The pros and cons of 4 sustainable packaging options for ecommerce

/ By Jacqui Ma

As we are a small company, we pride ourselves on our agility, however, there are some financial constraints that have meant that we often have to make choices that are the most cost efficient. 

As we have witnessed so much plastic waste and many of the consequences that have been in the press recently, July 2019 has marked a big change in our attitudes towards what we can actually do about it from a business perspective.

rubbish piles of plastic bags landfill
Top priorities

1) Cut down on using single-use plastics all together
2) Reuse plastics where possible
3) Recycle or compost plastics so they don't enter the natural system and kill turtles.

Cutting down use of plastics

When products are made in a factory, they are often packaged individually so they stay clean and dry whilst they are stored and shipped. At Goodordering we have decided to remove plastic packaging done at the factory, which is also sometimes called polybags. When you buy clothing online, it normally comes in polybags to keep the product pristine. 

Options for alternatives for mailer bags

* Compostable plastic mailer bags
* Biodegradable plastic mailer bags
* Recycled paper mailer bags
* 100% Recycled plastic mailer bags

COMPOSTABLE MAILER PACKAGING

Compostable mailer bags

We are in the process of testing a compostable alternative. The bag which we got from polybags.co.uk is compostable to the standard EN13432.  The bag is peel and seal which is necessary from a practical point of view. Due to the fact that it is thin, 20 microns thick, it is designed to disintegrate in industrial compost units in less than 90 days which is great. We have put this bag through the Royal Mail system and waiting for its return any day now. 

Pros:
* They can be composted domestically
* They are made from natural plant starch
* They are non-toxic
* There are strict standards in place - EN13432 or equivalent certifies that the material will decompose in an industrial/commercial composting facility within 12 weeks.

Cons:
* They are very thin and may rip in transit thereby exposing the contents
* As they are often translucent in colour in look, they may attract the attention of thieves who can see the contents
* If disposed of in the recycling bin, they can contaminate recycling rendering a whole batch of recycled products unuseable
* They need the right circumstances to decompose and currently in the UK, 90% of households do not have compost heaps and there are limited number of industrial compost facilities in the UK.

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Biodegradable plastic mailer bags

Biodegradable plastic bags are still better than regular plastic bags but they rely on the infrastructure to degrade to their best potential. Biodegradable bags are made from plant-based materials like corn and wheat starch rather than petroleum. However when it comes to this kind of plastic, there are certain conditions required for the bag to begin to biodegrade. For example they need a temperature of 50 degrees celsius to start to degrade and they need to be exposed to UV light, 

Pros:
* They will break down over time
* They are better than regular mailer bags
* They can replace the factory polybags and have a dual purpose
* Biodegradable plastic mailers are stronger than compostable mailers and therefore can be used multiple times before needing to be disposed of.

Cons:
* Still often contain microorganisms 
* May be toxic
* If the bag ends up in the waterways or ocean it will not degrade as often there is no UV light exposure.
* If they go to landfill they breakdown without oxygen and produce the very harmful gas methane.

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Rajapack recycled paper mailers 

Recycled paper mailer bags

All paper is compostable so even if its not recycled it will break down eventually. Whilst recycled paper is better for the environment than virgin paper, there is still a process it needs to go through to be recycled. 

Pros:
* Recycled paper has a nice tactile feel and feels more premium than any of the plastic/recycled plastic alternatives.
* They will break down over time
* Recyclable
* Production of recycling paper saves energy, water and landfill space compared with production of virgin paper
* Paper recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions

Cons:
* Paper mailer bags may not offer the best protection to the product
* Using paper mailers means we may need to use polybags as well for protection.
It takes toxic chemicals to recycle paper
* As paper is more fragile, it probably can only be used once in the postal process before it will tear/break and need to be recycled again, using more resources.
* The most expensive option

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Recycled plastic mailers

Recycled plastic mailer bags

All paper is compostable so even if it's not recycled it will break down eventually.

Pros:
* They are recycled
* Recycled plastic mailers are stronger than compostable mailers and therefore can be used multiple times before needing to be disposed of or recycled again.
* Infrastructure exists for recycling them, they can recycled over and over again
* Inexpensive

Cons:
* Does not breakdown or degrade over time
* The process of recycling plastic is harmful to the environment
* Unlike glass or metal, recycled plastics degrade and can get contaminated through the recycling process therefore cannot always be used for the same purposes second/third time round.
Still contains microorganisms which eventually get into our bodies through animals/waterways
* May be toxic
* Offers probably the lowest perceived sustainable credentials out of all four options presented.
* Recycled plastics are often sent overseas for recycling and its an expensive process that is not always fully transparent and varified.


Conclusions

We haven't decided yet which option we will go with and the likely result is that we will keep monitoring the developments on all the different options to keep on top of the latest technologies and infrastructure. For example, if lots of new industrial compost facilities open up OR there is a lot more press and awareness about compositing and we go compost crazy, then compostable bags will be the way forward. If new technologies appear for really efficient recycling, then recycled bags might be the way to go. The big lesson here is that every option has its pros and cons.

For now, the top options seem to be 1) compostable mailers and then 2) recycled paper mailers. We will road test both options, get customer feedback and decide from there which is the best route to take.

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 Other references:

A lot of research has gone into the process of improving our sustainable packaging so far, including reading the articles below (amongst many others). 

https://www.explainthatstuff.com/bioplastics.html

https://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/compostable-packaging-confusion

https://www.londonbiopackaging.com/2018/06/26/everything-you-want-to-know-about-sustainable-disposable-packaging-but-are-afraid-to-ask/

https://gardening.stackexchange.com/questions/8985/how-do-i-deal-with-compostable-bags

https://www.ecoandbeyond.co/articles/compostable-packaging/

https://www.protega-global.com/blog/which-is-more-eco-friendly...paper-or-biodegradable-plastic

https://www.businesswaste.co.uk/97-of-uk-households-dont-compost-britain-forgets-the-art-of-composting/#.XSXIIpNKiqD

We would love to hear from you, what are your topic priorities and concerns when it comes to sustainable packaging when dealing with ecommerce businesses? 



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