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Paper vs. Plastic: Which Should I Use for My Packaging?

Paper vs. Plastic: Which Should I Use for My Packaging?

Jun 12th 2021

One of the most common sustainable packaging questions we get: Should I go with paper mailers or poly mailers? When you're finding your packaging from  EcoEnclose, the question is - should I go with 100% recycled poly mailers or 100% recycled paper mailers. As with most things related to eco-friendly packaging, the answer is complicated. 

A Quick Summary

The pros of paper:

It is more circular than plastic. Our options are made with 100% recycled content and high levels of post consumer waste and are curbside recyclable. It is also naturally biodegradable, meaning that if it happens to end up as litter, it will not pose a long-term threat to the environment. And yes, technically paper mailers are compostable; however we strongly recommend that companies focus on recyclability (ecommerce packaging should not be composted, and should be designed for recyclability!).

The pros of plastic:

100% recycled polymailers have a lower carbon footprint than a 100% recycled paper mailer. Additionally, poly solutions are significantly less expensive than paper alternatives. Finally, poly mailers provide functional advantages - they are more flexible, durable and water resistant. 

Bottom line? If 100% recycled paper mailers will functionally work for your products and the price point works for you, they are great solutions that better embody circularity than poly solutions. However, if 100% recycled paper mailers do not work for you and your business, you can feel confident in going with 100% recycled poly mailers as a sustainable choice. 

If you've decided to go with paper, check out our  Guide to 100% Recycled Paper Mailers to find the right one for your business.

A Deeper Dive

Circularity

EcoEnclose's long-term vision for packaging is a world in which the vast majority of packaging is made from recycled content and is then reused and eventually recycled back into itself. This world in which circular materials is the norm is one of the main drivers and sources of inspiration for our product innovation and development.  

Through the lens of circularity, paper (largely) wins over plastic. 

Paper mailers can be made with 100% recycled content, and relatively high levels of post-consumer waste. In fact, it confuses us as to why all paper ecommerce packaging isn't made with 100% recycled content!

Additionally, paper mailers are curbside recyclable and paper is known to have high residential and commercial recycling rates - over 66%. While paper mailers (like poly mailers) are typically downcycled and not recycled back into themselves, paper recycling technology is advancing each year and a future of paper mailer to mailer recycling is in sight.  

Reusability

Poly mailers do have paper mailers beat in one component of circularity - reusability. Our 100% recycled poly mailers feature a second tear and seal strip allowing them to be reused once, for returns or a second shipment. Given that poly mailers are more durable than paper mailers, they can more easily be used a second time. 

Natural Biodegradability

Seed Paper & Biodegradable Confetti | Catalog | Botanical PaperWorks

Paper is naturally biodegradable, decomposing in a natural environment within two months. If a paper mailer ends up as litter (an end result we really want to avoid!), it will not contribute to long-term ocean or land pollution. 

A poly mailer, on the other hand, is not biodegradable. If a poly mailer ends up as litter, it will remain in the environment for hundreds of years, polluting our waterways.

For this reason alone, many companies have chosen to eliminate plastic from their operation altogether. If your company has made a "plastic-free" commitment to ensure your business does not contribute to ocean plastic pollution - kudos to you! If so, paper mailers are a great option for your brand. 

Make sure to avoid biodegradable or compostable plastic packaging. These bio plastic solutions often have a negative impact on the planet, and do not address the issue of ocean plastic pollution.   

Carbon Footprint

This image compares the carbon footprint of 1000 6x9" poly mailers (Baseline) vs 1000 6x9" paper mailers (Alternative). It shows, quite clearly, how much lower of a carbon footprint the 100% recycled poly mailer has compared to the equivalent paper mailer. If you and your business are committed to lowering your carbon footprint as a core sustainability goal, you may find that 100% recycled poly mailers are the best choice for you. 

Cost

Paper mailers are typically 2-4 times as expensive as poly mailer in equivalent sizes. Paper mailers are also more expensive to ship (to you, and then to your customers), and take up more space to store (so their overall cost of ownership is higher, even after accounting for the higher pricing).  

Functionality

Poly mailers are water resistant, puncture resistant and really flexible and easy to work with. That said, in most cases, a paper mailer works beautifully for a company. Paper mailers work great at shipping apparel, books, cosmetics, essential oils, CBD products and so much more.