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Choosing the Right Poly Mailers for Your Business

FOR ENTERPRISE BRANDS

CHOOSING THE RIGHT POLY MAILERS FOR YOUR BUSINESS

by Sarah Quirk  • published June 24, 2024 • 20 minute read

In June 2024, EcoEnclose launched the first RCS100 on-product certified poly mailer: a significant win for circularity and third-party packaging verification. Many of our brands are wondering: should I switch to the RCS100 blend?

EcoEnclose is committed to bringing the most circular, market-leading packaging to our network of brands.

However, we also recognize that brands have many priorities they need to juggle when choosing their packaging: sustainability, performance, cost, lead time, certification and third-party verification, operational needs, aesthetics, geography, and more.

Therefore, we offer a range of product and material options for our enterprise-level brands, including film blends, in addition to the standard stock products on our website.

Here, we detail the eight poly mailer options available to our enterprise brand network, their sustainability and operational differences, case studies of how other brands chose the proper film for them, and our recommendations for accurate labeling and sustainability claims.

EcoEnclose's Suite of Poly Mailer Blends

Our community of brands is incredibly diverse, and their needs are equally varied.

For brands ordering 50 thousand mailers at a time, EcoEnclose offers eight poly mailer film blend options, with domestic and overseas manufacturing options. The diversity in our options means we can live by our progress over perfection ethos by meeting brands where they’re at in their sustainability journey and supporting them as their needs (and wants) change.

Here's a summary of our eight film blends. As you’ll see, all of our film blends are 100% recycled, but they vary with respect to PCR content, third-party certification, manufacturing location, and aesthetics. These variations also lead to differences in cost profiles.

ecoenclose's eight film blends for poly mailers

Source: EcoEnclose. Click to enlarge.

rcs100-certified poly mailer
recycled poly mailer

In addition to the eight film blends EcoEnclose offers, we know there are many other options for enterprise brands. Some are made with all virgin material, some with up to a certain percentage of recycled content, and some have extremely difficult-to-verify claims.

To help brands navigate the entire market landscape, we’ve developed this infographic mapping options based on circularity and domestic vs international manufacturing.

The most circular options are at the top right, in the dark green column (Circularity ranking of A, produced domestically).

While there are many options, EcoEnclose has committed to offering only the eight blends available in the A and B categories of circularity. Four blends are produced in the USA, and four are made overseas (mainly in Southeast Asia.)

evaluating the poly mailer landscape

Source: EcoEnclose. Click to enlarge.

Our Success Criteria: Why These Eight Blends

We’ve ranked the poly film blends on the market with two primary considerations:

Circularity (along the X-axis) and Geography (along the Y-axis.)

However, many more factors contribute to how well it will serve a brand's various needs. Our team will match you to the best option when you work with us.

Our main criteria for measuring circularity are overall recycled content % (by functional material) and high post-consumer waste (PCR) content. This criteria aligns with our mission to offer the most sustainable packaging on the market, with the highest levels of circularity and PCR available. Read more about our guidelines for assessing and developing sustainable packaging here. We have also highlighted blends with third-party certifications, recognizing that this verification is becoming increasingly crucial to our enterprise brands.

We’ve distinguished between domestic and international production as our second criterion. Domestic manufacturing, specifically sourcing recycled content generated within the USA, is core to our goals for circularity and, as such, is preferred from a sustainability perspective.

However, the cost, lead time, and printing implications vary widely between packaging made overseas (typically in Southeast Asia) and North America. Generally speaking, the most cost-conscious option is often an overseas film blend. As such, we’ve separated film blends by geography.

While we prefer domestic manufacturing, overseas production will give brands with specific supply chains, budgets, and operational needs a chance to use 100% recycled film blends.

Dive Deeper

Domestic vs. International Production: Impacts on Circularity

EcoEnclose’s RCS100-certified poly mailers are the only domestically manufactured poly mailer options available with on-product third-party verification.

On the surface, there is little difference between PCR (post-consumer waste) recycled content sourced in the USA and internationally - namely, in Asia.

However, EcoEnclose is committed to investing in domestically made-recycled packaging.

Why? There are a few main reasons:

1. Manufacturing with domestic recycled content fuels local investments in recycling, sorting, and remanufacturing. These are critical investments to support the growing circular economy. By manufacturing domestically, we are sourcing post-consumer waste generated here in the US and helping to drive investments in recycling and remanufacturing infrastructure to, eventually, make all packaging out of packaging.

