Going “green” is more than just a way of allowing us to feel better about ourselves and our businesses. It’s an investment in the future, both environmentally and financially. Our dependence on single-use plastics and non-recyclable materials needs to be broken, and the toxic by-products of our current methods need to be cut. In virtually all the areas we do business in, there are regulations to be upheld, targets to be hit and customer expectations to be met. With a field as conventionally reliant on plastics as product packaging and postage, we’re left with some important questions to answer.
What’s the Problem with Plastic Postal Packaging?
Plastic is undoubtedly one of the most versatile and practical materials devised for everyday use, and it’s become a huge part of people’s lives all over the world. It’s durable, malleable and useful in an amazing variety of situations. Under the wrong conditions, though, plastics can be dangerous, wasteful and difficult to get rid of.
Even something as disposable as a simple carrier bag can take decades to break down, and the components it degrades into only make things worse. Even plastics sold as “less harmful” can still release a range of toxic chemicals into the environment, or disintegrate into microplastics that end up in the food chain. At the other end of the scale, we’ve all seen reports of immense “trash islands” at sea composed of literally millions of tonnes of plastic waste. It’s actually difficult even to estimate the scale of some of these problems, since we’re already so deep in the environmental hole and still furiously digging.
The difficulty, not to mention the expense, of safely disposing of or recycling many types of plastic brings up a related problem – and this one’s as much behavioural as it is chemical. Far too many of the plastic products we’re using are intended by design to be single-use. With almost 370 million tonnes of plastics produced in 2019 alone, barely 10-13% of it is being recycled. More than half of it is considered single-use and disposable, and even recyclable plastics can be incredibly wasteful if they’re only used once. The single-use mentality needs to go because, when you’re dealing with petroleum-based plastic, there really is no such thing as “throwing it away”. It always ends up somewhere, whether in an ocean-borne mass or our children’s bloodstreams.
That last point pulls the toxicity issue into focus, of course. If we can’t fully “get rid” of plastic, or even control where it ends up, we need to be deeply aware of the potential damage it can cause. The kinds of chemicals bled out into the environment by plastics as they break down have been linked to health problems ranging from infertility and birth defects to immunity impairments and cancer. We’re not just talking about the impact of discarded plastic bags and coffee stirrers here, either. The same types of chemicals used in the production of many plastics are also found in common packaging items like adhesive labels and thermal paper. To have any hope of attacking the problems of plastics, you really need to be aware of how deeply those problems are rooted.
6 Easy Packaging Swaps to Join the Eco-Revolution
So, armed with a basic understanding of what we’re up against, it’s time to look at some of the simplest, most practical and effective measures we can take right now in terms of postage and packaging options. Here are 6 great decisions you can make today that will help you join the crucial, ever-growing eco-packaging revolution.
1. Switch to Jiffy Green® Bags
When you’re dealing with fragile items that need a little extra protection to safely survive a postal journey, Jiffy Bags are an excellent choice. They’re reliable, durable and easy to use. While certain specialised types of bubble-wrap can be recycled, depending on the materials used, these kinds of bags are generally thought of in terms of their distinctive plastic padding. That would usually be a red flag for eco-focussed businesses, but the Jiffy Green® range is actually completely biodegradable, compostable and recyclable.
Instead of petroleum-based plastics, the protection of a Jiffy Green® Bag comes in the much more eco-friendly form of high-quality paper fibres. At the same time, the tough kraft paper exteriors are sturdy enough to survive re-use instead of immediate disposal. Other plastic-free replacements for bubble-wrap envelopes include designs with honeycomb-style cardboard protective liners. Still fully recyclable, this type of envelope offers good protection and tends to be even lighter than other zero-plastic options.
2. Choose Paper Mailing Bags over Plastic Poly Mailers
Polythene shipping bags are popular with businesses for a number of reasons. They offer an excellent barrier against water damage, add very little to your items’ shipping weight and can come with a range of features from self-sealing flaps to tamper-evident closures. However, they don’t tend to offer much in the way of physical protection, and from an environmental standpoint they’re extremely questionable at best.
Kraft paper mailers, by contrast, are 100% recyclable – and again, going green doesn’t automatically narrow down your range of options or features. Paper mailing bags are simple and convenient, and can include things like integrated handles and double peel-and-seal closures.
3. Introducing Paper Carrier Bags
Once again, kraft paper proves to be your best route out of wasteful and dangerous plastics. When you’re working with food, for example, you’ve suddenly got a whole new range of considerations, expectations and regulations to contend with. Switching away from plastic carrier bags to paper carrier bags sends out a strong and positive signal to your customers, without sacrificing any of the practicality or convenience you and they are used to. At the same time, making the right choice here will keep your business fully compliant with the all-important Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) and Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC) benchmarks.
