the ultimate guide to sustainable packaging.
before we get into ecopackaging, let’s start with polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) – some of the reasons why we need ecopackaging.
poly mailers are normally made from PE, specifically low-density PE (LDPE). PE is the most common plastic, over 100 million tonnes of it are produced around the world every year. it can be made from renewable sources but almost all of it is derived from fossil fuels.
LDPE (and PP) can be recycled, but in the UK at least, individual small items like poly mailers are unlikely to be. most local authority kerbside collections and local recycling centres don’t accept thin plastic films due to problems separating them from other types of plastic. plastic bags can get tangled up in sorting machinery and the lightweight nature of LDPE and PP means that plastic bags often aren’t economical to recycle. some supermarkets offer in-store carrier bag recycling bins, and poly mailers and polybags should be disposed of in these if the stores allow.
polypropylene (PP) is the second most common plastic around. polybags used in the fashion industry are often made from PP, however sometimes they are also made from PE.
over 90 billion polybags are used in the fashion industry each year. just like PE, PP can be made from bio based sources, however most of it is not. thin PP films (like polybags) face similar recycling challenges to those faced by PE and are often not economical to recycle.
if an LDPE or PP bag isn’t recycled, it can take decades to hundreds of years to degrade. LDPE and PP films are also not infinitely recyclable like glass bottles or aluminium cans. you can only recycle them once or twice, and after that they can’t be recycled again, meaning, at best, a poly mailer is likely to be recycled into a bin liner (because recycled plastics are often contaminated by blended printing inks, recycled plastic products tend to be grey or black) before eventually going to landfill.
cardboard is a great packaging material. depending on thickness, it can offer built-in padding, it’s renewable, biodegradable, recyclable and compostable. however it is heavier and bulkier than lightweight plastics, it uses a lot of water to manufacture, produces air pollutants in the process and can cause environmental harm if it’s not sustainably farmed or from a recycled source.
as people look to alternatives to traditional plastics, demand for cardboard packaging is expected to increase in the coming years. more than two billion trees are logged every year just to make cardboard for packaging and as this increases, huge pressure is being placed on our forests.
cardboard can generally be recycled or composted, however some cardboard products are coated with waxes or waterproofed with thin plastic or foil linings. these may not be recyclable or compostable – it’s best to confirm with the supplier. just like PE and PP, cardboard can’t be recycled indefinitely and loses quality with every cycle. on average, cardboard can be recycled about five times, however some products can be recycled up to 25 times.
if you’re using cardboard as a packaging material, make sure you’re using FSC Certified, 100% recycled cardboard. recycled cardboard generates about 37% less CO2 to manufacture than virgin cardboard, doesn’t require any trees to be felled and produces 49% less wastewater in the process!
bioplastics can be broken down into three distinct classifications:
- bio-based but not biodegradable (eg bio-based polyethylene);
- biodegradable but not bio-based (eg PBAT and PVOH/PVA); and
- both biodegradable and bio-based (eg PLA).
biodegradable / compostable.
often used interchangeably, these terms do not mean the same thing. if something is “biodegradable,” that means living microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) will eventually break it down into CO2, biomass and water. how quickly or slowly that occurs and in what conditions are not specified. a solid block of wood is biodegradable, but the process may take decades in a dry environment but only a few months in a jungle. “compostable” means that something will biodegrade in a specific human-controlled environment, i.e in an industrial composting facility. “home compostable” means that the item will also biodegrade in a correctly maintained compost bin.
what goes into the compostable mailer.
the compostable mailer is made from corn starch and a mix of two common bioplastics (PLA and PBAT).
PLA (polylactic acid) is a bio-based, biodegradable bioplastic. it’s derived from renewable biomass, typically fermented plant starch from field corn, cassava, sugarcane or sugar beet. it’s biodegradable, but many 100% PLA products, particularly thicker ones like single use cups and food trays, won’t biodegrade in a compost bin – they need to be taken to an industrial composting facility to break down.
PBAT (polybutylene adipate terephthalate) is non-bio-based, biodegradable bioplastic. that’s right – it’s derived from oil, which is why we’re working to develop compostable mailers that contain less of it. it biodegrades rapidly and doesn’t need industrial composting facilities to break down, so without it, the compostable mailer wouldn’t biodegrade in a compost bin. to the best of our knowledge, there are no home compostable mailers currently on the market that don’t contain PBAT. the technology just isn’t there yet, but make no mistake, as soon as it is, we’ll be the first to embrace it!
what goes into the item bag 2.0
the item bag 2.0 is made from Hydropol, a modified co-polymer based on vinyl acetate hydrolysed monomers. it’s similar to the material used to coat dishwasher/laundry tablets (PVOH/PVA).
polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH/PVA) is a biodegradable bioplastic. the ingredients used to manufacture it and Hydropol are sourced from major PVOH manufacturers. their processes currently use fossil inputs, therefore these polymers are non-bio-based. however they can be made from renewable sources like sugar cane. at the moment bio-based versions are not available commercially but this is expected to change and allow us to manufacture the item bag 2.0 from 100% renewable inputs. it will be a great day when we’re able to make this switch!