Definitive Guide to Sustainable Packaging
Our framework for eco friendly shipping solutions
Terms like “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” get thrown around so frequently that it can be hard to know what they even mean. Can packaging be labeled “sustainable” just because it can be recycled? Because it is recycled? Because it was made with renewable resources? Because it can biodegrade?
These questions are tough!
The practice of greenwashing (companies promoting good practices without having truly considered ecological impact) is rampant in part because these topics are so complex that most of us can’t really distinguish between what is truly “best” for the planet versus what simply sounds good.
So we wrote this to clarify - for ourselves, our partners, and the amazing companies we get to work with - what we mean by eco-friendly packaging, why we’ve made the choices we have.
We hope that after you read this, you’ll come away with (1) an understanding of how thoughtfully and carefully we’ve developed our product line, (2) the tensions and tradeoffs we all need to consider when it comes to sustainable packaging, and (3) ideas for how you can continue to make your shipping strategy as eco-friendly as possible - regardless of whether you are working with us or another packaging provider.
Our framework is based on extensive research, discussions with experts and internal debates. As technology and infrastructure advances and we learn new information, we’ll continue to refine our thinking, product line and this document.
Before you read on, we have two important caveats. First: We welcome feedback or alternative perspectives! If you have them, please email me pronto (firstname.lastname@example.org)! We’re always looking to learn and evolve, especially given how rapidly this space is advancing.
Second: A lot of (perhaps even most?) sources out there are biased. Obviously organizations like The American Plastics Council, American Forest and Paper Association Home, and Hemp Industries Association have a vested interest in you believing their material or product is an ecological superhero. EcoEnclose is not tied to any one packaging solution or type of material. As such, we seek out sources with as little bias as possible, but ultimately read all of the information out there, looking for the consistent facts across them to try to tease out what is “true” versus what is a motivated, self-supporting argument.
- We prioritize packaging that is made with as much recycled content as humanly possible. Within “recycled content” we seek the highest level of post-consumer waste (versus post-industrial waste) allowable without hindering the quality of the packaging. For certain packaging needs, recycled content (especially post-consumer recycled content) is not feasible or practical. When we find this to be the case, we first look to post-industrial content and next to packaging made with renewable raw materials. Read more!
- We prioritize materials that are as easily recyclable as possible, with a focus on those that can be recycled back into themselves (versus downcycled into a lower value item). Read more!
- There is no silver bullet raw, eco-friendly material for ecommerce packaging today, and there is no singular awful material that must be avoided. Paper, plastic, and bioplastic have important pros and cons to consider. Because of the first two criteria above, EcoEnclose has prioritized recycled paper and recycled plastic ecommerce packaging and has not focused on virgin bioplastics. Read more!
- There is no one-size-fits-all sustainable container type that meets the diverse needs of ecommerce companies. EcoEnclose stocks eco-friendly mailers and shipping boxes of all sizes and styles so conscious companies can choose the one that best protects their product and presents their brand. Read more!
- How materials and packaging are manufactured is critical, regardless of the packaging material. EcoEnclose seeks US-based supply chain partners with demonstrated commitments to transparent sourcing, renewable energy, minimizing resource utilization, and responsible waste management. Read more!
- We help ecommerce businesses reduce the volume of packaging and material they need to use by providing custom shipping boxes sized perfectly for the products they are delivering and mailers in a broad variety of sizes. Read more!
- We use the most eco-minded inks possible for printing and branding, with a focus on those that use as little petroleum as possible, produce the least amount of toxins, and that have a low impact on recycling or composting. We see inks as a major opportunity for continued innovation and look forward to offering new, more eco-friendly ink technology in the near future. Read more!
- We help our customers motivate their customers to reuse or recycle their packaging to support the cradle-to-cradle cycle of materials. Read more!
- We are honest and transparent. We state the minimum recycled content levels of our products and never use meaningless phrases (such as up to 15% recycled content) to describe them. We provide detail on post-consumer content levels and information on how items can be recycled. Read more!
- We are always seeking new innovations and are open to evolving our framework and product line as we learn and as technology advances. Read more!
Need a cheat sheet? Here you go!
