Thursday, December 03, 2020

Have you heard of compostable packaging?

I guess we all agree that 2020 has been an unexpected year. Sustainable and eco-friendly trends that we would certainly see on the next 5 years have been dramatically accelerated. 

With coronavirus, the aspect of hygiene has been added on top of sustainability - and they will often be considered together in products. Now that we are being more responsible and paying attention to the excess of packaging and the necessity of reducing waste as being more thoughtful when receiving parcels made of plastic or as such, the materials we use will be totally reconsidered and more eco-friendly materials will emerge. 

With all this going on, I am so glad to see (mostly) small and emerging designer labels seeking out eco-conscious packaging solutions and considering compostable packaging. However, few luxury brands as Stella McCartney and Mara Hoffman are also on top of it!

There was a rise in e-commerce sales in many countries, as Brazil. Consumers love to have that unboxing experience and sometimes, they even show more the box on Instagram than the product purchased itself. But often, they encounter the need of reducing package waste and the desire of minimal environmental impact. The new designs of compostable mailers on the market are still attractive within an Instagrammable aspect and can make you stand out the crowd for being eco-friendly. 

I will give you some numbers so you have a better perspective:
- Fashion is still one of the most polluting industries (UNCTAD, 2019)
- 72% of consumers believe that retailers use too much delivery packaging for online orders
66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for products that are sustainable and younger consumers favour brands who align with their values
70% of consumers want more product information included on packaging as the origin and how to dispose it

40% of the plastic produced each year is used for packaging
Approximately 300 million tons of plastics are produced every year – and half of this is for single use. Adding to that, only 9% of plastics get recycled (Parker, 2018)
- E-commerce giants delivered 1.88 billion packages only from November 11 to November 16 in 2019

Have you ever heard of 'compostable packaging' before? 
Compostable packaging is a type of sustainable packaging that are typically made of renewable plant-based materials, as corn-starch. They degrade in aerobic conditions the same time as organic materials. To be certified as home compostable it needs to break down in home compost within 180 days. They are a sustainable alternative to tackle the excessive use of plastic. 

There are 2 types of compostable packaging: home or industrial. I highly recommend brands and customers to consume only home compostable ones at that time, as home compostable do not require industrial composting conditions to break down and are able to be composted at home, in your garden or so. Moreover, it is important to highlight that many countries are not prepared for industrial compostable packaging. This makes the compostable type of mailers not yet the best solution, but the most convenient and easier we have so far. New materials and alternatives will emerge, but we should already get rid of plastic and go for something better. So why not opt for compostable mailers right now?

Why is it a good option?
As we could see on the percentages above, Fashion is very polluting and we need some solutions to tackle the problem of excessive waste and packaging. 

Mailers and poly bags used in Fashion have become the symbol of single-use plastic packaging. Plastic is one of the most destructive substances that humans have created. Our industry is heavily dependent on it because it is very cheap, lightweight, durable, strong and waterproof. Basically... All we need! 

But since plastic is so bad for the environment, that means we still did not come up with the perfect material. We need alternatives... and Compostable packaging seems the best so far!

Here are some reasons why compostable mailers are good:
- Majority of compostable mailers come from renewable sources, as corn starch and wheat
- They are highly durable materials and can also be moulded in different shapes
- They only take 6 months to biodegrade (Do you know how many years plastic takes? UP TO 1,000 YEARS!)
- They are waterproof and durable; important aspects for the use in the fashion industry

BUT... The sustainable aspect just takes place when consumers dispose it correctly! 
I found out that compostable mailers are only a truly sustainable option if they are disposed of correctly. This is because if they are discarded incorrectly, they may contaminate the recycling streams. However, many consumers (including people within the fashion industry) do not know how the correct way for the end life of compostable bags is, due to lack of information. With even the most sustainability-focused people feeling confused with the role of compostable materials, it seems that the first thing is to make people aware and care spreading awareness on correct disposal and making eco-friendly practices more mainstream. The real problem to be addressed here is the end stage as we believe the “direct-to-customer” is the challenge (R4GM, 2020) and we do not know what happens after the customer opens the parcel. This is holding us from moving forward on a larger scale of businesses using compostable packaging and less harmful effects on the environment if customers learn how to dispose them.

Many people think that it will end up in the same place if they put in the recycling bin. However, this is such a bad decision that have harmful results since compostable packaging can contaminate all materials in the recycling stream if put together. It means that the whole group can no longer be recycled.

Consumers don’t understand where things come from, and until you educate them, they don’t care. If there was full transparency, everybody would know the impact of fashion, and they would make better decisions.

How to dispose of it correctly?

Some companies are so focused on promoting they are sustainable that forgets about the most important part: the end of this process and that it is on the hands of their consumer, since businesses do not control the end stage of the packaging life cycle. They need to follow through in explaining the importance of correct disposal to customers in a way that they will be able to understand the importance of this role and join forces. 

Some of the main confusion for customers is about the difference between different types of compostable, biodegradable and recyclable packaging. We need to clarify this as soon as possible, as if this is not explained well and disposed properly, it will cause landfill contamination and we will not be any closer to solving the problem in the fashion industry.

I made a survey on Instagram with 136 fashion consumers and asked if they knew the difference between compostable, recyclable and biodegradable. More than half of the interviewees do not know the difference (42% affirm to know and 58% do not know). Consequently, it shows to us that they also do not know how to dispose of correctly.

Majority of them answered they dispose of it in the normal bin, as they are not aware of compost collection spots nor have a compost bin at home. 

A high percentage of people interviewed, 81%, do not know they would contaminate recycling streams in case they would dispose of it in recycling bins.

However, we can see the audience is willing to learn as 89% is interested in knowing of how to dispose of it correctly

I have been also in touch with some companies that produces compostable bags and some said to have a manual on the website on how to proper dispose the item, but many customers do not get to see it or sometimes do not even know that this material exists.

That's how we should dispose of it:

"For disposal, all you need to do is remove any adhesive labels or stickers (unless they are compostable noissue stickers), then simply place your mailer in the compost and allow nature to do its work! If you live in an urban area and don't have a home compost, be sure to check with your local governing body on whether or not they accept certified compostable packaging materials at their facility." (No Issue, 2020). 

The lack of education is a key thing, but we also need to improve the systems. Many people do not have a home compost nor access to any compost spot near their house. At the moment, it is like we have the right product, but not enough information nor a good composting system to make use of it. Countries should align internationally on the focus for compostable packaging applications. We know that giving more education to consumers is the crucial step at the beginning.

Where to find compostable mailers for your brand?

Where to buy your own compost bin? 

The world in five years will look very different for packaging, so every small move towards this will count from now on <3

Have you ever received a compostable mailer when shopping online?

xx Brenda
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