A More Sustainable Clear Poly Bag

Recycled Plastic: A More Sustainable Bag, Baby

There are so many challenges and concerns related to plastic.

Most plastic is fossil fuel based. Some plastics have toxins, making them unsafe to use for food and beverage consumption. And the typical end of life story around plastic is depressing -- it either ends up in the landfill where it basically lives forever or worse, it ends up as litter, where it ultimately ends up in the ocean, making it a danger for all marine life.

However, plastic is ubiquitous. Why? Because from a functional standpoint it offers tremendous advantages to natural alternatives. Plastic can be molded into various thicknesses and strengths and can be made rigid or flexible; it can be made clear; it’s waterproof and has strong air permeability characteristics. It’s also relatively lightweight, meaning that it’s more energy efficient (and cost efficient) to ship and store than most alternatives.

These functional advantages are why ecommerce businesses often turn to plastic when protecting and shipping their goods.

One element of ecommerce packaging that’s important to the operations of some businesses is the “Clear Bag” (aka “Protective Bag or Clear Poly Bag”).

A clear plastic bag is generally made of plastic and is used to (1) protect and (2) separate products. They are typically self sealing.

These clear bags with adhesive flap (or seal) then go inside of the main packages goods are shipped in.

There are three reasons a business might want or even need to use clear poly bags.

  1. A requirement put forth by their fulfillment center: More and more, ecommerce businesses utilize third party fulfillment houses who store their products and fulfill the orders they receive. Amazon FBA is the most ubiquitous example of this type of operation. Most of them (including Amazon FBA) require that companies send their products individually packaged. Apparel is required to be individually wrapped in clear bags. For the fulfillment center, this ensures that products remain clean and protected while they are stored, and it makes the process of finding, grabbing and packing orders much easier for their staff. Many fulfillment centers also require that companies use clear bags with suffocation warnings (which is a requirement in place in several states).

  2. How goods are received: Apparel manufacturers will often individually wrap garments in clear plastic bags. These bags are then placed in shipping boxes and sent to the company’s warehouse or fulfillment center. Why? Mainly for protection and more accurate quality assurance and sorting. If an apparel company receives goods in usable clear bags, it often makes sense for them to use these same clear bags when shipping products out, for added product protection in transit.

  3. In-transit inner protection: Some companies manufacture and fulfill in house but still use clear bags for protection because they believe the protection of their products is essential. This is often the case for companies that produce prints and other art or apparel brands that ship in paper-based packaging. A layer of protection by using clear bags for art prints ensures the goods are protected from dust and weather damage. And while it may seem wasteful, it is important to note that if even a small percentage of goods are damaged in transit, the ecological impact of throwing the goods away (or sending them back to the manufacturer for repair) is much worse than the impact of the bags being used. And, if you are an artist that put tremendous effort into producing your piece, you know that its damage can’t begin to be measured in only cost and environmental impact.

If your business doesn’t need clear bags for inner protection, then great! It’s awesome to be able to cut down on this added layer of single use packaging.

If your business does have a clear need for clear bags, look for ways to make this element of your packaging as sustainable as possible.

There are two potential paths to achieving more sustainable clear bags

The first is by exploring bioplastic. Most bioplastic based bags are either compostable (in an industrial facility) or (if they are not certified) must be landfilled.

The second (and, we think, ecologically superior) option is to opt for 100% recycled clear bags and to make it as likely as possible that your customers recycle those bags. Why?

Traditional compostable bioplastic uses all virgin materials (and often, materials that are produced through intensive, polluting agriculture). They aren’t recyclable but are often recycled, potentially contaminating the recycling stream. They do not biodegrade in the ocean, so they do not offer any protection for the marine plastic pollution crisis. They do not biodegrade in the landfill, and behave exactly as any traditional plastic would in that environment. And, when they do end up being composted, they are not necessarily positive additions to a compost heap. A rich, healthy compost heap would be made with an ample volume of decomposing plants and food. A small amount of bioplastic is acceptable but too much volume leads to lower quality, less healthy compost which is worse for the environment and much harder for these facilities to sell.

On the other hand, recycled plastic is made of waste. By creating products out of the recycling waste stream, you actually strengthen your ability to recycle because you help create the markets that are necessary to driving the recycling supply chain. Recycled plastic uses 30-80% less energy than traditional plastic, and in many cases is more energy efficient and less polluting than bioplastic.

Finally, the vast majority of Americans have access (through grocery store drop offs) to a venue to recycle their plastic. Creating campaigns to encourage the recycling of recyclable plastic bags is something that all companies can execute. Access to industrial composting that accepts bioplastic is, on the other hand, extremely limited.

It is important to note that a nascent set of bioplastic options are emerging that are recyclable along with traditional plastic. Additionally, research and development is being conducted to develop bioplastic bags that dissolve in water. These are interesting progressions in the development of bioplastic technology and should be evaluated and compared to recycled plastic clear bags when they become more readily available.