Curious to know why we’ve made these decisions? Read on to eco-geek out with us!
1. We prioritize packaging that is made with as much recycled content as humanly possible. Within “recycled content” we seek the highest level of post-consumer waste (versus post-industrial waste) allowable without hindering the quality of packaging. For certain packaging needs, recycled content (especially post-consumer recycled content) is not feasible or practical. When we find this to be the case, we first look to post-industrial content and next to packaging made with renewable raw materials.
Why are we so maniacal about recycled content?
For two reasons.
First, items made with recycled content use less energy and resources than those made with virgin content. This is true for paper and plastic. According to Katherine Guerin, executive director of the Maine Resource Recovery Association, for every 1 ton of scrap paper we recycle, we save: 17 trees, 4200 kilowatt hours of electricity, 7000 gallons of water, and 3 cubic yards of landfill space. In addition, 60 pounds of effluents are not emitted into the air. According to the U.S. EPA, the generation of clean recycled plastic resin required 71 trillion Btu less than the amount of energy that would be required to produce the equivalent tonnage of virgin PET and HDPE resin. The amount of energy saved by recycling PET and HDPE containers, including bottles, in 2008 was the equivalent to the annual energy use of 750,000 U.S. homes. The corresponding savings in greenhouse gas emissions was 2.1 million tons of CO 2 equivalents, an amount comparable to taking 360,000 cars off the road. All of these calculations include the energy required to receive, sort and transport waste back into the raw materials stream.
The second reason we have prioritized goods made with recycled materials, and specifically those with as much post-consumer waste as possible, is to be a market force for recycled material. A MRF, or “murf,” is a materials recovery facility. This is where recyclable material is received and sorted by a combination of awe-inspiring machines and even more awe-inspiring people. At the end of the MRF line, items are consolidated by commodity type (aluminum, corrugated, paper, plastic PET bottles, etc). MRF’s “traders” then look for the price they can get for each commodity type on a given day. In some cases, this means shipping pallets of aluminum or corrugated to a neighboring state, and in other cases it means sending commodities all the way to China. Recycling therefore only works if these “recycling traders” can make money, which only happens if there are eager buyers for these goods.
At the same time, it is important to understand that for some materials (such as paper), recycled content (especially post-consumer content) is inherently “weaker” than virgin material. With our current technologies, each next stage in a material's life (i.e. after a new round of recycling) leads to fibers that are shorter and thinner. Because of this, recycled material isn’t feasible today for all possible use cases. However, the impact of these shorter fibers are negligible when it comes to almost all ecommerce packaging scenarios. [Link to “quality” piece]
Because ecommerce packaging is uniquely suited to utilize recycled content, we see an important role for EcoEnclose to play in strengthening the demand for recycled inputs. This would make the economics of recycling more appealing to waste management companies and incentivizes manufacturers to go above and beyond to find ways to use post-consumer waste in their manufacturing.
By focusing on recycled and recyclable packaging, we stay true to our overall commitment to “cradle-to-cradle” thinking and to making thoughtful decisions based on the entire lifecycle of a material.
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2. We prioritize materials that are as easily recyclable as possible, with a focus on those that can be recycled back into themselves (versus downcycled into a lower value item).
Why are we more focused on recycling than composting?
We LOVE composting here at EcoEnclose. When it comes to food (after you’ve made all efforts at source reduction), yard trimmings, and paper/wood items that cannot be reused or recycled, composting is the best way to dispose of these goods. Instead of emitting greenhouse gases in a landfill, carbon from these items is instead captured within the compost and becomes a nutrient-rich soil amendment.
While we see promise and merit in compostable packaging, we at EcoEnclose have not prioritized ecommerce packaging that is compostable but not recyclable, (except in those scenarios where we aren’t able to find viable recycled/recyclable alternatives). Note that here, we are largely referring to bioplastics, which are most likely to be compostable but not recyclable. Note that there is an emerging trend towards plant-based paperboard packaging, such as bamboo, hemp and straw-based paper. Most (though not all) of these items are both recyclable and compostable.
Here’s why we’ve made this decision for now.
