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Choosing Between Reusable Mailers and Poly Mailers

Choosing Between Reusable Mailers and Poly Mailers

Mar 8th 2022

EcoEnclose is thrilled to announce the newest member of our sustainable packaging family -  the reusable ReEnclose Mailer!

When we talk to brands about reusable mailers and whether or not this option is right for their business, two questions are usually posed right away: 

(1) Are Reusable Mailers More Sustainable Than Poly Mailers?

(2) Are Reusable Mailers More Cost Effective Than Poly Mailers?

In this blog post, we talk through the first question - are reusable mailers more sustainable? As with similar questions, the answer is - frustratingly - it depends. It depends on the type of reusable mailer you choose (and the poly mailer you are replacing), your business model, your comfort with sending reusable mailers even after they have been scuffed up in transit, the source material of your reusable mailer (and the poly mailers you are replacing) and the end of life of these packaging options. 

Without knowing your unique business, it would be impossible to say definitively which option is most sustainable. But, here are the key factors we'd consider with you as you navigate this decision. 

If you partner with us on your reusable mailer strategy, we will take a very data-driven approach with you. We'll track your costs, your use cycles, the single-use packaging you are replacing and more. After a few month, we'll provide you with an LCA, comparing carbon footprints, to help you assess whether or not your transition to reusable mailers was net positive for the planet.

Comparing Poly Mailers and Reusable Mailers: Factors to Consider

The weight and source material of the reusable mailer and the standard mailer you are comparing

Poly mailers, paper mailers and reusable mailers are not all the same. Poly mailers can be virgin, recycled or made with PLA (a corn-based bioplastic). Paper mailers can be virgin, recycled or some mix of the two. Poly mailer can be thin (2 mil) or thick (3 mil). Reusable mailers can be virgin or made with recycled content. Reusable mailers can be made with different fabrics that vary in weight and thickness. These variables are very important when you're assessing the carbon footprint of a reusable mailer and your standard mailer.

How many uses you anticipate your reusable mailer to go through, and how many your standard mailer typically goes through. 

You send your product out in a reusable mailer. Then what? It needs to come back to you (or to a central distribution hub to be used again). One of the most important variables in assessing the sustainability of a reusable mailer is how many uses you confidently believe it will go through. The number of uses is based on how readily your customers actually return your packaging, how much damage your mailer incurs as it is shipped back and forth, and how much wear and tear you are open to in your packaging before you decide not to use it anymore for orders. A standard mailer typically goes through just one use, but some (including our dual strip recycled poly mailer) is designed to be used twice. If you compare a heavy, thick reusable mailer that is used a handful of times compared to a thin, poly mailer that is used twice, you'll likely find that the poly mailer is significantly more eco-friendly than the reusable one in this scenario.

What happens to your reusable mailer at the end of its useful life and what typically happens to your standard mailer. 

Is your reusable mailer going to be landfilled or recycled? Are your current single-use mailers typically recycled or landfilled? These are important considerations. If a thick, heavy reusable mailer is landfilled after a handful of uses and your poly mailer is recycled after two uses, your reusable mailer created more synthetic waste than the poly mailers you were trying to replace!

Does your reusable mailer have to travel more than your standard mailer would and does it have to be cleaned frequently over the coure of its useful life. 

If most of your orders are shipped to customers and never returned back, then it is important to factor in the extra mileage your packaging has to travel back to your facility or central distribution hub. If returns are core to your business (as it is for clothing rental or subscription models), then these miles would have been traveled regardless of your packaging strategy. Additionally, depending on your preferences and the materials you've selected for your reusable mailer, you may find that you need to put mailers through deep cleaning after several cycles. If that is the case, you'll want to factor in the energy and water consumption impact of these mid-cycle cleanings. 

Putting it Together: A High Level Example

These theories are great, but we know concrete numbers make things a lot easier to digest! A proper, detailed and accurate analysis requires real-life data (ideally from your own business!). But here is a starting point. 

In this example, we put forth a very simple comparison. Key assumptions in this example include:

  • Mailers are 19x24"
  • Both mailers are made with 100% recycled content
  • The poly mailer is 2 mil and the reusable mailer is a medium thickness polyester material
  • Poly mailers are recycled 10% of the time and the reusable mailer is recycled 90% of the time (because brands can recycle them in bulk instead of relying on their customers)
  • This is for a subscription clothing business with a nearly 100% return rate of their packaging already. This means that return mileage is not factored into the comparison (as this mileage would be traveled no matter what kind of packaging is used)
  • This brand is not engaging in deep cleans and is comfortable with scuffs and standard wear and tear, allowing their useful life to be extended as much as possible

In this example, a reusable mailer would have to go through 20 cycles to match the emissions of a single use poly mailer. If the poly mailer is used for the return trip (making it a dual use poly mailer), the reusable mailer's uses would have to double to have a favorable environmental impact.

The results of this analysis change based on recycled content levels in both mailers, the weight and thickness of both mailers, the end of life of the mailers, etc.

Note: Analysis conducted in Compass Trayak Software