When I was a girl, the measure of a successful Christmas morning was the number of garbage bags needed to clear away all the bows and boxes and paper hiding the toys under the tree.
These days, the opposite is true. I seek the lowest-impact way of presenting gifts, whether that's eliminating boxes altogether, picking paper that isn't coated with questionable substances or gifting something in a bag meant for reuse.
A growing number of consumer brands, retailers and designers are focused on making this quest easier — both as a way of reducing their negative impact on the environment and to save money. Some, including Amazon.com, are moving toward alternatives for getting products from point A to point B, while minimizing the amount of fuel it takes to transport them and the waste associated with keeping them safe from damage. Others, such as Green Toys, ship items using only 100 percent recyclable cardboard.
Not to be a Scrooge, but glitches remain: Some environmentally friendly packages are, perhaps, flimsier than they need to be to endure their journey through the existing postal and delivery system. (How many of you have received a box with a gaping hole because it started to self-destruct?)
Meanwhile, some compostable options are well intentioned, but may leave recipients wondering how to dispose of them properly. An example: When Dell began shipping some electronics in bamboo- and mushroom-based packaging materials, it worked with local municipalities to make certain that they could be composted or recycled. It also had to educate consumers about appropriate disposal. Still, Dell decided that effort was worth the investment, and several years later it continues to expand its horizons when it comes to organic and recyclable packaging options that can be sourced near manufacturing sites.
To what extent can you participate personally and professionally in the sustainable packaging movement? Here are five ideas.
1. Opt for companies that embrace Amazon's Frustration-Free Packaging program
Now five years old, the Amazon program's name downplays its significant environmental impact in favor of the idea that it makes things easier for consumers. But so far, it has eliminated about 58.9 million square feet of cardboard from the waste stream and reduced box sizes by about 14.5 million cubic feet, by working with companies to switch to smaller, recyclable cardboard.
More than 2,000 manufacturers are in the program, representing more than 200,000 products including Fisher-Price, Mattel, Unilever, Seventh Generation, Belkin and Logitech.
2. Buy from toy makers that make environmentally friendly operations a priority
Green Toys may be small, but it's gaining attention. The 14-person company has grown sales by 50 percent in the past 12 months, and it has scored significant retail partnerships with the likes of Amazon, Whole Foods, Pottery Barn, Barnes and Noble, Cost Plus Market and Nordstrom.
Much of Green Toys' draw, mind you, comes from its manufacturing approach. But unlike many other toymakers, the company has made packaging part of the lifecycle equation. Under the Nile, which uses unbleached cotton to make fabric toys, takes a similar approach: Its gift wrap takes the form of a handwoven basket made from palm tree leaves, accompanied by a growable seed card.
What of well-known toy makers, including Hasbro, Lego and Mattel?
In 2012, Hasbro began overhauling the packaging for some of its best-sellers. The Play-Doh can design, for example, was rethought to improve recycling rates and reduce the amount of paper used to produce it. Hasbro also has ditched polyvinyl chloride (PVD) from new packages, and hopes to cut it altogether by the end of 2013. Lego has gone with smaller packaging, a move that it anticipates will reduce its annual cardboard consumption by 4,000 tons. Like Hasbro, Mattel has made getting rid of non-recyclable wire twist ties a priority: So far, it has eliminated 90 percent of them, opting for materials such as paper strings. It also is working compostable residual cane sugar and recycled PET into its packaging supply chain.
Bottom line: As you shop, look carefully at how the company approaches its shipping and wrapping options.
3. Opt for reusable or recyclable gift wrap
You don't have to be a child to dream up fun ways of presenting a present. Instead of putting newspapers in a recycling pile right away, why not use them under the tree or in the stockings first? Have some scrap fabrics lying around? Tie them around smaller items.
If you don't have anything suitable lying around your apartment, office or home, here are three companies that tout a greener approach to wrapping:
• LivingEthos — The San Francisco-based companies sells sets of reusable fabric gift bags for pretty much every occasion. A three-bag set is priced at $28.
• Bobo Wrap — Drawing on Asian tradition, this company in Riverside, Conn., sells fabric scarves that can be used first for gifts and then as a fashion accessory. They start around $8 per scarf.
• WrapSacks — This company from Spokane, Wash., sells both fabric gift bags and batik fabric-covered cards. After you receive a card, you can replace the paper insert and reuse it. A mini bag starts at $4.99 and the cards cost around $5.99.
4. Help educate consumers about the need for reusable or recyclable packaging
Can that package insert or plastic bag be added to the recycling bin? The truth is, in many cases, people still need to ask, and that's a big problem when it comes to changing behavior.
The value of the How2Recycle labeling program, run by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), is that it offers tips and direction to help consumers understand which components are recyclable — and which aren't.
So far, about 20 consumer product companies participate in the initiative, including Kellogg's, Best Buy, General Mills, Microsoft, Seventh Generation and REI. By the end of 2013, at least 600 How2Recycle labels should be found on store shelves. SPC's long-term goal is for it to appear on the majority of consumer products packaging by the end of 2016.
"We designed the business model with a tiered structure to encourage participation by businesses of all sizes, and we look forward to working with a diverse group of forward-thinking companies and stakeholders as we enter the new phase," said Anne Bedarf, a senior manager with GreenBlue (the nonprofit that established the SPC).
5. Resolve to rethink your own company's approach to packaging
Of course, in order for a consumer product to be eligible for a How2Recycle label, it needs to be recyclable in the first place. Getting the design world to think about ways to change packaging shapes, or mine existing materials for reuse, is a priority for designer William McDonough.
"It's so immensely curious how stupid modern packaging is, and it's getting worse," McDonough, who has been at the forefront of Cradle2Cradle design, recently told GreenBiz Chairman and Executive Editor Joel Makover:
"It's really amazing. I mean, I see packaging awards being given to these pouches as more efficient containers of, say, a cereal or something. You look at an organic, gluten-free kale chip package and it's wrapped in seven plastics with undefined inks and metallized polymers. It doesn't have a recycling symbol on it because you could never recycle it. The package might even weigh more than the contents. And yet it's being put forward as a more efficient package. Isn't it astonishing that we would have that much focus on what's inside the package and so little focus on what's outside?"
What are some of the most innovative approaches worth emulation? Here are 3 suggestions for rebooting your approach:
• Think smaller — By changing the concentration of its laundry detergent, Method was about to make its obviously recyclable bottle much smaller than the competition. Another example has been the move away from the huge clamshell plastic packages that used to surround electronics products in favor of far smaller options.
• Offer refills — Although this idea has been slow to catch on, some big brands including Windex and Clorox offer ways to refill spray bottles from bigger containers.
• Grow your own — Dell continues to stand out as a leader in the quest to develop sustainable packaging materials that are strong enough to protect yet can be sourced with little negative environmental impact. So far, it is using mushrooms, bamboo and switchgrass. Another example of innovation is Coca-Cola's PlantBottle initiative, which strives to source at least part of the plastic in its bottles from molasses and sugar cane. Three companies leading the quest for plant-sourced packaging are Ecovative Design, Sealed Air (maker of Bubble Wrap) and StarchTech.
Photo of wrapping paper waste by Szekeres Szabolcs via Shutterstock