Make gift bags you can compost in WNY

gift bag that is compostable
Red triangles create the background for a row of Christmas trees. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

Have you accumulated extra paper bags since the ban on plastic bags at stores went into effect in New York State?

I have. And I’ve done it on purpose.

The other day I stopped into a store and bought one small item. It wasn’t raining out; I could have easily carried the item to my car with no help from a bag. But when the cashier asked me if I wanted a bag for just a nickel, I asked, “Does it have handles?” It did! So I happily threw in five cents and took it home.

In my opinion, handles, especially string handles, take a paper bag from commonplace to upscale. I was thrilled to get a fancy bag for such a small price.

Cover up the writing on the bag and you’ve got a handmade gift tote that can be reused. And unlike plastic-coated gift bags, these paper bags can later be composted–if you do it right. Make sure you use paints and supplies that won’t contaminate your soil.

gift bag that can be composted
Make gift bags for any occasion. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko
side of bag that can be composted
Stores often put text on the sides of bags. A simple rectangle could cover up the writing, but this chevron is a bit more attractive. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Paints, pencils, crayons

Most bags from stores have writing on the front, back and sides that you’ll want to cover up. Unfortunately, the paints that will cover the writing best won’t be good for your soil.

Don’t use acrylic paint. It contains acrylic resin, a type of plastic, and isn’t biodegradable. In addition, some acrylic paints contain toxic ingredients such as cobalt, manganese, cadmium, chromium and lead.

If you have a bag with writing on it, use scrap paper to cover it up. See more below.

If you have a bag with no writing, you’re in luck. Supplies that you can use with kids should be safe for your soil, too. Try tempera paint, non-toxic markers, colored pencils and crayons.

You can use stencils or draw and write freehand.

Paper and glue

Paper works well to cover up the writing on the bags.

In the examples here, I used sheets of colored paper as well as colored envelopes from birthday cards I had received. To adhere the paper, I used white school glue.

These examples are very simple; you can be as creative as you want to be!

Here are some ideas:

  • Shapes: stars, birthday cake, dinosaurs.
  • Make paper snowflakes. (If your snowflakes don’t look right, it may be because snowflakes have six sides, not four. Look for directions online.)
  • Find interesting hole punches in craft stores.
  • Trace a shape from a stencil and cut it out by hand.
  • Glue on pressed flowers or dried leaves. I haven’t tried this. The flowers and leaves may get brittle and flake off, even if you cover them with a coat of glue. If you try using flowers or leaves, let us know how they work.

Don’t use these art supplies

  • Glitter. The glitter that you find in craft stores is made of plastic and isn’t biodegradable. However, biodegradable glitter may be on its way.
  • Some wrapping papers. Don’t use wrapping paper that is glossy; has a plastic, waxy or metallic coating, or is shockingly bright (officially known as Astro bright), according to an article on the site of the Orleans County Cornell Cooperative Extension.
  • UPDATE: Most greeting cards. I was able to connect with Jean Bonhotal, waste management specialist at Cornell Waste Management Institute. Most greeting cards use inks that are toxic, she said. Like the inks used in magazines, they that contain heavy metals, which are bad for your soil. Newspapers, on the other hand, use soy-based inks, which are fine for composting. Here’s a test: If you rub your finger on a newspaper, the soy-based ink rubs off. If you rub your finger on a greeting card, the ink won’t rub off the way soy-based inks do, so don’t use that card. One exception is if the card says “recyclable” or “compostable.” You can compost those.

See tips on composting wrapping paper here.

3 Comments on “Make gift bags you can compost in WNY

  1. UPDATE: Don’t compost greeting cards. I was able to connect with Jean Bonhotal, waste management specialist at Cornell Waste Management Institute. Most greeting cards use inks that are toxic, she said. Like the inks used in magazines, they that contain heavy metals, which are bad for your soil. Newspapers, on the other hand, use soy-based inks, which are fine for composting. Here’s a test: If you rub your finger on a newspaper, the soy-based ink rubs off. If you rub your finger on a greeting card, the ink won’t rub off the way soy-based inks do, so don’t use that card. One exception is if the card says “recyclable” or “compostable.” You can compost those.

  2. LOVE this idea! It’s clever, personal and fun to execute. You can not only recycle the bags but greeting cards, too (although my favorites always have glitter)! Added bonus: a 5 cent (or free) bag is cheaper than a purchased gift bag, even from the dollar store.

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