Are compostable mailers really eco-friendly?

Dear “sustainable” brands,

Stop mailing your eco-friendly products in compostable plastic mailers.

I ordered my daughter new underwear last week.  I don’t buy second hand undies.  I’m sure they’re fine but I draw the line at socks & underwear.  I used to get hand-me-downs, but once kids reach a certain age, the hand-me-downs tend to dry up.

Buying new clothes is a chance to support sustainable brands.

What’s a sustainable brand?

In a teeny tiny nutshell, a sustainable brand considers the environmental, economic & social issues of their business. The brand works to create a positive impact through their products & operations.

One aspect I look at for clothing is using 100% GOTS certified organic cotton (the same cotton I use in my No Trace products).  

Organic cotton is better for the farmers & the planet & fully compostable at home at the end of their usable life.  (Did you know that cotton fabric can compost at home in months?).   GOTS certification looks beyond just the farming & considers the manufacturing of the fabric & products & human rights.

I have a whole post on why organic cotton is better and you can read that here.

There aren’t a ton of companies that make 100% organic cotton underwear for 11 year-olds.  And I can’t find these locally in Santa Cruz so I have to order online. 

I usually ask companies to ship plastic-free when I order online (unless I forget, which happens.  Pobody’s nerfect – am I right?).

Anyway, I recently ordered from a company that touts its sustainability and uses only organic cotton. 

So what’d we get with this order?  A big old plastic bag that says “I’m compostable”.

Are compostable mailers really eco-friendly?

Short answer – NO.

Here’s the thing – those plastic mailers are ONLY compostable in industrial composting facilities. They won’t break down in your home compost because it doesn’t get hot enough at home.

According to Greenblue.org, only 11% of the US population has access to a composting facility that accepts compostable packaging like plastic mailers.

In theory, these mailers are better than traditional plastics.  But as our systems currently exist, they create a problem and can’t actually get composted.  They have to go to the landfill about 90% of the time.

Sometimes these compostable bags get mixed in with non-compostable plastics and cause contamination, making hard-to-recycle plastics even more impossible to recycle.

I imagine occasionally they make their way to an industrial composting facility, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.

Also, they aren’t recyclable at the very end of their life (vs materials like plastic & paper).  And they really don’t add any value to our composted soil (check out EcoEnclose for a great overview of recycling & composting of mailers).

Is compostable plastic really eco-friendly?

On top of the issues outlined above, there are other problems with compostable plastics and I have an entire post that outlines those issues right here. 

Alright, now that we agree that compostable plastic mailers suck, what should companies do about it?

What are the most sustainable mailers?

 

If not compostable plastic, what should businesses use for shipping?  

There are a few alternatives to compostable plastic that are more eco-friendly.  

4 most sustainable mailers for shipping

 

1. 100% recycled plastic packaging

 

One alternative would be to use 100% recycled plastics for their mailers.  That still leaves the issue of what to do with the bag after its use.  But at least it would be taking waste out of the waste stream instead of adding trash to our landfills.

And it creates a demand to recycle plastics.  If we can create a market for certain plastics to be recycled, that creates value for these “cheap” materials.  That value increases the chance that they’ll actually get recycled. 

Also, since compostable plastics are made with “virgin” materials, including fossil fuel-based materials, recycled plastics would eliminate the need for sourcing new raw materials.

Of course, recycling plastics takes more energy than composting a compostable plastic, but again we have to consider that most of these mailers probably won’t get composted.

Recycled plastic isn’t a perfect solution but it could be a step up from compostable mailers.

2. 100% recycled paper packaging

 

Recycled paper mailers are another potentially sustainable option.  According to Greenmatters.org, about 68% of paper in the U.S. actually gets recycled.  And it can be recycled several times, according to earth911.org.  Plus paper can be composted at home at the very end of its life.

Why don’t more companies use paper mailers?

 

I think some companies worry about damage to their products if they use non-plastic packaging.  But it’s important to remember that we still ship lots of products in cardboard boxes without any major issues.

Plus, lots of the items we’re shipping are already packaged in plastic.  How many layers of plastic do we need??

And how much damage happens as a result of shipping in paper?  In my own business, shipping thousands of orders in paper envelopes & boxes, I’ve never once received a complaint about damage in the mail.

Cost might be a factor, but I imagine consumers would accept a few pennies increase in overall cost to protect the planet.

3. New paper packaging from sustainable forestry

 

Recycled materials are easier on the planet than new materials, but I think new paper packaging would be preferable over compostable plastics, given the current state of composting.

Plus, sustainable forestry helps paper packaging have a more neutral impact on the planet.  Sustainable forestry regrows trees that are harvested.  Forests are managed in a way that protects local ecosystems & biodiversity.  And of course new paper can be recycled and eventually composted too.

If you can get new paper mailers from businesses that use only sustainable forestry, the mailers will leave even less of a trace on our global environment.

4. Closed-loop system for packaging

 

Another AWESOME option is to offer a closed-loop packaging system.  This could take different forms – either companies reuse their packaging directly, or take back their packaging to recycle into new packaging (or products).  

Online brands could try partnering with locally available businesses (think UPS, Target, Safeway) to offer drop-off sites for their packaging.  Those collection sites could more efficiently redistribute used packaging for reuse.  

Companies like Amazon that make repeated deliveries could even collect packaging with every new package drop off at individual homes & businesses.

In Santa Cruz we have a local low waste store that uses a closed-loop system with some of their suppliers (check out EthosSantaCruz.com).  Some suppliers ship their bulk products in bags that can be returned to the supplier for another refill!  

I’m sure there are other ways to create a closed-loop system.

There’s lots of room for creativity in creating a sustainable packaging system.

So there you have it, 4 sustainable alternatives to compostable plastic packaging.

AKA – 4 simple ways ditch “compostable” plastics & use more eco-friendly mailers.

So get on it, big brands! 

And as consumers, let’s keep calling out those companies that we expect more from. 

Do you have anything to add?  Leave a comment below!

thanks for reading & for all that you do for the planet.

-Liz

2 thoughts on “Are compostable mailers really eco-friendly?”

  1. Hi! There are actually home compostable mailers available for purchase 🙂 A brand called NoIssue makes them and there may be other manufacturers too! I think things are evolving to make compostable options even more eco-friendly by increasing the ability to compost from home and not just in specific facilities 🙂

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