First, access to recycling is far more widespread than composting, especially in the U.S. Typically, unless they are certified for home compost, compostable synthetic material (e.g. bioplastics such as PLA “7”) cannot just be tossed in your home compost bin or in the dirt. These generally require microorganisms inside a professionally managed compost facility to consume them within a relatively short period of time. Unfortunately, less than 1% of the country has access to curbside collection of mixed compost, which, unlike standard composting facilities that only accept yard trimmings, are centers that accept food scraps, bioplastics, paper, etc. On the other hand, over 87% of the US has access to recycling.
Second, compostable materials that are NOT recyclable are screwing up the recycling stream. PLA #7 is an example of this. Many people send their PLA 7 (bio-based compostable plastic, often in plastic cups and utensils) to the recycling facility. PLA 7 is not accepted by almost every recycling facility in the U.S. At the MRF, this plastic will either be sorted out and sent to the landfill or be mistaken for “normal” plastic during the sorting process. If a MRF sells a bale of plastic with too much PLA contamination in it, it could be rejected on delivery to its buyer, and the entire bale would be landfill bound.
Third, today compostable bioplastics are almost entirely virgin materials, made directly from the (often GMO, rarely sustainably grown) corn, sugarcane or other plants grown solely to create this material. As such, it does not align with our commitment to recycled content.
Fourth, while some bioplastics are compostable, they don’t necessarily lead to great compost and many industrial composting facilities are already fearing the anticipated growth in bioplastics they might see in the future. Composting facilities that cater to organic farmers can’t accept these items. Bioplastics go through a process of polymerization, so they are “synthetic materials” and therefore don’t meet the USDA’s National Organic Program’s standards. Lindsay Fernandez-Salvador, a program manager at the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), which determines whether specific agricultural input products, such as compost, can be certified organic states that if compost has any synthetic materials in it, we disallow it.
Note that there is an emergence of new materials that actually biodegrade very easily by soaking the item in hot water, for example. We are intrigued by these new technologies and may explore them going forward if they meet other important aspects of our sustainability framework.
But what about all of the packaging that ends up in the landfill or the oceans? Isn’t compostable or biodegradable more important than recyclability for this reason?
Packaging that is compostable or even just biodegradable but not recyclable has an important place in the industry (e.g. food packaging, plastic grocery bags, etc), but we don’t see it as being a silver bullet for ecommerce.
Let’s split this into two parts.
First, the oceans. This is a huge issue. At 7.7 million square miles, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest of several trash (mostly plastic) vortexes in the ocean. What is in these plastic patches? The world's Navies and commercial shipping fleets make a significant contribution, throwing some 639,000 plastic containers overboard every day, along with their other litter. Fishermen’s netting is also a major culprit. But an estimated 80% of marine plastic was initially discarded on land (United Nations Environmental Programme). Wind blows litter and items atop landfill-bound loads into rivers, streams and storm drains and then ride the tides and currents out to sea. Litter is also very prevalent on many beaches. Common items include plastic bottles, plastic bottle caps, food packaging, toothbrushes, tampon applicators, pocket combs, cigarette lighters, and plastic grocery bags. All of this really sucks, and it is hard to even write it without feeling a wash of depression at the injustice humans are causing the earth and marine life as we choke and poison them with plastic.
But for the purposes of a guide to sustainable ecommerce packaging, it is important to note that shipping packaging - mailers and boxes of any material - are typically not the items that become litter. These items end up, HOPEFULLY, in the recycling stream or - worst case scenario - in landfill-bound trash bins. Unlike plastic grocery bags and candy wrappers, shipping mailers (even poly mailers) are generally disposed in a home garbage, are flat, and just heavy enough that they are not picked up by the wind and blown into water or trees.
Now, let’s take the landfills. We hate landfills for a few reasons. Mainly because every item sent to a landfill is done and cannot be used again. This is a complete waste of all of the natural resources and human energy that went into its development. Every item in the landfill is a missed opportunity to give new life to something. “Landfill culture” also wreaks havoc. The idea that you can so easily dispose of something means people never truly have to come to grips with what they buy, use and throw away every day.
