Maybe Santa should look into a biofuel-powered sleigh. The wrapping paper and packaging left over from his yearly visits could be fermented into enough biofuel to take him around the planet hundreds of times.

Imperial College London researchers, Richard Murphy and Lei Wang, calculated that the estimated 1.5 billion cards and 83 square kilometers (20,500 acres) of wrapping paper thrown away by UK residents during the Christmas season could create 5-12 million liters (1.3-3.2 million gallons) of ethanol biofuel.

With that much fuel, one of London’s iconic double-decker buses could travel 18 million kilometers (11 million miles), said the researchers in a press release. That’s enough to circle the Earth nearly 450 times, or take 23 round-trips to the Moon.

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“If one card is assumed to weigh 20g and one square meter of wrapping paper is 10g, then around 38,300 tonnes [42,219 tons] of extra paper waste will be generated at Christmas time,” said Murphy in a press release. “Our research shows that it would be feasible to build waste paper-to-biofuel processing plants that give energy back as transport fuel.”

The researchers fermented a variety of paper and cardboard products to assess the packaging-to-petrol plan’s feasibility. Their results were published in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Energy and Environmental Science.

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“The fermentation process could even cope with festive paper and card which has been ‘contaminated’ with the likes of glitter and sellotape,” said Wang in a press release.

“The cellulose molecules in sellotape would be broken down into glucose sugars and then fermented into ethanol fuel, just like the paper itself. Insoluble items like glitter are easy to filter out as part of the process,” Wang explained.

Paper fed ethanol production isn’t limited the the holiday season. A few months ago, Discovery News looked at research that turned old news into new fuel by fermenting the New Orleans Times Picayune into butanol, a combustible hydrocarbon.

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Paper is largely made up of cellulose, the tough carbohydrate molecules that helps give trees stability. Cellulose can be broken down into simpler sugars by enzymes or bacteria, like those found in a termite’s gut, and then fermented into ethanol.

“People should not stop recycling their discarded paper and Christmas cards because at the moment there is no better solution,” said Murphy.

“However, if this technology can be developed further, waste paper might ultimately provide a great, environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels. There’s more work to do to assess the effectiveness and benefits of the technology, but we think it has significant potential,” Murphy said.


A Christmas tree with gifts (Tim Wall)

An image of a wrapped gift (Blair Snow, Wikimedia Commons)