The no-plastic movement has seen a real surge in the last few years. People around the world are becoming more conscious of the plastic waste they produce and look out for alternatives when shopping. Many businesses, particularly those operating online, are shifting towards eco-friendly mailing bags and packaging, including cardboard, paper or compostable bags, to name a few. But which ones are really better for the world?
Is plastic the number one enemy for the environment?
To cut it short… well, we just can’t cut it short. Yes and no. It depends. When it comes to plastic mailing bags, we are normally referring to poly mailers. These are made of plastic film, which you normally can’t just throw into your recycling bin at home. However, it is becoming more and more common to find carrier bag collection points in our local big supermarket. It’s important to note that not all type of plastic film is accepted and can currently be recycled. The best place to find the nearest carrier bag collection point and check what they do and don’t accept is the Recyclenow website.
Unfortunately, despite our recycling efforts, plastic pollution is not seeing a reduction across the globe, with more plastic being produced than it is recycled.
Let’s take a step back. Plastic has many advantages and that’s why it’s considered so revolutionary. It’s light-weight and quick to produce. Its production generates less carbon footprint than paper. Plastic is durable, weather-proof and cheap, making it a great choice for packaging and mailing bags. However, poly mailers come with many downsides, including:
- generally made of virgin plastic
- come from non-renewable resources
- not recyclable at home
- can create issues at the recycling facility if thrown into the recycle bin
- not compostable
- can contaminate water flows as they are not marine biodegradable
The deal with recyclable poly mailers
100% recycled poly mailing bags could be a good option because they produce less CO2 emissions than paper. However, many of the cons considered above still apply. Plus, as ExplainThatStuff points out, recycled plastic often gets converted into lower-grade items such as plastic benches rather than being converted into the same object. Recycled plastic isn’t necessarily better in terms of greenhouse gas emissions than virgin plastic and could result in an even bigger burden for the environment.
Are compostable bags the ultimate eco-friendly mailing bags?
And what about compostable mailing bags? At first, they might sound like the perfect solution to our plastic problem. But there is a reason if they haven’t taken over the entire world. How many people do compost at home? According to BusinessWaste, 97% of Brits do no compost. The only correct alternative to home composting is industrial composting. How many people will dispose of the compostable mailing bag correctly by taking it to a compost collection point? Probably not so many. The problem with that is that compostable bags, when thrown into regular waste or in the recycle bin, are likely to cause more harm than good. In the first instance by releasing off methane in landfills. In the second case by contaminating recyclable materials, which can cause the whole batch to no longer be recycled.
Another downside is that the most common material making up compostable bags is corn starch biopolymers. Despite being a renewable source material, it comes with a few drawbacks, such as soil degradation, land pollution and loss of biodiversity. Growing corn to create plastic also means that we are taking land away from growing food for humankind. So no, compostable bags may not be the most eco-friendly mailing bags solution. At least for now.
The problem with biodegradable mailing bags
Biodegradable mailing bags don’t seem to carry as many benefits as one would hope. The overarching conclusion of DEFRA’s ‘Review of standards for biodegradable plastic‘ in 2015 was that “it is not currently possible to assemble a standard specification that would ensure that plastic bags claiming to be biodegradable would biodegrade in all environments, in particular in the open environment”. So it seems that biodegradable plastics won’t necessarily biodegrade in all conditions, but only in the right conditions. For example, when biodegradable plastics reach the landfills or the waterways, they won’t necessarily take less than regular plastic to decompose.
Paper vs plastic: who wins?
As people become more and more conscious of their plastic waste, the most sought-after alternative tends to be paper. Despite a higher carbon footprint during its production stage, according to Life-Cycle-Assessments, paper and cardboard outweigh plastic in terms of sustainability when it comes to end-of-life. Paper and cardboard can easily be recycled and can turn into the same object time and time again. Paper is also biodegradable. If it ends up in landfills, however, it will decompose very slowly, releasing methane. This is not what we want. But, in the undesirable event of it reaching our waterways, it won’t have such a dreadful effect as plastics.
It’s also important to differentiate between virgin and recycled paper. Even though it’s not all fun and games, recycling paper comes with tremendous benefits compared to virgin paper, such as avoiding deforestation, reducing the reliance on industrial plantations and saving energy. According to Science Focus, “recycling causes 35 per cent less water pollution and 74 per cent less air pollution than making new paper”.
So, what are the most eco-friendly mailing bags out there?
As you can see, there is no one fits all solution. If we only focused on greenhouse gas emissions, plastic might be the most favourable option. But that’s only if we forget about end-of-life. In that case, paper seems to remain the best option for the environment.
Compostable poly mailing bags could potentially be a good alternative if we made it easier to dispose of them correctly. But with just a small percentage of Britons composting at home, too many compostable bags could end up in the wrong place.
Here at Bagmaya, to limit our negative impact on the environment, we’ve opted for a cardboard box made with 66% recycled and 100% recyclable materials. Why did we not choose a 100% recycled box, I hear you ask? Because they are less sturdy and less weather-proof than partially recycled boxes (and we all know how much it rains in this country). This could lead to damages to the products while shipping, more returns and, ultimately, more waste and emissions (not to mention less happy clients!).
To conclude, the most effective approach is to reduce our waste, reuse as much of it as possible and – as a very last resource – recycle it. For example, one of our customers turned our box into a really beautiful seedbox for their garden, and a few others are using it as a toy for their cats. Some really creative people out there!
And you, do you give a second life to your mailing bags and boxes? Let us know in the comments!