Beyond this, there are two tangible concerns related to landfills. One is that we are running out of landfill space. Bryan Staley, PhD, PE, president and chief executive officer of the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF), believes we have 60 years of capacity left in our nation’s current landfill facilities. However, some states are facing more dire shortages. Seven states will run out of landfill space within five years and are therefore shipping trash to faraway states - a costly and energy intensive process. It is likely, however, that as space diminishes, landfills will eventually become waste-to-energy plants, which accounts for just 13% of U.S. waste management, but is far more common across Europe where land is at a premium.
The second issue is that landfills are major GHG emitters and water polluters. When waste is first deposited in a landfill, it undergoes an aerobic (with oxygen) decomposition stage where little methane is generated. Then, typically within less than 1 year, anaerobic conditions are established and methane-producing bacteria begin to decompose the waste. This decomposition happens very gradually but still generates landfill gas (LFG), a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material in landfills. LFG is composed of roughly 50 percent methane (the primary component of natural gas), 50 percent carbon dioxide (CO2) and a small amount of non-methane organic compounds. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas 28 to 36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year period. Municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane (after fossil fuel production and livestock farming) emissions in the United States, accounting for approximately 15.4 percent of these emissions in 2015. Note that this does not have to be the case. If used effectively, LFG can be a great source of energy. Today, 35% of waste ends up at landfills that capture methane for energy, and the EPA is working to get more landfills in this camp.
Back to ecommerce packaging. Today, with the U.S. infrastructure as it is, if packaging unfortunately gets to a landfill rather than to a recycling or composting facility, we would actually prefer for it to NOT be biodegradable because we are more concerned with LFG emissions than landfill space. Non-biodegradable materials in a landfill are fairly benign, while materials that biodegrade will more readily undergo anaerobic digestion that creates methane. Over time, as more and more US landfills capture and use these emissions for energy, or as more and more landfills move to WTE plants, we will evolve our thinking on this point.
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3. There is no silver bullet raw eco-friendly material for ecommerce packaging today. Paper, plastic, and bioplastic have important pros and cons to consider. Because of the first two criteria above, we have prioritized recycled paper and recycled plastic ecommerce packaging and have not focused on virgin bioplastics.
Despite the demonization of plastic, paper is not necessarily a better solution in all instances. Paper made with wheat straw or hemp is not necessarily better or worse than paper made with wood. And bioplastics are not necessarily better than traditional plastic.
Our first and most important considerations for a material are how well it meets criteria #1 (can recycled content be used for this material?) and #2 (how easily can the material be recycled back into itself?).
But we also recognize a myriad of other factors related to sourcing, manufacturing and distribution of a material:
Are the raw materials for that material renewable or nonrenewable?
What are the resource implications of manufacturing of the raw material? How much energy is needed, water is consumed, and pollution is created through the manufacturing process?
What are the energy and resource requirements of distributing and storing the raw materials?
Because of the complexity of this topic, we have a separate article dedicated to research behind the question of Paper versus Plastic (versus Bio-Plastic).
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4. There is no one-size-fits-all sustainable container type that meets the diverse needs of ecommerce companies. EcoEnclose stocks eco-friendly mailers and shipping boxes of all sizes and styles so conscious companies can choose the one that best protects their product and presents their brand.
In some instances, boxes are better solutions than bags or mailers. In other instances, mailers or envelopes are preferred, and in others a poster roll may be best.
From a sustainability perspective (not to mention a customer experience and company success perspective), product returns have one of the most negative impacts on the environment. Therefore, the single most important step is for a company to determine the form and structure of packaging that will safely deliver their products, minimizing damages and associated returns.
We also want the conscious companies we work with to be the ones that flourish, which is in part done through excited, loyal customers. Therefore, packaging needs to reflect a company’s brand and their desired customer experience. Check out our Guide to Ecommerce Packaging for guidance on what packaging solutions might work best for your specific product or product set.
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5. How materials and packaging are manufactured is critical. We seek US-based supply chain partners with demonstrated commitments to renewable energy, minimizing resource utilization, responsible waste management.
Let’s take traditional pulp and paper mills as an example. The industry can be extremely damaging - 20% of toxic waste in the air in the U.S. is due to the pulp and paper industry, and wastewater pollution is a very big problem, as manufacturing discharges contain pollutants such as lignin, chlorates, transition metals, nitrogen, phosphorus to name just a few of the toxins that should not be spreading into our rivers and oceans.