2. Sourcing post-consumer content from the USA gives us greater visibility into its sources and supply chain and allows for greater traceability. Today, we know our sources of waste are typically HDPE (traditional plastic milk jugs) and clean LDPE film (such as pallet wrap and agricultural film).

When we engage with overseas manufacturers, we have little to no visibility into where and how the recycled content is sourced and if the post-consumer waste supply chain is continuously audited. This is especially true if no on-product or supply chain certifications are granted to these blends.

We take pride in our history of onshoring packaging products. Our commitment to manufacturing in the USA is critical to our ultimate vision of circularity and the importance we place on supply-chain transparency, accuracy in labeling, and third-party verification. While we recognize the importance of having an international network of recyclers and remanufacturers to engage with, we know that relying solely on an internationally-based recycled-content supply chain will not move the needle on the massive circularity investments we want and need to see.

These two components, bolstering the domestic circular economy and high levels of traceability, are major considerations for brands that have commitments to transparency and circularity and who are actively assessing risk reduction for sustainability claims.

Recycled Content: Labeling for Mass Balance vs. Functional Material

You’ll notice that our descriptions of recycled poly mailers specify the amount of recycled content by (plastic) resin. What does this mean?

Over the past decade, recycled content and post-consumer waste have become a critical input for boosting product circularity and an important sustainability metric. Recycled content labeling has generally been based on the recycled content of a product's primary material—the “functional material.” This is still how most recycled content labeling is measured and communicated.

For example, suppose the plastic resin used to make a poly mailer has 100% recycled content. In that case, the mailer is generally labeled as “100% Recycled” despite the additives, adhesives, and ink added to the film and final product, which may not be made from recycled content.

Some certification schemes take a different approach, which we’ll call mass balance. While the functional material approach focuses on the amount of recycled content in a product's primary substrate, the mass balance approach includes all manufacturing additives to measure the overall recycled content percentage—such as colorants, additives to reduce static and slippage, and additives for aesthetics and texture.

To learn more about these two methodologies of measuring recycled content and how certifications play a role, visit our Guide to RCS100-Certified Mailers.

Print Aesthetic & Quality: How Film Blends Affect Final Print

In our outline of film blends above, you'll notice that we’ve highlighted the film color and print quality for each.

As film blends change in their construction, the final finish of the plastic film also changes. Film blends can change by adding more or less virgin plastic, post-consumer recycled content, additives, and colorants. Depending on their makeup, this can lead to different print quality, texture, and aesthetic across different films.

Generally, two components most impact final film color and texture: additives and post-consumer waste.

Additives:

  • Additives are synthetic materials that improve the film's functional and aesthetic properties. Common additives in LDPE plastic films include colorants, TiO2 to improve color and opacity, anti-blocking agents, and anti-static additives. These additives are essential to successfully extruding films, effectively converting them, and yielding a film with solid, strong print quality, flexibility, and more. Learn more about additives and how poly mailers are made.
  • As the amount of additives in a film blend decreases, the aesthetic and texture of the film blend become more heterogeneous and noticeable.
  • Meanwhile, with more additives for texture and aesthetics, the film blend appears more uniform and consistent.

Recycled Content:

  • Post-consumer waste refers to recycled content generated from consumer products and items (often packaging) that have already been used and recycled through municipal recycling streams. Post-industrial (also called pre-consumer) waste refers to waste scraps generated from a manufacturing line, making it one collection step from virgin material, which typically behaves similarly to virgin materials.
  • While all recycled content is ecologically preferred over virgin material, post-consumer waste should be prioritized over post-industrial waste. Your demand for post-consumer waste triggers demand, investment, and innovation across the recycling supply chain, making it easier for manufacturers to work with post-consumer waste, enabling them to pay more for these recycled inputs, encouraging recyclers to get more of these goods from consumers, which leads to an increase in our overall recycling rates, helping us achieve our collective vision for a circular economy.
  • Given that post-consumer waste (PCR) is often heterogeneous—derived from many forms and types of recycled materials from a municipality—the resulting films made with high levels of PCR tend to reflect this variability in the material. As levels of PCR increase, it often leads to plastic films with more inconsistencies within film color, texture, and overall aesthetic.

Your brand should consider the importance of minor changes in film aesthetics in your overall decision-making criteria and use this to inform your choice in poly films.

