All Wrapped Up in the Environment : Ecology: Some offer gifts in secondhand trimmings, a reusable bag or box, or <i> au naturel</i> .


Richard Denison, the environmentalist most responsible for the demise of the polystyrene Big Mac burger box, is a self-professed “reuser of Christmas wrap.”

“Some members of my family buy this incredibly beautiful wrapping paper,” says Denison, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. “I open it carefully and use it again.”

Indeed, if Denison and some retailers have their way, this year’s best-wrapped gifts will arrive in secondhand trimmings, in a reusable bag or box, or au naturel .

Old road maps, newspapers, dinner napkins, colored magazine pages, scarves, or if a commercial look is absolutely required, unbleached, recycled-fiber wrapping paper printed with water-based ink--all are preferred holiday packaging materials, according to environmental groups and the growing ranks of green retailers.


“Actually, the only environmentally friendly thing to do is to do nothing at all,” says Luis Getter of the information center at Fred Segal for a Better Ecology, a 14-store mall in Santa Monica that specializes in merchandise pitched for its environmental qualities.

Yet, while environmentally conscious sales folk are recommending unwrapped holiday packages, to the hopelessly traditional they will sell as next-best a few commercially available trimmings.

At the Fred Segal mall, stores offer burlap and twine, reusable canvas tote bags, old-fashioned brown paper, an herb-infused recycled paper from Madagascar and, in a pinch, recycled-fiber gift wrap.

In fact, most gift-wrap companies have come out this year with lines of recycled paper and paper ribbons. Some manufacturers have also had their packaging designed either to act as its own gift wrap or, in the season’s most popular packaging term, to accommodate a “second use"--as in storing your old baseball cards in a shoe box.


This will probably prove popular because, even to the environmentally correct, wrapping gifts in old comics pages can have aesthetic drawbacks.

“I did the ‘no new wrapping’ thing last year, and it wasn’t pretty,” Hannah Holmes laments in the November/December issue of Garbage magazine. Holmes used grocery bags (“dull”), tissue paper from previous gifts (“wrinkled”) and cloth napkins (too “nubbly”).

“This year, I won’t start before making a trip to the farmer’s market or the woods to collect greenery, dried grasses and flowers, and other low-key finery,” she vows.

Many environmentalists object not only to the waste of discarding thousands of tons of paper and ribbon every year but also to deep-toned gift papers and trim printed with potentially toxic inks.


For instance, cadmium, a hazardous heavy metal, is still used extensively as a pigment in holiday wrapping paper, notes Dave Wood of the National Toxics Campaign Fund. Yet here too some big wrapping-paper manufacturers have made a change.

Some years ago, Wood says, the environmental group lobbied Cleo Inc.--the Memphis, Tenn., subsidiary of Gibson Greetings Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of Christmas gift wrap--to switch to safe, water-based inks. Cleo, the first to perfect the technology, has used such inks on all its products since 1986.

Cleo also this year came out with a line of wrap and ribbons--Cleo Earth Friendly--that includes recycled fiber. Rivals Hallmark Cards Inc. and American Greetings Corp. came out with lines as well.

Wrapping-paper manufacturers, understandably, do not see a future in the strictly no-wrap philosophy. Wrapping paper is an $800-million industry in the United States, with $500 million in sales coming during the Christmas season.


“We’re talking the personal sentiments market,” says Cleo spokeswoman Nena Feichter, “and where America probably goes more overboard on gift wrap and cards (than other countries), I think that’s probably part of what makes us special.”

And so we return to the idea of second use.

David Stern, marketing director for Maddocks & Co., a Los Angeles graphic design studio that specializes in packaging and marketing projects, favors tin containers, laminated paper boxes and other cartons constructed in ways that allow later use for storage.

Maddocks & Co. designed its first second-use project in 1985 for Speedo. A clear plastic container for swim goggles could be used as part of a retail display, but it was also built strongly enough to serve as a carrying case after sale.


“I think it’s inexcusable for a department store to sell you a shirt, put it in a box and then go have you gift-wrap it,” Stern says. “Why not just design a pretty box?”

Unfortunately, in the case of the Speedo carrying case, the pretty box proved too expensive for consumers. A Speedo spokesman admits that a few years after its introduction, the company returned to conventional packaging for the goggles, dropping the retail price. Sales improved.