However, a paper mill that has a comprehensive water reuse system, utilizes wind and solar energy, scrubs air emissions and water before release, offsets its carbon emissions, and obtains reputable certifications to prove these action will drastically reduce its negative impact. In fact, a great papermill can actually have a positive impact, such as taking in dirty water from a river and releasing clean water.
EcoEnclose looks for partners that clearly communicate their sustainable actions and where relevant, can verify them with certifications. For example, our manufacturing partner for box raw materials is certified by the Forest Sustainability Initiative. Our manufacturing partner for recycled poly-based materials has a robust system to recycle internally generated waste (and accepts poly mailers from consumers to go back into their manufacturing stream), uses only water based inks and adhesives, and is a member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Our manufacturing partner for our office paper sources FSC-certified paper, has invested heavily in wind energy for its manufacturing, and has received Rainforest Alliance chain-of-custody certification to manufacture paper in accordance to FSC standards. We also prioritize manufacturing facilities that are based in the United States, and when that is not possible, we seek facilities in other countries with high emissions standards.
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6. We help ecommerce businesses reduce the volume of packaging and material they need to use by providing custom shipping boxes sized perfectly for the products they are delivering and mailers in a broad variety of sizes.
Source material reduction is the most important step that can be taken in improving one’s carbon footprint - remember that “reduce” comes first in the sustainability mantra of reduce-reuse-recycle. Reduction of material comes in a few different ways at EcoEnclose.
First, we carry no stock shipping boxes. Every single box we make is custom cut to your specifications. We also carry a large spectrum of sizes of our various mailers. We hope these steps help you use packaging that conforms as perfectly to your goods as possible, eliminating excess air, material and the need for void fill. While we do stock “flap and seals” (clear bags that provide protection within the outer shipping container), we have taken steps to carry only mailers and boxes that are sturdy enough such that this type of inner protection is not needed unless your supply chain requires it. We stock Water Activated Tape, which is stronger than pressure sensitive tape, and you typically can use much less of it to keep your packaging together.
We also look for ways to reduce source material within our own operations. For example, our product bundles must be shrink wrapped in order to protect them from damage, dust and smudges; however, recently we were able to a source a film that is half as thick, allowing us to reduce material usage. For every order that goes out our warehouse doors, we custom measure and cut its shipping box!
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7. We use the most eco-minded inks possible for printing and branding, with a focus on those that use as little petroleum as possible, produce the least amount of toxins, and that have a low impact on recycling or composting. We see inks as a major opportunity for continued innovation and look forward to bringing customers net-positive inks from Living Ink Technologies as their options evolve.
It won’t surprise anyone to learn that the world of sustainability and printing is as complex and multifaceted as the world of plastic versus paper or compostable versus recyclable. Ink is made up of a myriad of substances - the pigment (about 20% by volume) and then all of the other substances that carry, transfer, dry and bind the pigment to the ultimate substance. The primary vehicle in an ink to transfer and adhere a pigment ink can either be solvent-based or water-based, or the pigment can go through a heat curing type of process.
Solvent-based ink can be predominantly made with petroleum or vegetable-oil based.
In thinking about sustainability, it is important to consider whether or not the raw materials are renewable, how much energy is needed to transfer the ink to its material, how much and what kind of emissions (specifically, VOCs - volatile organic compounds) are created when the ink dries and how well the ink works in the recycling stream. And of course, the ink has to work! It has to adhere to its packaging, dry without smudging, and stay on for the lifespan of the package. We use water-based ink for our mailers and soy-based ink for our boxes.
We have selected these inks as they emit fewer VOCs, are healthier and more pleasant for the people actually printing packaging, are made with more renewable materials than many of their counterparts, and research has shown they can be extracted from pulp more easily as part of the recycling process.
