Sunday, December 15, 2013

Wrap session

Whew! After one marathon session yesterday, we have finally wrapped all our Christmas presents (except for a few late purchases that are still en route from But, of course, we wrapped them all the ecofrugal way, without actually buying any new wrapping paper for the purpose. After all, you can hardly get less ecofrugal than cutting down trees to process them into paper that's going to be used once, torn off, crumpled into a ball, stuffed into a garbage bag and sent straight to the landfill—and then paying anywhere from $2 to $10 a roll for it.

Although I like the idea of reusable fabric gift bags that can be used again every Christmas, I've never actually attempted to make any, since (a) my sewing skills are shaky, (b) most of the fabric in our scrap bin isn't very presentable, and (c) there's a good chance they wouldn't actually get reused (and might actually end up being swept up in all the chaos and bundled into a trash bag with the rest of the wrappings). So instead, we tend to reuse wrapping paper we've salvaged from previous Christmases. This means that while other families' gifts can be identified by the unique paper design that family has chosen for this year, ours tend to be a hodge-podge of prints from years past: Santa loading up the sleigh, snowmen holding up Christmas banners, little gold trees on a red background, etc.

The trouble is, we often have trouble saving enough wrapping paper each year to cover all the following year's gifts. Although I don't want to waste paper, I don't want our gifts to look shoddy, either, so I only reuse pieces that are still in good condition—and unfortunately, most of the paper from our Christmas presents is no longer in good condition by the time it's been wrapped and unwrapped. Although we always open our own presents carefully to save the paper if possible, we can only reuse it if the gifts we have to give the next year are smaller than the ones we opened—and since gifts given to small children tend to come in larger boxes than gifts given to adults, the presents we give are often bulkier than the ones we receive. Sometimes we try to grab large pieces from other people's presents before they go into the garbage, but even a very large piece of paper may yield surprisingly little usable material once you've cut off all the bits that are torn or written on. (We tend to wrap our own presents with an eye to future paper reuse, labeling them with little tags attached with tape that comes off cleanly, but since we're generally using paper that's already had one go-round, it still doesn't tend to survive intact.)

Over the years, we've tried several different approaches to deal with our perennial shortage of reused wrapping paper. For several years, we were able to manage quite nicely with the "free gifts" of wrapping paper we received from the National Wildlife Federation (all made from recycled fibers, of course). I really liked these, because the individual sheets were much easier to work with than big rolls, and they tended to have generic wintry designs that were suitable for both Christmas and Hanukkah. But after a while, they seemed to catch on that these annual freebies weren't actually persuading me to send them any money and stopped sending them. So since then, I've supplemented our cache of paper in a variety of ways, such as:
  • Picking up partially used rolls of wrapping paper at yard sales and on Freecycle. Although this isn't quite the same as reusing paper that's already had presents wrapped in it once, I figure it's still less wasteful than buying brand-new paper, since it's salvaging something that might otherwise be thrown out. One roll of light aqua paper with snowflakes on it, picked up for a buck at an estate sale two years ago, yielded enough material to wrap several of last year's presents, most of this year's Hanukkah gifts, and several Christmas presents that didn't fit into any of our salvaged pieces—and there's still a little bit of it left.
  • Alternative wrappings. Once you get past the idea of using only wrapping paper specifically designed for the purpose, there are actually a huge number of other possibilities. Some people recommend using the colorful Sunday comics as wrappings, but we don't actually get a newspaper at home (it's more ecofrugal to get our news online or on NPR). I do sometimes pick up copies of the Rutgers Daily Targum for the crossword, but it doesn't have colored comics, though it does come in handy for stuffing large packages to keep them from rattling. However, we do have a few sheets of plain butcher paper stashed away, and we also have lots of brown kraft paper left over from our brown-paper floor project, which can be handy for wrapping up extra-large items. (A colorful bow makes the plain paper look more festive.) I've also reused colored or printed paper bags from various stores, and pages from calendars and catalogues. (The gift catalogue from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has some particularly nice images, though the pages aren't large enough to wrap anything bigger than a CD.)
  • Franken-wrapping. Brian says this technique has long been popular in his family for using up all the extra bits of paper that get trimmed off or left over at the end of a roll. You just take a bunch of strips of different papers, and tape them together until you have a piece large enough for whatever you're wrapping. This is a particularly good technique for wrapping oddly shaped items, like this one we're giving to my second-youngest nephew, since they're going to look a bit lumpy and wrinkled anyway. (I won't disclose the contents here, but if you could see the package without its camouflage of miscellaneous wrappings, it would be obvious at a glance.)
All this makes wrapping our holiday presents a bit of an adventure. Each year, I have to sift through my stash of reused paper, trying to match each gift with a piece of paper the right size for it, and come up with an alternate method of wrapping it if I can't find one. It's definitely more complicated than just cutting a piece to size off a roll of paper. Sometimes I think it would be easier to emulate Andrew Tobias, my favorite personal-finance writer. He writes in his Only Financial Guide You'll Ever Need that he likes to wrap his gifts in regular newspaper pages (he favors the Wall Street Journal, which "makes a nice gray background") and then add a message to the recipient in colored marker. It wouldn't look as festive as our multicolored assortment of wrappings, but it would definitely be less work—and you would actually be able to tell at a glance which gifts were from us. And if the gifts looked too plain in their black-and-white wrappings, I could always top them with some colorful ribbon, which is a lot easier to save and reuse than paper.

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