While they have yet to receive as much public scrutiny as plastic grocery bags, polybags have a large environmental impact on our planet. They are a threat to human health as well as the environment. If littered, polybags have the potential to obstruct waterways or be ingested by animals. In addition, very few polybags are curbside recyclable as a result, if/when polybags end up in curbside recycling it causes havoc at municipal recycling facilities because the bags wrap around the machines. If polybags create a negative environmental impact then why does society still use them?
Attendees at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s event SPC Advance 2019 were asked to tally their reasons for using polybags as part of the Workshop: Sustainable Packaging Considerations for Polybags in Apparel – How Do We Get Products From A-Z Safely?. Seven options were provided to attendees to select from. The largest reasons for using polybags were dust/dirt protection, moisture protection, and cost. Additionally, requirements from third party sellers/platforms was an honorable mention not listed as an option by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.
There are a plethora of choices to pick from when it comes to alternatives for polybags but the first step is for a company to consider why they are using them in the first place. Keeping that reasoning in mind, the company may be able to get rid of the bags entirely or they may explore alternatives. For example, Patagonia tested the elimination of polybags for their products. Their findings showed that polybags were needed in order to prevent damage between the factory and distribution center. Noting that damaged products cost valuable resources: “Energy, water and resources are used to make each product and we want them to be worn. A damaged product that is unwearable has a far greater environmental cost than manufacturing a polybag. However, this is not the case for most situations” (Cohen, Nellie, and Elissa Loughman).
The following alternatives were compared in EcoImpact-COMPASS. The comparison assumed a single-use of each alternative, with each bag weighing 1 gram. We recognize in the real world the weights would vary between materials.
Looking at typical polyethylene options
- LDPE: The baseline we see most companies utilizing. This has a high fossil fuel use.
- LDPE w/ Post Consumer Recycled (PCR) content: We assumed 100% PCR content for this comparison. This showed the best out of the four polyethylene options we modeled.
- LLDPE: This option shows the highest water use in comparison to the other three typical polyethylene options we modeled.
- LLDPE w/ PCR content: We assumed 100% PCR content for this comparison.
A switch to 100% PCR content helps reduce the reliance on virgin plastics while increasing the demand for PCR content. This option does not necessarily work for all products. For example, the United States Food and Drug Administration (U.S. FDA) is strict with the use of recycled plastics in food packaging. The U.S. FDA may make an exception to the use of recycled plastics in food-contact applications, if the company submits the information asked for on the U.S. FDA website. In addition, incorporating PCR content does not always produce a clear bag as a result a switch to 100% PCR content may not be a good option for products going through customs.
The graphic above depicts the modeling of four different polyethylene options. In this scenario the polybag (LDPE) w/ PCR content shows the best.
Additional options include 1.) making the bag from a fabric and 2.) making a compostable bag. These alternatives are compared to the polybag (LDPE) w/ PCR content below.
- Fabric bag: For this example we modeled the fabric bag as polyester with no PCR content. This shows as the worst option.
- Compostable bag: For this example we modeled the compostable bag as bio-LLDPE. In making this switch, a company usually increases their freshwater eutrophication because of the additional nutrients required to produce bio feedstocks. The nutrients can runoff into waterways and can potentially harm ecosystems.
There are trade-offs when considering any new packaging, companies should also examine non-LCA impact categories such as damage rate and cost. An important note, switching the materials for a polybag could make the bag recyclable. The downside of this switch is that the recyclable polybag may not be curbside recyclable. To avoid unwanted polybags in curbside recycling, we recommend if a company makes their polybags recyclable they include language on the bag similar to “recyclable via in-store drop off. Check locally if allowed in curbside recycling.” A How2Recycle label may help.
In conclusion, society cannot get rid of polybags entirely. Although, steps can be taken to reduce the amount of polybags used. The first step is to reduce the use of polybags. A company can examine their reasons for utilizing polybags and decide if one is needed to ship their product. If reduction is not possible, a company can look at the alternatives to polybags, including still using them but making them recyclable, manufacturing the bags with PCR content, or switching materials to a bio based material. Finally, society needs to adopt more ways to reuse and recycle polybags.
Is your company looking to compare polybag alternatives? With EcoImpact-COMPASS you can easily model a baseline and compare it to alternatives or model your company’s entire portfolio. Don’t have time? Trayak’s sustainability consultants can do it for you! Try EcoImpact-COMPASS for free: https://ecoimpact.trayak.com/WebLca/dist/#/trialregister
Cohen, Nellie, and Elissa Loughman. “Patagonia’s Plastic Packaging – A Study on the Challenges of Garment Delivery.” The Cleanest Line, 22 June 2017, https://www.patagonia.com/blog/2014/07/patagonias-plastic-packaging-a-study-on-the-challenges-of-garment-delivery/.