5 actions companies can take to fix the ubiquitous polybag

Plastics remain one of the most versatile material of the modern age. This quality has led to their appeal and universal application; virtually no modern industry has been left untouched by plastics. The downside to this is the proliferation of plastics into the ecosystem. Images of plastic contaminating the marine environment and causing harm to wildlife and the ecosphere are embedded in the public consciousness.

Consumer focus is growing on plastic, specifically packaging and single use-plastics. There is an increasing sense of urgency from all sectors of society to focus on this issue, in addition to focusing on climate change and reducing the impact of plastic on the environment.

A polybag is the clear plastic bag that covers every garment from manufacturing to retail stores or consumer homes. If you’ve ever ordered garments online from a retailer, you would have, in all likelihood, had it delivered, neatly sealed within a polybag.

If you shop in store, you’re unlikely to see a polybag, as they are removed before the item is brought onto the floor. Polybags are the ubiquitous packaging of the fashion industry — something that unites brands small and large, from sportswear to luxury to fast fashion retailers. It is estimated that up to 180 billion of them are produced every year to store, transport and protect garments, footwear and accessories. It is difficult with current data to say what the precise end-of-use pathway for garment polybags is however, recycling rates of plastic films overall in Europe are around 20 percent and only 12.5 percent (PDF) in the United States, which gives us an indication.

For the waste in commercial locations (especially distribution centers), companies and retailers often contract with some form of waste collection service that collects clear film waste, including pallet shrink wrap and polybags from distributions centers. 

Even though the plastics currently used, low density polyethylene (LDPE), are technically recyclable, the recycling rate could be improved, and contaminants such as ink and paper limit the use of the recycled material in many products. If collected, plastic film typically finds use in applications. For example, it is sometimes recycled into trash bags or incorporated into hard products such as plastic lumber. 

Based on the current landscape, we suggest five key efforts companies and retailers can work on right now to reach a more sustainable polybag packaging future. 

1. Look for opportunities to reduce the total amount of material in polybags

Brands and retailers should focus on reducing the total amount of material used in their polybag packaging if they wish to reduce their overall impact. Reducing the size of the polybags themselves as well as innovative techniques of folding to fit the garments into smaller polybags is an approach that can be used to reducing plastic usage. Reducing the thickness of polybags is also one strategy that can be successful, or eliminating polybags where viable. By reducing the thickness of the polybags, brands can reduce their overall plastic footprint, because less plastic material will be used.

2. Work together to make a closed loop system a reality 

Polybag recycling would be associated with a number of environmental impact reductions, including decreased fossil resource consumption, prevention of landfilled waste and lowered carbon emissions. A key aspiration could be to make polybag material available for closed loop recycling, in which it could be made into new packaging, which has similar specification — in terms material type — to the desired product. This has the benefit of ensuring a supply of material for recycled polybags (and other flexible film packaging) at the same time as reducing demand on virgin fossil resources.

We suggest three steps to accomplish this closed loop system:

  1. Focus on the recyclability of current polybags by addressing design characteristics such as inks, adhesives and labels. 
  2. Focus on innovative systems for collection at all points where polybag waste is generated, including distribution centers, retail locations and residences. 
  3. Focus on innovation in recycling itself by looking at improved ways for current mechanical recycling processes and alternative recycling processes, including chemical recycling. Technology is improving, but it needs support from the whole value chain.

By using their own waste, companies are securing an important feedstock for the production of recycled packaging. Otherwise, there could be supply and demand issues in the future. Further, by collecting waste at every point that it is produced, and having an end destination in mind, companies can ensure that their waste is managed properly and doesn’t escape into the environment.

3. Source currently used plastics from bio-based drop-ins and/or recycled content, where appropriate

Incorporating recycled content is feasible and continuing to get better. Doing this will support the recycling value chain, and replace virgin, petroleum-based LDPE with a lower carbon alternative. Bio-based LDPE, which has a smaller footprint than its fossil-based counterpart, also can be included. Along with considering the end-of-life impact, companies currently have options to source current LDPE polybags from either bio-based PE (from sugar cane) or recycled PE.

Ideally, a commitment should be made to source polybags that include a degree of post-consumer recycled content in addition to pre-consumer/industrial recycled content. This ensures an increased demand for the waste generated from the use of polybags, as well as practically diverting waste that otherwise would have gone to landfill or incineration.

4. Keep an eye on the compostable packaging landscape

Options are developing in this space but are not quite ready for large scale roll out. There may be opportunities for smaller companies especially if the waste is collected and recovered from brands commercial facilities.

More infrastructure, research and consumer education are needed before compostable polybags are ready to be implemented on a wide scale.

However, this should not stop innovative brands from running trials on such polybags in their internal systems. There is potential scope for piloting and testing specifically where the material is collected and diverted to the appropriate industrial composting facility and where the polybags are not sent to the consumer (from retail stores and distribution centers only). Developments in the local infrastructure need to be closely monitored and only when there is wide enough coverage of composting facilities and compostable waste-stream collections should these be rolled out.

5. Explore the potential for reusable packaging

As it stands, there are only a few options in this space. Reusable packaging in the context of polybags is tricky but potential, innovative solutions may exist. It is currently more viable to consider reusable packaging for e-commerce mailing, especially for brands with circular business models.

Polybags travel over vast distances, through many nodes from manufacturing sites, overwhelmingly in the east, to end markets all over the word. So travel distance may start to make an environmental impact on this scale. For example, it would require shipping polybags in bulk from Europe to Asia and back again.

Additionally, it’s also a very complex network of manufacturers and distribution centers and would require intense collaboration on a large scale.

A solution would have to be engineered that is lightweight, transparent (able to view the garment and hang tag in some way) and easily maintainable for many cycles and long shipping journeys.

It is a daunting task but these problems are not impossible to solve. The scale of the challenge is not insurmountable, especially if the industry collaborates to test and scale alternative solutions. Our data shows that recycling polybags, reducing the amount of plastic material and incorporating recycled content are the most popular initiatives overall that are being pursued. However, only a minority of brands are pursuing these initiatives.

Scott Nelson of European Outdoor Group and Erin Hiat of Retail Industries Leaders Association also contributed to this article.