Brands and retailers: Please contact email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how to get started Consumers: Give feedback to the brands and retailers you purchase outdoor apparel and gear from, asking them whether they’re already involved or if they intend to be.
After sending 3.2 tons of used industry poly bags through a recycling test in 2019, we discovered that even without removing contaminants such as stickers, glue, tape and ink, our poly bags are collectively recycled at an equivalent of 95/5 quality (i.e. 5% contaminant). The organisations involved in the recycling trials are asked to minimise contaminants as much as possible without interfering unduly with their operational efficiency, and the Polybag Standards Document proposes design solutions to minimise such contaminants in the first place.
According to Plastic Recyclers Europe (www.plasticreyclers.eu) the positive properties of plastics, such as strength, rigidity, flexibility, affordability and durability, are retained after recycling. Feedback from recycled poly bag manufacturers indicates that, whilst there may be a slight reduction in overall performance and appearance of 100% recycled LDPE poly bags, it is possible to add in a small quantity of virgin LDPE to improve strength and reliability.
Because, for many products, it serves a very important function: protection. For certain products there is a very real need for product protection: in transit to protect from dust and moisture; in warehouses to protect from damage during transport and storage; and in distribution centres and retail outlets to preserve cleanliness on handling. Currently, there remains a need to continue using protective packaging in circumstances where the environmental conditions cannot be controlled or for particular product lines which are more prone to damage or discolouration (e.g. white t-shirts). The project initially aimed to remove single use poly bags entirely from the value chain, from manufacturing facilities predominantly in Asia to distribution and retail locations across Europe. However, initial tests indicated that this frequently results in substantial product loss from damage, rendering them unsellable. When the product represents such a significant environmental cost, any damage to products quickly offsets the minute gains from poly bag elimination efforts. The least sustainable packaging I s the type in which the product is damaged or unsellable. It is possible, however, to remove polybags from certain product types which are less likely to be affected during transit or storage (e.g. certain hardgoods, rugged backpacks etc.) and we are encouraging brands to explore this and implement it within their own value chains.
Alternative materials tend to shift, rather than mitigate or even lessen, environmental impacts, and often present new and increasingly problematic negative costs which are equally difficult to control or eliminate. Although natural materials such as paper or cotton may be preferable in terms of littering or human toxicity, packaging made from these materials may not provide the necessary levels of moisture protection required of the outdoor products being shipped or stored. Bio-based plastics, meanwhile, are a novel and complex class of materials that are fully or partially derived from renewable biological sources. Some are identical to classical petrochemical based plastics, others are derived from plant-based renewable materials and, within these two categories, some are biodegradable whilst others are not. Research is still being undertaken to determine the true sustainability profile of these materials as the current data is inconsistent and inconclusive. These materials are not always harmless to the environment, as most bio-based plastics are synthesised into polymers that do not readily break down in nature, and they are only truly biodegradable/compostable under industrial environmental conditions. In addition, their end-of-life treatment can be problematic given their inability to be recycled together with conventional plastics. Whilst advances are being made in the development of water soluble materials for apparel packaging, which can potentially either be disposed of by dissolving in water, or through composting under suitable conditions, it is unlikely they will biodegrade naturally in a landfill. Although this type of material has been described as recyclable, it is considered a contaminant when mixed with conventional plastic, which would reduce the recyclability of more common films. There is also uncertainly over the true solubility potential of some materials at lower temperatures as, in order to create a polybag which is strong enough to adequately protect a product, the material would require a higher temperature for dissolution, making them less likely to dissolve and/or biodegrade in natural marine environments such as the ocean. Questions also remain around the stability of this type of packaging when used in changeable environments and humid conditions (e.g. when shipping from Asia to Europe) and the effects of long-term storage. At present, the ecological gains are not yet sufficiently evident in water soluble plastics to merit wide-spread industry adoption. These alternative materials are not a panacea and can frequently be a step in the wrong direction in terms of ecological impact.
Paper is often considered to be the obvious environmentally friendly alternative to plastic, however in terms of sustainability, the production of paper (when compared to plastic) can result in significantly greater energy requirements, the destruction of slow-growing trees/forests, and the emission of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. There are also concerns about the durability of paper packaging during international transport and storage, particularly if exposed to moisture/humid conditions.
In our industry, survey results from our project team in 2018 indicated that the largest proportion of single use plastics comes from our garment poly bags, that is clear LDPE-based plastic bags which protect garments during transit from the manufacturer to distribution centres, then to retailers or directly to consumers. Notably, this excludes poly bag mailers used for shipping products, as well as peripheral plastic packaging sometimes found on products such as hang tags, strapping, kimbles, etc. These were deemed out of scope of this project, as they were found to be a very small proportion of the value chain’s single use plastic with highly accessible and suitable alternatives already available in the market.
What is important to this project is that the poly bags are returned to the resource stream with the smallest degree of material degradation and loss as possible. The recycling system we have tested and are implementing allows the material to be reprocessed at a very high grade, capable of further transparent applications. Although we do not compel our poly bags to become the next generation of poly bags, we want to ensure that this will be possible from a materials perspective. We see intrinsic value in pulling from global recycled plastic markets in Asia, and then pushing our poly bags back onto the recycled plastic market in Europe.