Seeds: Reuse, recycle makes for rewarding holiday

Grandmother was right. Save those bows and bags.

Our frugal family grew up with a thrifty tradition that became as much a part of Christmas celebrations as the decorated tree or stockings hung on the fireplace. Every year, we carefully untied or un-taped trimmings from packages so they could be reused the following Christmas. Colorful gift bags always saw a second (or third or fourth) holiday. And wrapping? If the piece of paper was big enough, it could be salvaged for more (smaller) gifts to come.

This tradition became a holiday game for both children and adults. How many years could be tied up with the same bows and ribbons? How many Christmases could you stretch the same piece of distinctive wrapping? What gift would appear in that big blue glittered bag this time?

Saving paper and bows meant unwrapping presents slowly and deliberately – no insane rush of tearing paper and flinging box tops. Anticipation built with every little strip of tape that needed to be snipped.

As a kid, I thought this was a ridiculous waste of time; my friends’ families didn’t engage in such paper-saving rituals. As an adult, I now realize the message was about waste, and avoiding it whenever possible.

Half a century later, this tradition seems remarkably advanced. Grandmother was a recycler before it became cool.

Recycling puts regifting into a whole new light. This point hits home again with a glance at the numbers of how much Americans throw away each holiday season. According to the California Department of Resources Recovery and Recycling (CalRecycle), trash spikes up more than 25 percent every December. That adds up to 25 million tons of more garbage nationwide.

“The amount of garbage sent to the landfill increases dramatically each holiday season,” said Cedar Kehoe, spokesperson for Sacramento’s Regional Recycling Group, which represents several local city and county recycling programs. “We can change the holiday habit of tearing open presents and throwing away wrapping paper and cardboard.”

Think before you buy or wrap, added recycling expert Traci Goularte, who represents the Regional Recycling Group in Elk Grove.

“There are definitely a lot more products made from recycled materials,” Goularte said. “Just in the last year, we’ve noticed a big change compared to years before – particularly with toys.”

To illustrate her point, Goularte took a shopping trip to local Elk Grove stores. She came away with a cartload of inexpensive gift ideas, all made with recycled materials. Recycled glass candleholders and recycled stainless steel cooking tools came from Cost Plus. Pier 1 Imports offered baskets and photo frames made from old newspapers and magazines. Bed, Bath & Beyond featured more kitchen and bath wares made from recycled plastic.

San Francisco-based Green Toys makes a wide range of classic children’s toys, all from recycled plastic and environmentally friendly materials. Recycled plastic gets turned into blocks, cars, boats, planes, even toy dump trucks.

There’s plenty more plastic in the supply stream. We Americans waste a lot of bottles during the holidays – about 100 million plastic bottles will end up in California trash this holiday season. That’s enough plastic, if recycled, to make 48,000 sweaters, 220,000 square feet of carpeting and thousands of toys, says CalRecycle.

“When you go to a party, always ask your host, ‘Where’s the recycling bin?’ ” Goularte suggested. “If there isn’t one, start one. If it’s visible, people will use it.”

Reusing bows, bags, boxes and gift wrap can help cut down on that mountain of waste, said Goularte, who religiously saves such trimmings.

“My family kids me a lot,” she said. “I always reuse gift bags; they can last for years and you’re saving money, too.”

Try using a gift as wrapping for another gift, she added. “Cloth shopping bags make great gift bags, and it’s another gift that can cut down on waste.”

Or consider giving gifts that need little if any packaging such as tickets to a sporting event or concert. “Those are very e-friendly gifts,” Goularte said. “Take somebody to a River Cats or Kings game or to ‘The Nutcracker’ ballet. You’re staying local and not contributing to the waste stream.”

What about that waste? Let the kids get involved in finding new uses for what used to be discarded. For example, old Christmas cards can be recycled as gift tags. Or card designs can be cut out and, with a little ribbon, transformed into ornaments.

Most holiday trash can be recycled, Goularte noted. Greeting cards, gift boxes, wrapping paper, cardboard, advertising mail, catalogs, paper boxes, newspapers, computer paper, old calendars and other “clean” household paper can all go in the curbside bin. Remember to strip plastic from packaging and dispose of it separately. (Get more tips at

As for potential wrappings, avoid foil or mylar gift wrap; local recyclers can’t handle the shiny stuff. Stick to non-glittered paper. Ribbon and bows also aren’t recyclable; they’re better candidates for reuse.

Goularte’s 6-year-old son, Aaron, supervises their holiday recycling. They’ll have three bags set up Christmas morning: One bag for recyclables, one for non-recyclables and one for items that can be reused such as bows and bags.

“He’s my little recycling king,” she said. “He gets so mad when he sees a piece of trash on the ground. He just doesn’t understand why everybody doesn’t recycle, too.”

Grandmother would be proud.