How to recycle your Christmas

10 December 2020

Do you feel guilty about the huge amount of paper and card we get through over Christmas? Here are top tips for recycling the things we discard throughout the festive season, including packaging and unwanted gifts.



1. Recycling stamps

Think an old stamp is worthless? Think again. 

Send your used stamps to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), who will transform them into urgently-needed funds to help people with sight loss access the information, support and advice they need. They ask only that you leave at least half a centimetre of envelope around the stamp to prevent damage. Find out more on the RNIB website.

What is my stamp collection worth?

2. Recycling Christmas cards

If you’re a creative type you can upcycle old Christmas cards by turning them into new ones – and it makes a fun and easy craft project to do with your grandchildren.

Set aside a wintry afternoon, accompanied by carols and mince pies, and carefully cut around cheerful Christmas robins, twinkly cottages and the like, and glue them onto red or green card to make unique new cards.

Craft shops sell plain green or red folded cards with matching envelopes, and you can buy little foam sticky pads to raise the images and make them 3D. It makes the images more versatile, as you can layer images and mix genres.

If you’re planning on doing this with a grandchild and worried about a little one wielding a sharp pair of scissors, you could pre-cut the images - and even pre-apply the glue.

For a simpler version of this craft project, why not cut up old Christmas cards to make gift tags for next year’s presents? Simply leave enough room as a border when you cut around the snowman or reindeer to use a hole punch, then thread through some ribbon you've salvaged from unwrapped gifts - fancy tags, no money spent!

But if you just want to get rid of them, most can be recycled in your kerbside card waste recycling box. Christmas cards with glitter, bows, jewels and the like cannot be recycled unless the embellishment can be easily removed so would need to go into landfill. An musical cards you have should have batteries removed and recycled at your local supermarket (there is usually a box behind the counter for battery disposal, so ask at the customer service desk.)

Eco-friendly Christmas cards: To be more eco-friendly only buy simple cards without glitter, foil or embellishments as this means your recipient can easily recycle it. Look for the FSC label to make sure your cards are from a sustainable source, or buy cards made from recycled card and paper.

3. Recycling wrapping paper

When opening your presents - especially if they're large, box-shaped presents - you can peel the sellotape off carefully, and refold the wrapping paper to be used again. This trick won't work so well if you receive something soft, as the paper is more likely to be crumpled and crinkled, with haphazard sellotape adhesion - it's one thing reusing almost pristine wrapping paper, another thing if the paper used to wrap up a gift for a loved one is wrinkled and creased! 

Or if you balk at potentially giving someone their own wrapping paper back next year by accident, you cut cut the paper into strips to make paper chains - again, a lovely project to take on with a grandchild. Or perhaps try your hand at decoupage and make some gifts for next year - find out how to make a découpage tray

The Recycle Now website - www.recyclenow.com - advises checking your local authority’s website to see if it can accept wrapping paper. If it does, you can put it in the bags or boxes provided for kerbside collection, or take it to the recycling bank. 

However, they caution that some types of paper that contain non-paper additives such as gold and silver-coloured shapes, glitter or plastic can’t be recycled at all, and neither can wrapping paper with lots of sticky tape still attached to it.

Eco-friendly wrapping paper: Gift bags can be easily reused, especially if the pattern isn't a festive design and the bags can be used for birthdays. Alternatively reusable cloth giftwrap is becoming increasingly popular, and for a simple but effective look use simple brown paper tied with a pretty bow or string, as this is easily recycled or even compostable. Even many colourfully decorated wrapping papers are recyclable - look for varieties that are not coated in plastic, foil or glitter. Some brands, such as Paperchase, will clearly mark which papers can be recycled. 

4. Recycling your Christmas tree

Its twinkling branches graced your home for at least 12 nights, but once the festive period is over, along with the rich foods and Christmas jumpers, the tree has got to go. 

After Christmas, strip off the decorations from cut trees and take it to your local tip or garden centre collection point, where it will chipped up to make compost or mulch. 

Alternatively, check to see whether your council offers a tree collection service. Container-grown trees have a good chance of establishing in the garden, as long as they have not been kept inside for too long.

Of course, you could try and repot your container grown tree to a bigger container, and hope it will save you money next year too!

