On Saturday, our 4 year-old neighbour celebrated his birthday. I was my foster grandchild’s ‘plus one’.
It was a lovely affair—games, fun, frolic and yummy kiddy-eats.
And of course gifts of various sizes and shapes. What united them all was that they were beautifully wrapped in metres of gift paper—shiny, animal printed, cartoon printed, etc. etc.
And the birthday boy, as would any 4-year old, quickly ripped open the packages eager to see what was inside. And the sad pile of paper at his side grew and grew and grew.
Which got me wondering about the waste the practice of gift-wrapping produces.
I fully appreciate how beautiful wrapping adds to the allure and attraction of the gift. How a well-wrapped gift is elegance itself. In fact, countries like Italy and Japan have taken this to the level of a fine art, so that one would rather look at the gift and not open it at all!
Wikipedia informs us that ‘In Britain, it is estimated that 226,800 miles of wrapping paper is thrown away annually at Christmas. In Canada, 6 million rolls of tape are used and discarded yearly for gift wrapping at Christmas.’ There are no statistics that I could easily find for other countries, but of course, with the US being the largest consumer of wrapping paper, the waste there must be in multiples of these figures.
The global market for wrapping paper is estimated at about $ 17.3 billion and growing at a compounded rate of 7.4%. It makes up 2-3% of the world’s paper and paper board market. India and other countries with growing middle classes are expected to be high-growth markets for this product. It is estimated that total sales of gift paper in India will reach about $ 443 billion in 10 years.
I am not sure how much paper all this translates into, but surely sounds like a lot. And most of it is thrown out with the garbage the morning after.
We are assured by many industry sites that gift wrapping paper is sustainable, being made of recycled paper. But making recycled paper in beautiful colours and printing complex designs on them, embossing them, adding gold and silver touches—all of these take energy and release pollutants. And then they go straight into the dustbin. And let’s not forget the increasing trend of shiny, metallic and plastic wrapping paper which are surely not environmentally benign either in the production or disposal. Not to talk about the tape, ribbons, decorative flowers and bows that we put on the gifts.
As we worry about our climate goals and Sustainable Development Goals, this, to my mind, must find a place in our worrying. It’s not as big and visible as fashion and clothing to catch international attention and set off movements towards sector-sustainability. But it surely warrants some thought.
Environmentally conscious people do use alternatives, from unwrapping gifts carefully so as to reuse the paper, to getting creative and making beautiful wraps with newspapers or waste papers, to using bottles and jars for some items, to popping them into a reusable gift bags without wrapping them, to deploying reusable decorative boxes. The Japanese tradition of furoshiki stands out in this—it is the art of using reusable fabric to create beautiful gift wrapping.
But I think society itself has to change its attitude. If it continues to place more value on style than substance, the trend of increasingly fancy wrapping will continue upwards, as disposable incomes increase and societal norms of what is expected grow more and more elaborate.
It is quite the thing these days to say ‘No gifts please’ on invites. But that’s not always possible. No child wants a gift-less birthday party!* Maybe we could make a start by saying ‘No gift-wrapping please’?
* My friend Alka did try this once. She specified that kids should not bring gifts for her son’s birthday. Only to get a call from an anxious 10-year old, enquiring if no-gifts also meant no return-gifts! She assured him it did not, and the attendance at the party was 100%.