the curbside method isn’t accepted, many cities and retailers offer seasonal dropoff or mail-in programs where you can send in your old strands of lights to be recycled.
If your lights are still in working condition, add some sparkle to someone else’s holiday season. Consider donating your old holiday lights to a church or thrift store.
15. Tissue Paper
As long as it contains no added dyes, plastic, glitter, or foil, tissue paper is technically recyclable. However, not all facilities accept this delicate material because they either have no profitable markets to sell to or they aren’t equipped to sort it.
But there’s a bright side: Plain tissue paper is compostable. Add it to your compost pile to absorb excess moisture from food waste, or go online to find an industrial compost facility that accepts donations.
The following items aren’t accepted at any recycling center.
1. Packing Peanuts & Polystyrene Packaging
The lightweight popcorn-like materials protecting your delicate shipments are made from expanded polystyrene (ESP) plastic. Since this type of ESP can’t be recondensed, most recycling centers won’t accept it.
2. Ribbons and Bows
The colorful ribbons and bows adorning gifts are pretty, but sadly, they’re not recyclable. The materials that make up these embellishments are often a plastic-paper mix that can’t be recycled. Plus, their small size can clog up the machinery at recycling facilities.
3. Tape and Sticky Gift Tags
Adhesives are not recyclable, so remove any tags and tape from wrapping paper, cardboard, and other items before putting them in your bin. There are eco-friendly alternatives, such as cellulose tape and kraft paper tags, which let you protect the planet while passing out presents.
4. To-Go Coffee Cups
‘Tis the season for festive coffee shop beverages. Those tasty treats are poured into cute and convenient to-go cups that allow you to be on your merry way. However, most of these cups contain a plastic or wax coating to prevent leaks, which cannot be recycled or composted.
A great alternative is to take a travel mug and ask a barista to fill it with your drink of choice. Many coffee shops will happily accommodate you, and they even sell refillable mugs and cups for this purpose.
5. Tinsel and Garland
So pretty, so sparkly, so unfortunate that plastic tinsel and garland can’t be recycled. Like ribbons and bows, these holiday decorations are made of materials that can’t be recycled. Plus, their long, thin shapes make them unsuitable for recycling center machinery. If you want the nostalgia these baubles bring to the holiday season, seek eco-friendly alternatives like paper chains and felt garlands.
What can you do with non-recyclable items?
You can put non-recyclable materials to good use in many ways:
- Cut used gift cards into guitar picks.
- Reuse ribbons and bows for crafts or to decorate future gifts.
- Donate packing peanuts to churches or shipping retailers.
- Put dyed or glittery tissue paper to good use protecting stored ornaments.
- Wrapping paper, garland, and tinsel are excellent craft materials.
How can we be eco-friendly during the holidays?
Here are some easy tips to help you be more eco-friendly during the holidays:
- Gift sustainably: Buy or make presents using upcycled materials, or consider gifting experiences in lieu of tangible items.
- Eat responsibly: Buy from local farmers when possible and avoid food waste by meal planning and composting.
- Shop local: Buying from small businesses in your area helps support the community and reduces your carbon footprint.
- Reduce waste: Try reusable gift bags or boxes and donate any unwanted decor once the holidays end.
- Reduce energy consumption: Turn off holiday lights and unplug electronics when they’re not in use.