A trip down recycling lane – where does your Christmas wrapping paper go?


This year for Christmas I made my own wrapping paper, choosing 100% recycled brown paper which I then stamped with festive designs. But whilst I was doing this, I began to ponder about the supply chain of recycled paper, and how ‘green’ recycled paper really is.

I have always assumed that buying recycled paper is better than buying new, resource conservation, closing the loop, and all the jazz. But after doing a bit of reading up on recycling processes, the energy and resources required and (frankly rather worryingly) the people working in this global industry. Now I am not so sure.

 So as we merrily throw our Christmas wrapping paper scraps in the direction of the recycling bin with a sense of environmental responsibility should we think any further? Where does our paper go and what happens to it?

Well, I would like to take you on a little trip along the recycling chain…


1. Paper is collected from your curb and taken to the local recycling centre where it is baled, it may also be stored here too.

2. The bales are then taken to a sorting centre, where they are sorted on a conveyer belt into grades, usually paper is recycled into the same type of product e.g. old newspapers will used to make new newspapers.

3. The sorted paper is then cut into small pieces and mixed with water and chemicals which dissolve it, resulting in a pulp, this mixture may also be heated.

4. The pulp is then cleaned using water, chemicals and centrifugal force to separate non-fibrous impurities such as staples, these waste materials are then rejected.

5. Surfactant chemicals are used to remove ink particles from the pulp, which are then discarded.

6. The paper pulp is cleaned a final time in a stage known as ‘washing’, the resulting pulp may by bleached if a white colour is needed. The paper is then ready to be sent to paper mills and manufactured into new products.


So, by recycling paper we are consuming quite a bit of energy, lot’s of water (a valuable commodity on a global scale), chemicals and industrial machinery. Oh, and did I mention many of these steps may be undertaken at different recycling centres, in different countries, or even different continents? So add onto that a fair bit of fuel used in transportation. Phew.   

But, it gets more complicated. The ‘eco-friendliness’ of the recycling process is largely dependant on how the respective centres and plants are fuelled. From the best – carbon neutral mills or those using their own by products and renewable energy to generate power – to the worst, – the coal-burning plants of China and the like-. Many experts state that if paper is recycled using energy obtained from burning coal, the carbon footprint of the process is so high it is not worth doing.

So is recycling worth doing? Yes, but the industry could do with becoming a bit more efficient, I would love to see more low-carbon or carbon-neutral plants, mills and centres, and as always, recycling is great, but it is no substitute for reducing consumption in the first place.

If you have become somewhat disillusioned with the recycling industry, please see below for some great alternative AND carbon-neutral ways to recycle your paper (Christmas or otherwise):

  • Compost it
  • Stuff cushions, bean bags or beloved toys
  • Free bedding for your pets (this is certainly where all of my shredded paper goes)
  • Crafts – wrapping paper makes beautiful origami, bows and ribbons, paper mache, the list is endless
  • Or if you have a LOT of time on your hands you could make a sculpture like the amazing ones by Chris Gilmour (see picture at the top of the page).  


Thanks for reading,  



Written using information from The Guardian online.