As e-commerce continues to grow, so does the demand for sustainable packaging solutions. Consumers and businesses alike are looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact and minimize waste in the shipping process.
Two popular options for sustainable mailers are compostable and recycled materials. These eco-friendly alternatives to traditional poly mailers have gained popularity in recent years due to their potential to reduce waste and help protect the environment.
But what even are they, what is the difference between them, and which option is the better choice for you?
First, let's define what we mean by compostable and recycled poly mailers.
Compostable Poly Mailers
Compostable mailers are made from biodegradable polymers, primarily polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT) and polylactic acid (PLA).
PBAT, a petroleum-based plastic, is used as a binder. PBAT is critical because it allows the mailer to biodegrade rapidly and be home compostable, but it does contribute to the carbon footprint of the mailer as it requires fossil fuels. PLA is commonly derived from renewable resources like corn and potatoes and has its own set of environmental drawbacks.
Corn, for instance, requires heavy doses of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to grow, which can destroy soil, rivers, and oceans. Because only corn kernels are used to make PLA, a considerable amount of agricultural waste is produced, making both the process and end product inefficient. It is also a genetically modified crop, which allows chemical companies to control land, public policy, soil, and the agricultural economy.
That aside, there are many compelling reasons to consider using compostable poly mailers.
First and foremost, compostable poly mailers can help to reduce waste and prevent pollution by breaking down into natural elements in a composting environment. This means that they can be used as a source of nutrients for plants and soil, rather than taking up space in landfills or contributing to plastic pollution in the oceans.
This comes with a caveat: the ability of compostable poly mailers to break down and decompose depends on the specific materials used to make them and the conditions in which they are disposed of. If compostable poly mailers are not properly disposed of, they will likely end up in a landfill like traditional poly mailers, preventing the composting process from occurring.
It is important to note that compostable mailers may also contain inks and adhesives that can bring trace contamination to compost, and some composting facilities may turn away compostable plastics as they can impede composting cycles. While the latter puts the onus on the consumer to properly dispose of their compostable mailer(s), it is the responsibility of an eco-conscious business to research and avoid suppliers that produce environmentally damaging compostable mailers.
Using compostable poly mailers can also help your business to demonstrate its commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility, which can be attractive to customers who are looking for eco-friendly options.
While compostable poly mailers have many potential benefits, there are also some potential drawbacks to consider before making the switch.
One of the main cons of compostable poly mailers is their durability. Because compostable poly mailers are made from biodegradable materials, they may not be as strong or durable as traditional poly mailers. This means that they may not be suitable for shipping heavy or fragile items, as they are more likely to tear or break during transit.
If you frequently ship items that require a high level of protection, then compostable poly mailers may not be the best option for your business.
Another potential con of compostable poly mailers is their cost. Because compostable poly mailers are made from biodegradable materials, they typically cost more than traditional poly mailers. This means that switching to compostable poly mailers can potentially increase your shipping costs.
While the long-term environmental benefits of using compostable poly mailers may be worth the added cost, it's important to consider your budget and whether the extra expense is justified.
In addition to these potential cons, there are also some challenges associated with using compostable poly mailers. If compostable poly mailers are disposed of in a landfill, they will not have access to the conditions that are necessary for them to break down and decompose.
Landfills are designed to prevent waste from breaking down and decomposing so that it doesn't take up more space over time. This means that compostable poly mailers that end up in a landfill will not turn into compost and will instead take up space just like virgin poly mailers.
Recycled Poly Mailers
Recycled poly mailers are made from recycled materials that have been collected, processed, and repurposed into new mailer bags. It is important to make the distinction between the different types of recycled materials that can be used in mailers, including both post-consumer and pre-consumer recycled materials.
Post-consumer recycled materials are materials that have been used by consumers and then collected and processed for recycling, while pre-consumer recycled materials are materials that are generated during the manufacturing process and are recycled before they reach consumers.
Each type of recycled material has its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages, and the type of material that is used can affect the overall environmental impact of the mailer. See this blog post for more details.
In both cases, a primary advantage of using recycled mailers is that they help to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. By using materials that have already been used and processed, recycled mailers help to conserve natural resources and reduce the amount of pollution that is generated during the manufacturing process.
Recycled mailers can be a cost-effective option for businesses and individuals who want to reduce their environmental impact as a result.
Like all things, there are some drawbacks to using recycled mailers. One of the main challenges is that the quality of recycled materials can vary, which can affect the durability and strength of the mailers. In some cases, recycled mailers may not be as strong or as resilient as non-recycled options, which can lead to problems such as tearing or breaking during transit.
These issues can be circumvented by vetting suppliers prior to purchasing to ensure quality products.
Compostable vs Recycled Mailers
One of the key differences between compostable and recycled poly mailers is their environmental impact.
Compostable poly mailers have the potential to reduce waste and prevent pollution by breaking down into natural elements in a composting environment. This means that they can be used as a source of nutrients for plants and soil, rather than taking up space in landfills or contributing to plastic pollution in the oceans.
Recycled poly mailers, on the other hand, help to reduce waste by repurposing plastic materials that would otherwise be discarded. This helps to conserve natural resources and reduce the amount of energy required to produce new plastic products.
Since they do not break down in the same way as compostable mailers, they will still take up space in landfills and may potentially contribute to plastic pollution, though this is not the case for recycled poly mailers that are also recyclable. Mailers that are both recycled and recyclable contribute to a circular economy and limit waste at both the start and end of their life cycles, though some of these environmental benefits are offset by the fact that the recycling process tends to be energy-intensive.
With that being said, recycled mailers may be downcycled (turned into a lower-quality material) or sent to landfills if not properly recycled. Recycling also requires sufficient infrastructure and may be limited by contamination in the recycling process.
Another difference between compostable and recycled poly mailers is their durability and performance. Compostable poly mailers are generally considered to be less durable than traditional poly mailers, as the biodegradable materials used to make them may break down over time. This means that they may not be suitable for shipping heavy or fragile items.
Recycled poly mailers, however, are typically just as durable as traditional poly mailers. This makes them a better choice for shipping heavy or fragile items, as they are less likely to tear or break during transit. It is important to note that the durability of recycled poly mailers can vary depending on the quality of the recycled materials used to make them.
Which is Better?
So, which is the better choice: compostable or recycled poly mailers?
The answer ultimately depends on your specific needs and priorities.
If you are committed to reducing waste and have access to commercial composting facilities, compostable mailers may be a good choice. However, it's important to be aware of the limitations and challenges of compostable materials, such as the use of PBAT and the environmental impacts of corn production.
On the other hand, if you are looking to minimize your carbon footprint and support the recycling industry, recycled mailers may be a better option. Just be aware of the challenges and limitations of recycling, such as downcycling and contamination.
Ultimately, the decision to use compostable or recycled poly mailers is a personal one, and there is no right or wrong answer. Both options have their pros and cons, and both can help to reduce waste and protect the environment in their own ways.
At Smart Shipping Supply, we opted for 100% post-consumer recycled poly mailers. The decision came down to the accessibility of necessary disposal services. While a mere 27% of people in the United States have access to some form of composting service, over half the population has access to a drop-off recycling service.As a responsible business owner or consumer, it is important to consider the environmental impact of your choices and do what you can to reduce waste and protect the planet. So, whether you choose compostable or recycled poly mailers, you can feel good knowing that you are doing your part to help make the world a cleaner and healthier place.
Until next time, shop smart and ship smart.