How To Choose The Right Blend For Your Brand

First and foremost, we strongly encourage all brands to avoid poly mailers made with any virgin functional resin.

Given our broad suite of film blends that range in cost structure, we believe any brand with even a baseline commitment to sustainability can comfortably opt for a 100% recycled structure, flex down their PCR content levels, and/or opt for lower print quality or overseas manufacturing to meet other requirements.

There are many nuances to choosing the film blend and poly mailer option that will best support your brand’s specific needs.

We’ll work to understand your decision criteria and will match you with the best solutions for your needs.

As a surface-level example of how film structures best match your brand’s decision criteria, the following can help you get started.

ecoenclose film blends flow chart

Source: EcoEnclose. Click to enlarge.

Certifications and Third-Party Verification

If geographic footprint - where your packaging is manufactured - is not a critical requirement in your decision-making process, third-party certification is the high-level differentiator between these film blends.

Certifications are not a silver bullet or the singular, foolproof indicator of sustainability, but they are an excellent way for brands to simplify their sourcing decisions when traceability and risk reduction are paramount.

As brands work towards higher levels of transparency in their supply chain and face mounting pressure and scrutiny around sustainability claims from consumers, FTC guidelines, and EPR regulations, many are choosing to prioritize certification in their sourcing decisions.

While certified products and materials can be more complex to acquire and have higher costs, many brands have chosen to pursue them for the (often unseen) benefits of risk reduction in their sourcing, whether it be from the perspective of labor standards and regulations, verified inputs, accurate claims and added consumer trust-building, or otherwise - certifications can reduce the likelihood of future risk to sustainability claims and goals.

If your brand prioritizes third-party certifications, we recommend pursuing the following blends, which are certified to source input certification standards.

Domestic: #3 - RCS100 Certified
Domestic: #2 - RCS-Blended Certified
International: #6 - RCS100 Certified

EcoEnclose's Labeling Recommendations

ecoenclose's labeling recommendations for poly mailers

Source: EcoEnclose. Click to enlarge.

Mini Case Studies

Choosing the right poly mailer blend in action.

Brand Name:
 
Brand X: Apparel Subscription Business
 
Started With:
 
Brand X is focused on a strong customer experience and a commitment to circularity. Therefore, it was using our domestically produced poly mailer with 100% recycled functional resin and 50% post-consumer waste (this is the same as our stock blend, #2; however, Brand X was fully customizing the printing and branding experience).
 
Success Criteria:
 
Over the past year, the business sought ways to cut costs but wanted to stay within its commitment to circularity. As part of this effort, they worked with us to find a new mailer with:
 
  • Lower costs.
  • A maintained branding and customer experience such that end consumers would not know the difference between the old and new mailer.
  • A continued commitment to circularity was important; however, they were willing to travel overseas to achieve their cost goals.
  • They were willing to order in significantly higher quantities, keep more stock in storage, and extend their reordering lead times.
Film Blend Chosen:
 
Brand X moved to blend #4, a 100% recycled, 86% PCR film blend produced in Malaysia. They significantly lowered their unit costs but increased their ordering volumes to 500,000 units at a time.
Brand Name:
 
Brand Y: Outdoor Apparel and Gear Company
 
Started With:
 

Brand Y was working with another manufacturing partner to ship in 100% post-industrial recycled poly mailers produced overseas.

When they came to EcoEnclose, they did not distinguish between post-industrial content versus post-consumer waste.

Because the team is so committed to circularity and embeds recycled content and regenerative sourcing into every aspect of their product line, they wanted to ship in the most circular packaging possible. Our team helped them understand the increased circularity value of post-consumer waste (whose usage and demand help drive the recycling supply chain far more than the usage of post-industrial waste) and domestically sourced recycled content (whose usage catalyzes US-based recycling infrastructure investments).

Success Criteria:
 
As Brand Y learned more, they decided to prioritize:
 
  • A domestically produced mailer with at least 50% post-consumer waste.
  • 100% recycled functional resin full-coverage gorgeous print whose aesthetic would perfectly match their brand. As such, Brand Y was willing to have a higher additive blend to ensure print performance was not sacrificed for high post-consumer waste.
  • A per-unit price point that is no more than 15% higher than their current offering.
Film Blend Chosen:
 
Brand Y moved from their 100% post-industrial poly mailer (which is rated a D on our circularity scale) to our stock poly mailer blend (#2): a film blend made with 100% recycled functional resin, 50% post-consumer waste, and consistently beautiful full coverage print performance.
Brand Name:
 
Brand Z: Clothing for Babies and Toddlers
 
Started With:
 

Brand Z has built its ethos on sustainability, ethics, and safe fabrics for babies and toddlers. They have been working with EcoEnclose for years, using our stock blend #2.