There are other ways to reuse your tree, such as using it to create wildlife habitats, using it on the fire and or donating to certain places - read our guide to recycling Christmas trees to find out more.

Eco-friendly Christmas trees: A locally grown sustainable real tree is going to be the best option for most people. Another option is to rent a potted tree from a nursery so it can be returned and reused after Christmas.

Find out how to buy the best real Christmas tree - and keep it healthy

5. Recycling Christmas boxes

It’s a truism that little children often like to play with the box more than the toy it once contained, but an empty cardboard box holds little allure for us less-playful adults. 

You might like to try covering a few that are still in good condition with some of the saved wrapping paper mentioned in tip 3, to create beautiful Christmas boxes for next year.

Alternatively, some local authorities will recycle your cardboard boxes for you.

You can even compost some card, which counts as brown waste in a compost heap, such as corrugated brown card. Wet it first to make it easier to break down, then tear into strips. Layer it in your compost heap with all your kitchen vegetable scraps and garden cuttings. Just make sure you don't compost plastic-coated or glossy card.

Eco-friendly cardboard: You might not have much choice when it comes to what packaging your online orders or gifts come in, but when you get a choice it's best to go for cardboard that isn't coated with any plastic, foil or gloss.

6. Sell, return or donate unwanted Christmas gifts

Approximately 1,450,000 items are thought to be listed on eBay between Christmas Day and the end of Boxing Day, and it isn't too much of a leap to assume that the majority of these listings are unwanted Christmas presents. 

Other websites like musicmagpie.co.uk, where CDs, DVDs and video games can be traded in, see record numbers of items posted on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Not everyone gets it right when gifting at Christmas; each year we are increasingly selling unwanted gifts rather than clog up drawers and cupboards, perhaps due to a proliferation of house buying and selling programmes that tell us to de-clutter, self-help books like Marie Kondo's Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up,  or simply because sites like eBay and musicmagpie have made it so much easier to do than ever before.

Where to sell online

Selling on eBay is hugely popular because it doesn’t require too much effort or cost. 

While there is a knack to selling successfully on eBay, it’s not rocket science. The more details you include, the more interest you will get from buyers. Adding good quality pictures will attract more people to bid. Search for the item you’re selling and get ideas for how to present it.

You should also check out eBay's safety centre if you’re new to the site. It contains a huge amount of information to help you sell safely.

To receive payments you will need to set up a Paypal account which is reasonably straightforward.

eBay will charge an “insertion fee” for listings, and a “final-value fee” of 10% of the sale price. 

Amazon Marketplace allows you to sell second-hand and new versions of an item already sold on its main site.

Musicmagpie will buy your CDs, DVDs and video games for cash. You have to sell a minimum of 10 items at a time.

Read our guide to making money from selling clutter for more information.

Your rights for returns

If you get a gift that you would like to exchange or get a refund on, rather than sell, you will need to know your rights. Although retailers aren't legally obliged to refund you on purchases that aren’t faulty, most do so as a gesture of goodwill.

Wherever you go, having a receipt to hand will make it much easier to get a refund or exchange, although some shops will also allow it without one.

Even if the item was bought in the sale, you can still get a refund. Your rights when purchasing sale goods are exactly that same as when purchasing anything else.

Many shops are more lenient after Christmas and will give you extra time in which to bring something back or exchange it. Always check the time limit allowed for returns as they vary considerably.

John Lewis has no set time limit for the return of unsuitable products, which is its policy all year round, although it requires a receipt or proof of purchase. Others will extend the dates to the end of January to give you time to return.

Some small shops may not be able to afford such goodwill gestures so get in touch to check their policy to avoid missing the cut off date.

If something was bought online there is only a standard seven-day cooling off period from when the item was purchased to get a refund. But check with the website to see if you can exchange it, if it’s something you really can’t live with.

Many online retailers will offer you something in return, but will typically expect you to pay for the return postage when you send the item back.

Read our guide to online shopping consumer rights.

Donating unwanted items

If you have lots of small gifts you don't really want and you aren't interested in making money from them you could donate them to charity shops or food banks.

Food banks need more than just food - cosmetics like shampoo, shower gels and make up would also be appreciated, and January and February are some of the months food banks are most in demand. With a recent rise in food bank use of 61% it's more important than ever to donate. Find your local food bank on the Trussel Trust website.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.