4. The Humble Cardboard Box
The true workhorse of the packaging and dispatch world, cardboard boxes have become something of an unsung hero in recent years. In fact, it’s fair to say that people are generally a lot more concerned over what comes out of their boxes than what goes into producing them. “Cardboard” – and the material we’re actually talking about here is more properly called “corrugated” – is an immensely versatile and much more sophisticated thing than most realise.
It comes in a huge range of double and single wall designs, with a variety of flute heights and densities to suit your weight, durability and other requirements. Corrugated, given its kraft paper origins, is both easy and effective to recycle. With plastic quickly falling out of favour on both environmental grounds and in terms of customer demands, the future of boxes is decidedly corrugated.
5. Kraft Paper Tapes
Switching to kraft paper and corrugated packaging and postal materials is a fantastic way to minimise your “plastic footprint” and signal your commitment to environmentally sound methods, but it pays to look a little closer at how you’re handling your envelopes and boxes. Sticking to conventional packing tapes, for instance, could be a significant step backward, given that they’re generally plastic-based themselves. Self-adhesive paper tape is a great, natural kraft-based alternative, with none of the ecological drawbacks of traditional tapes.
6. The BPA Question
The initials “BPA” have quickly become a 4-letter word in business circles. Bisphenol A is a chemical that’s found its way into all sorts of plastic-based products and practices going back to the 1950s, and now there are real concerns that we haven’t been properly counting the cost. In the postage world, adhesive labels and thermal paper are some of the chief culprits, and switching to BPA/phenol-free alternatives is becoming essential, both ethically and, in many cases, legally. For example, all thermal paper sold in the EU has been required to be BPA-free since the 2nd of January 2020.
A Few Easy Eco-Hacks
With those 6 simple steps as a guide, a business can set itself on the path toward a more sustainable future. There’s always more you can do, obviously enough – but with these basic principles established a lot of the steps you’re taking can be made easier. This is where some extra little “eco-hacks” come in. These re additional measures that can either enhance the effectiveness of the things you’re already doing or make them easier to do in the first place.
Paper Void Fill
You’ve got to balance priorities like weight versus protection when you’re adding void fill to your boxes. At the same time, you’ve going to undo a lot of your good work (and sacrifice a lot of the good will you’ve earned from customers) by cramming your eco-friendly boxes full of polystyrene chips or plastic bubble wrap. This is the perfect opportunity to double-down on the good decisions you’ve already made by moving to paper void fill. Once again, we’re talking about kraft paper here.
The kraft process produces extremely robust and versatile paper, which is ideal for use as void fill. Being kraft paper, it remains completely recyclable and is very easy to work with. You can buy it in a roll, then use a low-cost, purpose-built manual dispenser to store and “crumple” the roll into usable void fill.
Make Your Own Void Fill.. For Free!
As long as we’re talking about “eco-hacks” here, why not go one step further and make your own 100% environmentally friendly void fill? There’s an important middle section of the “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” mantra that’s too often overlooked or misunderstood. When you reuse, for instance, a kraft corrugated box, that doesn’t necessarily mean stacking it away somewhere in hopes of finding something to put in it later. Feeding that box through a Desktop Cardboard Shredder will offer it an incredibly worthwhile second life as 100% recyclable, biodegradable and compostable void fill. Not only have you made the most effective use of an otherwise unneeded box, but you’ve saved money on void fill material and eliminated another potential reliance on plastics to protect your shipped items in transit.
A cardboard shredder is a lot more sophisticated than the paper types you’re probably using around the office. These are heavy-duty machines that are built to last. Induction-hardened steel cutting rollers mean they make short work of tough corrugated materials without worrying over damage from stray staples, while additional features like integrated “turbo” functions and width adjustment mean they can power through blockages and maintain their precision as they turn out high-quality void fill from what might otherwise be considered waste material.
Power Free Water Activated Paper Tape Dispenser
Another great hack for making good decisions easier is a specialised paper tape dispenser designed for environmentally friendly gummed paper tape. The water activated gum used in these kinds of tape, while great on environmental grounds, can be a chore to work with and can slow down operations. A well designed paper tape dispenser is a great addition to an office or retail business. It’s lightweight, requires no power and makes the switch from plastic packing tapes a simple and pleasant one to make. Hands-free operation adds extra convenience, with a water reservoir to automatically activate the tape as it’s dispensed and a simple lever system to ensure you always get the amount of tape you need. No mess or waste to worry about.