Success Criteria:
 

Last year, they decided to work towards third-party verification of all claims and determined they would like to have certifications printed directly on their packaging.

After learning that we were working on a low additive blend that would feature the RCS100 on package labeling, they decided

Brand Z had previously been branding their packaging with full coverage printing. While their leadership team strongly believed branding was an essential aspect of the customer experience, they also felt comfortable dialing back their print needs as appropriate to ensure they were in the most circular packaging possible that could feature on-package recycled content certification.

Film Blend Chosen:
 
Brand Z moved to our RCS100 100% Recycled, 53% PCR, low-additive film blend (blend #3). They maintained their full-coverage print, and their leadership team signed off on film with slight increases in gelling and small levels of discoloration to opt for this low-additive blend. Their design prominently features the RCS100 Certification.

Sneak Preview: Regenerative Inputs

Our north star for product development is circularity.

We’ve created this diverse suite of recycled poly mailer options best to serve the needs of the brands in our community, and we are proud of the strides made to bring recycled content to more and more film blends. Our community's commitment is, in real-time, making positive progress toward our goal of making packaging out of packaging - and making packaging that can become packaging again.

However, we also recognize that much work remains to integrate truly regenerative inputs into plastic circularity.

To date, the base materials that make up this plastic (though recycled) are generated from fossil fuels, and it is still very rare for plastic film (virgin or recycled) to be recycled back into film. Instead, thin film plastics are most commonly recycled into durable goods, like artificial lumber and TREX, which may sometimes be considered down-cycling.

As such, we are incredibly excited about upcoming innovations that we’ve developed to support these aspects of circularity: on both the supply side of more regenerative, planet-restoring source inputs and on the end-of-life side in making film-to-film recycling a reality.

Read on for some of the avenues we’re exploring in our product and service development.

BAG-TO-BAG
 
What is it?
 
We’re piloting the recycling of thin-film plastics back into thin-film plastics, particularly - turning recycled poly mailers back into new poly mailers.

Why it’s exciting.

By volume, most thin-film plastic recycled in North America is downcycled into durable goods like artificial lumber. Similarly, recycled thin-film LDPE plastic is often downcycled from HDPE (rigid plastic). While recycling is critical in this process, it is still a linear down-cycling of materials: from HDPE to LDPE to durable products.

Instead, we envision a future where this packaging is recycled back into itself - for a more circular, packaging-into-packaging approach.

SWAY SEAWEED FILM
 
What is it?
 
The team at Sway has created plastic-like resins completely out of seaweed and other biobased materials.

Why it’s exciting.

A thriving circular economy will require us to utilize existing waste materials as often as possible when producing new products. However, virgin supply inputs will still be needed in this system. Where virgin inputs are required, our goal is to catalyze and use source inputs that are net-regenerative to the planet instead of degenerative.

By catalyzing, commercializing, and expanding the use of regenerative inputs like seaweed-based resin - which can restore and benefit aquatic ecosystems (instead of destructive inputs like forest fiber or fossil fuels), we’re setting the stage, and helping to build a supply chain that will need to be increasingly versatile and resilient.

CERTIFIED SUSTAINABLY GROWN SUGARCANE-DERIVED POLY MAILERS
 
What is it?
 
Our team is exploring the potential of sugarcane-based polyethylene, a “drop-in” bio-base plastic that behaves like and can be recycled with petroleum-based plastics.

Why it’s exciting.

The packaging industry has historically relied on fossil fuels as a leading source for plastics production. However, building supply chain resilience and reducing carbon will require diversifying our plastic inputs.

Certified sustainably sourced (by leading certification Bonsucro) sugarcane presents an exciting option. By using a crop that absorbs atmospheric carbon and whose manufacturing it into polymer resin sequesters that carbon, we could utilize a bio-based plastic that still supports the circular economy at the end of its life.

If your cutting-edge brand is excited to be an early adopter of one or more of these innovations, contact us!