Magazine

The recyclability of... plastic-padded envelopes

Bubble wrap-lined envelopes are a staple of every office, and more often than not a few used envelopes can be found collecting dust in drawers or cupboards at home, even if they’re past reuse – we don’t want to throw them in the bin, but due to their mixed paper and plastic composition, recycling them is tricky. Can this form of packaging be effectively recycled, or should alternatives be found?

Simon Weston, Director of Raw Materials, the Confederation of Paper Industries

Simon Weston
Simon Weston

Material technology advances, mostly to the benefit of society. But occasionally this results in traditional methods that have provided packaging solutions in the past being discarded because of cost or other factors. As society begins to focus more on resource efficiency and circularity, especially the impact of single-use plastic on the environment, we may need to re-adopt some of the ways of the past.

Jiffy bags and other padded envelopes that use a composite construction combining paper and plastic bubble wrap are not ideal for reprocessors. Whilst the processing machinery in a paper mill will strip the outer paper coating from the plastic, the inner plastic pouch will pass through the process and into the mill waste stream, likely dragging with it fibre that should be made into paper.

From there, these plastics require further handling, treatment and transportation at cost to the reprocessor before they can be recovered landfilled or incinerated. In the past, padded envelopes have been constructed from paper fluff, all of which can pass into the recycling process. This is a great example of how traditional, tried and tested approaches can provide viable alternatives and could be used to make padded envelopes and pouches more sustainable.

Dan Roberts, LARAC Vice Chair, Waste Management Officer at South Staffordshire County Council

Dan Roberts

Due to the presence of a number of non-recyclable components within padded envelopes (e.g. bubble wrap, glue), they cannot be recycled at the kerbside. These items may still end up in the recycling stream as it can be confusing for residents to distinguish between normal paper envelopes and composite padded envelopes. The principle cause of confusion is the material stream itself and not the collection system.

If non-target material is placed in recycling containers they may be rejected at the kerbside, presenting a problem for our residents. If the contaminated proportion delivered to the MRF is too high, the material may be rejected and disposed of via landfill or incineration, which impacts not only the delivery of the contract but also the integrity of the service. This is clearly not an ideal situation and one that we address proactively on a daily basis.

Should we be trying to find sustainable alternatives and encourage the development of eco-design in packaging? Absolutely. Our focus for too long has been on ‘end-of-pipe’ waste solutions when we really need to prioritise waste minimisation and design for reuse and recyclability. Ultimately, consumers can only consume what the producers produce.

Rachelle Strauss, creator of Zero Waste Week and blogger at myzerowaste.com

This article was taken from Issue 92

Rachelle Strauss

I frequently get items delivered in Jiffy bags of all shapes and sizes. They can be a bug bear for waste warriors, because householders don’t have access to recycling facilities.

However, there is a solution that is good for your bank balance AND the environment: I carefully open any Jiffy bags I receive and reuse them! A pack of 50 Jiffy envelopes costs over £30 in my local Post Office. Yet I’m frequently getting this valuable resource delivered through my door – for free. It seems crazy to rip them open, throw away and then buy new!

Excess envelopes get offered on Freecycle, where it’s not unusual to have half a dozen interested people; many of whom sell items on eBay and are delighted to get free packaging. Once they are past their best, I’m afraid it seems that there is little you can do with Jiffy bags, but at least you can feel good about extending the life of them through reuse.

If you do buy new, purchase ones that are stuffed with shredded paper, rather than plastic – these are just as effective, can be reused and can eventually be composted or recycled with the paper and cardboard at the kerbside.