The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

January 4, 2013

What to Do with All That Holiday Plastic


For those of us working to reduce the amount of plastic we consume and the plastic waste we produce, the holidays can be challenging.  What do we do about plastic gifts and wrapping we might receive from well-meaning friends and family?

First, it’s important to have some strategies for avoiding 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.  (Here’s an example of a letter I sent to my family a few years ago.)  Those are the kinds of gifts I like to give as well.  But if I do 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 and can’t remember the last time I purchased gift wrap.

Nevertheless, despite my best efforts, I sometimes still end up with 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 EPS Industry Alliance 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 endocrine-disrupting 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 thrift store, reasoning that it’s better for someone to buy these items secondhand than to create demand for them by buying them new. But others may not be 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 (PDF). Learn more about what items contain toxic PVC and what you can do to avoid it at

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.

After writing this post, I was asked to participate in a discussion on Huffington Post Live on ways to declutter after the holidays.  Check out these other ways to simplify:

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?



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Arg! So…I have been collecting all of my cardboard boxes and packing materials for months, stacking them in my bedroom and even then they take up half the floor space. For months, they have been cramping my room and blocking my way, causing me to shift them back and forth to get around the room or to constantly have to restack them because they toppled over after I accidentally bumped into them. Then, today, I felt I had accumulated enough to make posting them on the free section of Craigslist worth someone’s drive. So post them I did, and, since,… Read more »


My family has a long tradition of using cloth bags made from Holiday fabric instead of wrapping paper. The drawstring is cloth or ribbon and “To/From” cards are punched from last years received Holiday cards. Added bonus…it makes gift wrapping a cinch for the men in the family :)


reuse them for next holiday, so you can safe your money to do so. if you can use them why not? Some ribbon still can be use and still many plastic item there could be something creative and more fun.


As far as wrapping gifts goes I have an end roll of newsprint from the local newspaper and I make my own wrapping paper by unrolling it in long sheets and stamping it using stamps that I make from styrofoam meat trays. I keep the stamp designs pretty simple, a star, a tree, a snowflake. It sounds a little neurotic now that I’ve typed it out and I’m looking at it in print but it’s kinda fun.

Beth Terry

It sounds fun and creative… not neurotic at all. :-)


Love the idea of letting people you know that you prefer gifts of experiences or donations to charities. Also like the idea of re-using and making the plastics into an art project!


I am a big crafter and save a lot of plastic packaging to run through my die cut machine and colorize for cards. I save bubble wrap to apply paints and inks to canvases and cards etc…Gives great texture. Ribbons are recycled as well. Save all old gift cards to apply paints and gesso to canvases and cards..They are great scrappers. Enjoyed your article tremendously.

Eve Stavros

Just when I thought I’d gotten the message out to family & friends…I get a giant box of gourmet international cookies, each in its own little plastic sac…sigh…nothing to do but take one for the team and eat them, I guess!

Beth, in #2 above, the link to the ReUse Alliance doesn’t work – takes me to a secure log-in window…

Beth Terry

Hi Eve. Thanks for letting me know about the link. I fixed it now. :-)

Eco novice

To avoid driving around with 3 little kids in tow, I often call stores ahead of time with the UPC code to make sure they will allow me to exchange the unwanted gift. I have found that most cheap plastic toys come from Target or Walmart, at least in my area (No. Cal.). Then I buy whatever I normally buy at Target (7th gen cleaners, etc.) and Pyrex or Ball canning jars at Walmart with the money I get from the return, since these places rarely carry things for kids I actually want. If I think my kid should get… Read more »

Eco novice

And for gifts I can’t return, I will donate them or give to a friend — If I give to a friend, I always tell them why I don’t want it. Most don’t share my qualms, but at least I’ve planted a little seed I figure, and saved them some money and reduced demand for plastic toys.

Beth Terry

I’m so glad I could provide you a space to come out of the regifting closet. LOL.


For packing peanuts, air pillows, and large cardboard boxes, another idea is to collect a bunch and then post a Craigslist or Freecycle ad for moving supplies. Every time I’ve moved I’ve been able to collect a lot of free and used supplies this way and then I pass them on to another person after we’ve unpacked!

Beth Terry

Great tip.

Valerie Teruel

The last couple of years I have been very specific about my holiday wish list for our extended family grab bag, I list ONE thing only, a donation to Heifer international on my behalf, so far this has worked out well. Eventually the whole family will come to realize that I don’t want or need anything for myself for Christmas, I’m fully content with what I have already. We give all the kids movie ticket gift cards, which luckily for us are still printed on paper. I have to admit that the rest of the Christmas experience fills me with… Read more »

Beth Terry

Hi Valerie. There are lots of organizations working on various aspects of the plastic problem… on things like toxic chemicals, plastic bag bans, styrofoam bans, and other things. I have a list of organizations in the resources section of this site. This list is by no means exhaustive.

Valerie Teruel

@Beth Terry
Thanks Beth, I will check them out.

Beth Terry

I have to keep them hidden because my cats will eat them up! How do you keep them from dissolving completely?

Donna S

We use a small piece sponge/cloth to dab them on. I have to keep them hidden or my kids create huge structures out of them! :)

Laurie E

I usually take all my styrafoam peanuts, bubble wrap, and packing materials to the local mailing store but I also recycle some of the bubble wrap as “poor man’s dual pane windows”. I live in an older house with single pane windows and you can feel the cold coming through the glass. Spray the window with plain water, position the bubblewrap to the window (bubble side towards the glass) cutting the bubblewrap pieces to fit the window. It will “stick” through contact with the water and will stay for months or years. It’s amazing! The windows let in light but… Read more »

Beth Terry

Sadly, we wouldn’t be able to do this because we live with a couple of furry black beasts that would rip it to shreds and then most likely try to eat it. One of them, ironically, loves to eat plastic.