The Hard Eco-Facts about Plastics
The scale of the plastics problem is actually pretty difficult to grasp. Estimates on the number of scraps of plastic floating at sea already hit over 5 trillion, and plastic waste from cigarette filters to bottle caps account for over 70% of the litter on the world’s beaches.
Studies from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America show that virtually every species of seabird will be consuming plastic by the year 2050. Meanwhile, statistics obtained by The Guardian report that, globally, around a million plastic bottles are sold every minute, with annual consumption expected to hit 1 trillion bottles in 2021.
While those numbers are pretty horrifying in themselves, there are a lot of other factors that are potentially just as devastating but much harder to count or predict. We’re talking about the kinds of chemicals that go into plastics production, and the by-products that come out of the way they break down in the environment and food chain.
We’ve mentioned Bisphenol A (BPA) already, and it’s worth touching on it again here. BPA is a remarkably versatile chemical, capable of helping to make the kind of durable plastics often used in everything from food packaging to baby bottles. At the same time, it comes into play in the production of certain kinds of adhesives and thermal papers. It’s heat resistant, for one thing, meaning it’s exactly what you need when you want to make sure your thermal paper won’t burn in use.
While BPA has generally been considered safe for most uses – at least given the limited everyday contact people have with it, there’s been enough legitimate concern over its long-term health impact that EU legislation came into force in January 2021 to ban all thermal paper with more than 0.02% concentrations of BPA by weight from sale.
Health worries over BPA are complex and somewhat controversial, but when you’re dealing with potentially devastating conditions like breast and prostate cancer, a certain amount of nervousness and caution is understandable. The amount of BPA exposure a person might expect to get in a day would be considerably higher for someone working routinely with large quantities of till receipts or labels, for example.
As for alternatives, it turns out going “BPA-free” may not be enough. One of the most common BPA substitutes, for instance, is Bisphenol S (BPS). In some cases, depending on the product, you might also find Bisphenol F (BPF) being used instead. The trouble is, for many, those replacements have the exact same question marks hanging over them in terms of long-term safety.
Luckily enough for businesses dealing with thermal papers and adhesive labels, phenol-free options are available. As the name suggests, these products can safely claim to use none of the worrying phenol-based chemicals, while having the same heat-resistant properties. They can compete well in terms of durability as well, with some capable of retaining an image for as much as 10 years, given the right storage conditions.
Obviously, keeping within the law on issues like BPA use is absolutely essential for any business. More than that, though, it’s about making sure you’re not allowing unnecessary harm or damage to occur on your watch. Customers and partner businesses are getting more informed about issues like these every year, and they know to look for firms doing the right thing. Demonstrating your awareness of the health and environmental impact of your business makes you a leader in this charge toward a greener, safer future – and that’s an opportunity few can afford to pass up.
Wrapping it all up
There are no easy answers or magic bullets when it comes to safeguarding the future – and that’s as true in the postage and packaging arena as anywhere else. It’s going to take a concerted effort to hit the necessary environmental targets while there’s still time for them to be effective. Even so, every step taken in the right direction is valuable – and while we don’t have anything approaching perfect knowledge of where the future we’re aiming for will take us, we can at least make some basic predictions as to the route we’ll be following.
Over-reliance on single-use plastics is worse than a dead end. It’s an escalating disaster on so many fronts, and a great deal of it is flat-out unnecessary. The future of packaging is cardboard and kraft paper, rather than Bisphenols and bubble wrap. Smarter use of safer materials can address the same issues and applications in healthier and more sustainable ways. Honeycomb kraft padding, for example, can offer just the same level of protection in a padded envelope as bubble wrap with none of the negative ecological impact. Corrugated cardboard is rocketing back to prominence in response to business demands and customer expectations. Meanwhile, a combination of legitimate concern and legal regulation is putting the health implications of many plastics firmly into focus. It’s looking pretty clear that non-toxic, BPA and phenol-free adhesives and thermal papers are going to win the arguments, both legal and ethical, so the wisest businesses are making those adjustments already.
No one’s pretending that there won’t be any bumps in the road as we head into a healthier and more environmentally responsible future. For one thing, postal costs are likely to rise in the short term, since the weight of the materials used will continue to be a factor. These are steps that we can’t afford to wait to make, though, and problems that can’t be tackled with half-measure solutions. Innovation, as ever, will be the key to making those steps as meaningful as possible.
All it takes to join the eco-packaging revolution are a few good decisions and relatively small adjustments. It’s about making an invaluable commitment and investment in the future, and sending the strongest possible message to our customers and partners. The future is what we make of it and, for our choices to matter in the longer term, we need to make them now.