Is Wrapping Paper Worth It?

The story of wrapping paper starts in the forest and ends in the dump, guzzling water and energy along the way.

Photo by Erin Flegg

Consumers spent US$15 billion on wrapping products worldwide in 2018.

From the rolls of paper bursting off shelves at every other store, to colourful boxes under Christmas trees in homes, hotels, and malls, wrapping paper is everywhere during the holiday season. And with good reason: research shows wrapped presents make people happy, and they prefer them to unwrapped ones. In fact, people around the world enjoy decorating gifts so much, in 2018 they spent US$15 billion on wrapping products like paper, decorative boxes, and ribbons.

Unfortunately, the story of how wrapping paper finds its way around our presents is decidedly less sparkly, cheerful, and shiny than the gift wrap itself. Think damaged forests, chlorine pollution, and a whole lot of trash.

It starts in the forest

The story of wrapping paper begins on a paper plantation or in a forest, where trees are often harvested with unsustainable practices, says Joshua Martin, director of the Environmental Paper Network (EPN), an international coalition of more than 140 conservation organizations. “Those [practices] could include not leaving enough buffer next to streams, not doing proper surveys and protection for threatened and endangered species, cutting down steep slopes, or very large clear cuts.”

The environmental footprint of the trees used to make a particular wrapping paper depends on where they’re logged, adds Martin. It’s difficult to find information on the origin of trees specifically used to make wrapping paper, but the environmental cost of forestry is well documented. In Canada, logging of the boreal forest threatens mountain caribou. Paper from China, meanwhile, is “highly likely” to be made of tree fibre from Indonesia, according to Martin. There, the paper industry is responsible for clearing significant tracts of rainforest that stores billions of tonnes of carbon, and is home to critically endangered animals like Sumatran tigers and orangutans. In other cases, forestry has been linked to child labour and violations of the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Wrapping paper is more likely to be made from virgin fibre, because it’s easier to turn into colourful, glossy sheets.

That doesn’t mean all wrapping paper destroys forests or violates human rights. You can look out for options made from sustainably managed forests, like those certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which sets standards for forestry that’s socially and environmentally responsible. The FSC currently certifies 8% of world wood production.

“We look at the people that are living in and around the forest,” explains Monika Patel, director of programs and communications at FSC Canada. “We look at, of course, the trees that are in the forest. The animals themselves. Then we look at those working in the forest as well.” While the system isn’t without challenges — it’s been linked to the greenwashing of illegal timber — FSC is widely recognized by environmental advocates as the best certification currently available.

You can also purchase wrapping paper made of recycled fibre, which has half the climate impact of virgin paper. However, wrapping paper is more likely to be made from virgin fibre, according to paper expert Rune Leithe, because it’s easier to turn into high-quality colourful, glossy sheets.

The path from pulp to paper

After a tree is chopped down, its trunk is often used for lumber, while smaller pieces like branches are used for paper, and bark is used to power the mill. Though mills differ in their exact processes, most paper is made in a similar way. To start, the wood is broken into chips, which are thrown into a boiler with chemicals. The boiler breaks the chips down into pulp and gets rid of the lignin that holds tree fibres together, explains Leithe, who consults for NGOs like the EPN, Greenpeace, and the World Wildlife Fund. Some of the chemicals used in this process pose risks for human health. For example, nitrogen hydroxide may be released into the air as a foul-smelling gas that can cause respiratory problems.

After the yellow-brown pulp is boiled, it’s rinsed to remove chemicals and typically bleached (unbleached paper is brown and requires less energy to produce). At this stage, chlorine, which is widely used to bleach paper, combines with the lignin remaining in the pulp to produce cancer-causing compounds that can be released into the environment with wastewater from the mill. Some mills do employ chlorine-free bleaching technologies to produce virgin paper labelled TCF (totally chlorine free), or recycled paper labelled PCF (processed chlorine free), that are significantly better for the environment and human health.

After the pulp is bleached, it is rinsed again, dried and formed into sheets. When the pulp sheets get to the paper mill, they’re dissolved in water and mixed with additives. The chemicals used differ by mill, but the pulp and paper industry draws on thousands to facilitate production and give paper various qualities — like making it stronger or smoother. After the pulp is dissolved, the mixture is pumped onto a belt made of mesh that directs the fibres in one direction, forming the “grain” of the paper. A roller helps to flatten the pulpy mix into sheets.

The production of a typical A4 sheet of paper requires between 4 and 19 litres of water.

On the next belt, high-pressure rollers further compress the sheets, and a layer of felt wicks away moisture. At this point, more additives may be introduced to give the paper a certain consistency, like kaolin clay, which makes paper glossy. Then, the wet sheets are dried by heated rollers. The dry paper then moves through a final set of rollers that smooth it out by applying pressure from both sides.

The whole process is water-, energy-, and chemical-intensive. While Asparagus was unable to find data specific to wrapping paper, the pulp and paper manufacturing industry as a whole accounts for 4% of global energy use, making it the world’s fifth largest consumer of energy. It’s also water hungry: the production of a typical A4 sheet of paper requires between 4 and 19 litres of water, according to a 2010 paper by the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education.

Pulp and paper mills also release pollutants into air and waterways, according to the State of the Global Paper Industry 2018 report published by the EPN. “The chemically intensive nature of the paper pulping and bleaching process is far from clean. The toxic chemicals used often end up being discharged as effluent into waterways where they pollute rivers, harm ecosystems, bio-accumulate and eventually enter the food chain,”the report says.

However, the environmental impact of paper production varies based on mills’ technology, says Leithe, who contributed to the State of the Global Paper Industry report. Newer mills tend to be more resource efficient. Generally speaking, North America’s aging mills lag behind those in South America and Europe.

Treasure becomes trash

After the paper is made, it’s typically delivered to a printing company on large rolls. Then, it’s passed through an industrial printer that lays on colourful designs. Other decorative details like glitter may also be added at this stage. Once the paper is printed, it’s cut to size and packaged for distribution to stores.

Ultimately, a lot of wrapping paper winds up in the landfill. And that’s not necessarily because people don’t put it in the recycling bin (though that can be a problem, too). It’s because a lot of wrapping paper is made with things that aren’t recyclable–like glitter and metallic finishings. While a number of metallic finishings are theoretically recyclable, many municipal systems won’t accept them.

Even when it is recyclable, wrapping paper is often so thin and inky that it’s not worth as much to recyclers as other types of paper.

As for the stuff that is recyclable, it’s often so thin and inky that it’s not worth as much to recyclers as other types of paper, and requires more chemicals to process. Unless you reuse it, the story of wrapping paper can quickly go from tree to trash. Unfortunately, when organic matter like paper ends up in the landfill, it releases methane — a greenhouse gas that warms the planet 86 times as much as carbon dioxide — as it breaks down.

But that story isn’t set in stone. Other common wrapping products, like gift bags and tissue, are more easily reused. In addition, some companies are making gift packaging out of raw materials that are more sustainable than trees, like banana fibres, wood shavings, and cotton scraps. The internet is also chock full of ideas for sustainable wrapping alternatives, from repurposing old maps to bundling presents in reusable cloths.

Wrapping paper as we know it wasn’t a thing until 1917, when a stationery store in Kansas City ran out of tissue paper for wrapping gifts. The Hall brothers, who ran the shop (and founded Hallmark), put out colourful papers from France that were intended for lining envelopes instead. The sheets quickly sold out, and “modern” wrapping paper was born. A century later, the time is ripe for another gift-wrap revolution.

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