Truth be told, however, we are not where we want to be yet in printing, and we hope that as technology advances we can continue to improve the sustainability of our inks. We are pleased to be partnering with Living Ink Technologies, a company developing algae-based inks, in which the pigments themselves are living algae cells and the rest of the ink is made with algae and other plant based substances. These are 100% free of toxins, can be washed off skin with just water, and safe for the composting or recycling stream. Thus far Living Ink has developed a black ink and will follow this with a myriad of colors. Over time, we hope to make this a standard offering.
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8. We help you motivate your customers to reuse or recycle their packaging to support the cradle-to-cradle cycle of materials.
Obviously reusing packaging is an excellent move. Boxes can be used for organizing or storage. Our 100% recycled poly mailers can be reused once with their dual peel-and-seal. If you think your packaging can be reused, give your customers ideas on how!
We recognize that reusing packaging is unlikely to be the norm. Because of this, we are obsessed with ensuring that recyclable packaging is actually recycled. In fact, our ultimate hope is that one day, all packaging is made with 100% recycled material.
This can only be achieved if people actually recycle (and therefore create the stream of raw recycled materials that incentivize companies to innovate in their ability to manufacture with recycled content)! Recycling packaging means avoiding landfills (where packaging takes up room and can generate landfill gas emissions) and, more importantly, that these raw materials are reused productively instead of wasted. Recycling packaging also enables your local MRFs (recycling sorting facilities) to be economically viable. If packaging is recyclable and compostable (such as a cardboard shipping box), recycling has a better ecological impact. So we encourage recycling first and composting as a second option.
So we work to help you encourage your customers to recycle their packaging. We do this with our We Care Cards, our “recyclable” symbols on our mailers, and our stock printed Water Activated Tape and 100% Recycled Eco Friendly Poly Mailers. We have written blog posts and have FAQs on our website to help you and your customers get quick access to packaging recycling tips. Helping your customers recycle LDPE #4 plastic (such as poly mailers) is one of the most important steps we can all take. LDPE #4 is typically not curbside recyclable because it is flimsy and can get caught in MRF machinery. However, LDPE #4 can be dropped off at most grocery stores along with plastic bags, so there are very few communities across the US that do not have relatively easy access to this step.
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9. We are honest and transparent. We state the minimum recycled content levels of our products and never use meaningless phrases (such as up to 15% recycled content) to describe them. We provide detail on post-consumer content levels and information on how items can be recycled.
There are few things that frustrate us as much as vague, false or limited information in the world of sustainability. How often have we seen a recycling label on a plastic package with the words “please recycle” but absolutely no number on it to help you recycle it properly? How often have we heard from packaging manufacturers that they can’t make any guarantees but can promise “up to 40% recycled content”? Or have heard, “Don’t worry, our packaging is biodegradable”? Or have learned about a packaging line that uses significantly less recycled content than they claim on their website?
This isn’t always greenwashing. Often, it is actually a well-intentioned attempt to do good and to embrace and promote sustainable practices.
But by making vague or false claims, these providers do a major disservice to consumers and to the industry. They stall innovation and market drivers towards a more eco-friendly and regenerative future for packaging. They inadvertently convey to the public that, “Hey, this sustainable packaging thing is easy!”
Our promise to you is to be specific and transparent about why each item we provide is eco-friendly and where relevant, be open as to what we can and are doing to make it more sustainable long-term. We will answer any questions you have on the composition of our packaging.
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10. We are always seeking new innovations and are open to evolving our framework and product line as we learn and as technology advances.
Access to industrial composting is very sparse right now, but we know it will expand rapidly. Advances are being made in the manufacturing and recyclability of bio-based plastics. Reusable, returnable packaging is starting to be explored in the world of ecommerce, a trend we love. Hemp, straw and bamboo-based paperboard packaging are on the rise. Their price points are typically too high to be feasible for an ecommerce packaging solution or they are manufactured in China in facilities and practices that are difficult to monitor and audit. But this is all likely to change over time. MRFs (recycling sorting facilities) could soon get equipment that allows them to isolate LDPE #4 so plastic bags and poly mailers can be accepted in single-stream curbside recycling nationwide.
As progress is made on these and many more fronts, we will adjust our framework, explore new technologies, and may be quicker to embrace solutions we are currently not prioritizing, such as compostable-only, bioplastic or alternative paper solutions.
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