Sustainable packaging conundrum

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If you ordered from us over recent months, you may have noticed that some of your products were wrapped in 'reused' packaging, such as "Australia Post" branded plastic bags that previously contained the Australia Post satchels that we use for shipping.

This is part of our effort to reduce the amount of waste produced by our business.

You are probably as disturbed as I am about the mounting problem of plastic waste and the negative impact plastic has on our environment, particularly on our marine environment. Online businesses do add to the amount of plastic that is out there, and I am continuously looking at alternatives.

Having researched the most up to date sustainable packaging trends for 2019 and 2020, my solution is to re-use as much as possible of the packaging material that accumulates in our business.

Bio-plastics not a sustainable solution (yet?)

I have looked at bio-plastics as an option, but just as with bio-diesel, the numbers don't necessarily stack up.

They certainly provide a look of sustainability, but I have found bio-plastics often less reliable than plastic bags. They tear more easily and do not protect products as well. There is actually no point in wrapping something up when the packaging is not good enough to protect the content from damage. And they may not even be as sustainable as we hope they are when looking at the whole life cycle from production to eventual disposal.

According to sustainability consultancy firm, there are a number of reasons why bio-plastics are not the solution: 

"People tend to equate bioplastics with biodegradable or compostable, but they are not necessarily either of those. While bioplastics are certainly interesting substitutes (identical in many of their physical and technical properties to their fossil-based counterparts), using them might only shift the environmental burden by reducing the carbon footprint while increasing acidification, the water footprint or other environmental impacts. We also have to keep in mind that introducing bioplastics may only alleviate the plastic problem, not solve it. An ingested bioplastic bag may still choke whales and other marine life.

Beyond burden-shifting, we also have a supply issue. How can we grow enough raw materials required to replace fossil-fuel packaging products with bioplastics? The only way is to increase the agricultural production of sugar cane or other feedstock. But agricultural production is already pressed to its limits, straining land areas that compete with food production. Deforestation to prepare the way for more agricultural land is certainly not a sustainable solution. And even with bioplastics, we won’t solve the general problem of the End-of-life waste streams."

Paper-based packaging increases transport emissions

Another option would be to replace plastic with paper and cardboard based packaging, but again, this does not equate a lower overall environmental impact. Paper and cardboard based packaging is much bulkier and heavier than plastic and as a result requires more fuel to transport than lighter satchels, resulting in higher carbon emissions from transport.

In addition, there is a supply problem and the risk of adding to deforestation. To quote again:

If we were to replace all plastics with paper, we must either cut down more forests or find areas for reforestation. The latter would be a double benefit, of course, but do we actually have the space? Current data suggests that we still have a net loss of forests worldwide and that we are more likely to lose possible reforestation areas to other pressing needs, such as to the expansion of cities and towns, to agriculture and to industry. 

Furthermore, [European] paper and cardboard recycling facilities are already running at top capacity and would need to expand their operations to take in more recyclable waste. And at the moment, recycled paper does not seem to significantly decrease the total environmental impact of paper, at least not based on data we have available today.

To add to this, in Australia we currently have a recycling crisis and most recyclable products are either stockpiled or end up in landfill, so the most sustainable option is to reuse cardboard and paper that is already in circulation rather than adding to the pile of paper waste that may or may not get recycled.

Stop shipping air!

During a recent Australia Post webinar for online retailers, there was one thing that stuck in my mind when it comes to packaging.

The Australia Post presenter said that he was struck by the amount of "air" included in the parcels and asked online retailers to "stop shipping air". And that got me thinking - obviously more "air" does not make the parcels heavier, but it does increase the overall volume and thus impacts on space available in trucks and planes, and as a result, increases the amount of fossil fuels required to transport the goods.

We are now trying to reduce the size of our packaging as much as possible to reduce the amount of air we are shipping.

Minimize amount of packaging while still protecting contents

Another option is to reduce and remove packaging - which we aim to do whilst still trying to protect the products from potential damage while in transit.

We consciously decided not to participate in the recent trend of wrapping everything in additional fancy packaging - to me that looked like just another way of producing excessive waste (having one gorgeous box is wonderful, but how many fancy bags and boxes do you actually need?). We have always tried to keep our packaging to a sensible minimum while protecting the contents.

Of course, we could just drop your yarns into an Australia Post satchel without any additional packaging and thus eliminate all additional packaging, but that would run the risk of the yarn snagging on something or damage to / loss of  contents if the satchels tear (which can and does happen, unfortunately!). So we will continue to wrap your yarn and other products before putting them into the satchel - UNLESS you expressively tell us not to.

Obviously, if your parcel was damaged during transport and our packaging was insufficient to protect your product, please do let us know! Without that type of feedback we can't know what works and what doesn't, so we really appreciate if you can help us in this.

Our solution: Re-using packaging where possible

We will continue to wrap our yarns in plastic but aim to reduce the amount of additional plastic and other packaging used in our business by reusing available packaging whenever possible. Just to name a couple of examples:

  • All the yarns we order in from our wholesaler come packaged in plastic bags.
  • The satchels we buy from Australia Post to ship the products to you are packaged up in additional plastic bags when we buy them, so there is a fair bit of plastic wrapping that is simply on site to start with.
  • Most items we purchase wholesale for our business are shipped to us in large cardboard boxes. We cut these to size to protect breakable items such as knitting needles or other accessories.

It strikes me as crazy and wasteful to throw out all those perfectly fine bags and cardboard boxes simply because they have the wrong wording printed on them.

As a result, you may find that your yarn is wrapped in Australia Post branded plastic bags or in re-used plastic bags from a different yarn brand, or that your knitting needles or your knitting diary are protected by a piece of recycled cardboard.

Your feedback is welcome - this is a tricky topic and we will continue to look out for better solutions.

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