Plastic bags may be the future in fashion
but not the type you're thinking of...
You read that right. An old form of plastic may be the solution we have been looking for. Join the conversation about the use of polybags as we investigate why we are still receiving our clothes in them.
We are probably all aware that we are in a plastic crisis. The previously thought miracle material plastic has been overused in a linear format, creating tons of waste that we are now grossly aware and ashamed of. It’s on our streets, open green spaces, in our waters, and now even in some of our food. It’s everywhere! With the fashion industry trying to change its ways as drastically as possible, why are we still sending garments from factories to retailers and customers in polybags? Here, we will share some light history about the subject. See who is doing the good investigative work needed to lead us to better solutions. Finishing off by speaking about our experience with this matter and how we manage at TYF.
What are Polybags?
Polybags are plastic bags that online orders, more often than not, arrive in. Poly stands for Polyethylene, a type of plastic that can be formed into many forms, including very thin films. These films are used for polybags that can be used to contain all sorts of products. They can be distinguished from other types of plastic bags by their soft feel, low noise, stretch and rip ability.
Why are polybags used in the clothing industry?
Polybags are used to protect the garment from different types of damage. These include physical damage, water damage, damp and mould damage, UV damage, and insect damage. Garments incur these types of damage in storage and in transit from the factory to the customer.
Clothes require protection as they are often stored in warehouses while waiting to be shipped to customers or retailers. They then go through many hands and automated sorting lines during the delivery process. Polybags are highly effective and efficient at providing the critical protection needed. They are capable of this whilst being ultra-low in weight and volume and incredibly cheap and quick to manufacture. Polybags are actually very recyclable too! When recycling a bag to be made into another bag, when compared to their seemingly obvious replacement, the paper mailer, polybags require less energy and produce fewer emissions and greenhouse gasses.
So why are they so bad?
As mentioned, if recycled, they are not all that bad. But with the current way we use them in a single use linear fashion, we have to make new ones, and the old ones are left to litter our lands and seas. Below are some of the facts of where we currently stand with plastic bags in general and their impact due to their accumulation globally:
Sources: World Counts, One Green Planet, Our World in Data, RD, Business Insider Condor. Please note these statistics are about all plastic bags, not just those used in fashion.
With the luxury of roadside rubbish collection, we have become disconnected from what is happening to our waste, and it is too easy to be ignorant to the build up in our environment.
It’s clear that there is a problematic trade-off with using polybags. We’ve created a solution to a problem, but in doing so, within a linear format, we have created a new one. But the fact remains that it is critical that the garments stay clean and undamaged as there is a high financial and environmental cost when they are left unworn. Reassessment and new holistic solutions are needed!
So who is working on this problem?
There are many interesting studies on this subject. The two that seemed the most insightful and relevant to us were studies carried out by Patagonia and Finisterre.
Patagonia investigated and tested alternatives, and concluded to continue using polybags due to their effectiveness compared to paper mailers trialled through their processes. By changing the way they folded their garments, they could use bags half the size, reducing their need for plastic by 50%. They will continue to have bags returned to them, and they will recycle them. They need to educate their customers more by providing information about how to recycle their packaging, and they would also like to source recycled polybags, so they can reduce their need for virgin petroleum. Click here to read the full report.
Finisterre has been working with Aquapak, and the potential answer they have found is in the Hydropol bags that they have developed, which break down when wet into water, carbon dioxide and mineralised biomass. Their approach removes the necessity of the bags being recycled to have a low impact at the end of their life. They can be recycled, but the key element with this approach is that even if the bags don’t get recycled and are let out into the world, they break down completely and naturally into non-harmful bi-products. There is also good conversation around why some of the cornstarch type and degradable bags are not really fit for purpose. They discuss how choosing a material that can break down at the right time is a complex problem to solve. It is exciting to hear that they seem to have found a solution working with Aquapak with the Hydropol bags! But they continue to discuss how it is currently hard to implement at scale for the global markets. Read and watch more here.
What we are doing at TYF
Polybags aren’t accepted in our roadside recycling collection for our local recycling centre. So we take them to our nearest poly recycling drop off site in Haverfordwest, situated in Morrisons and Tesco. This is where carrier bags and all other polybags can be recycled in the Pembrokeshire area. It is common now that the large supermarkets have a polybags recycling drop off nowadays. Sometimes we use some of them as bin liners to save us from buying them for those smaller bins before sending them off to be recycled.
We accumulate the most polybags when receiving our stock from brands. We have been successful in the past at asking for them not to be sent in polybags. And brands such as Thought and Cotopaxi have accepted our request, sending the clothes bundled together just in the boxes. We are yet to have any issues with the products arriving not being sent in polybags.
When we send out packages to our customers, we currently use recycled degradable bags, which seemed to be our most sustainable option previously. We are now looking into new possibilities for our next packaging order. We often reuse appropriate cardboard boxes from deliveries for larger orders and keep a selection of the paper tissue stuffing to pack out packages that need it. We have also switched to Kraft paper tapes instead of Cellotapes for ease of recycling for our customers. And whenever we need to label something ourselves, we use card and paper string or natural yarns. We try and follow the popular guidelines of reduce, reuse and recycle. In the case where a garment arrives in an imperfect condition, we try and repair it in our Planetary Repair Station. We then offer it to our staff, and sell it to them in our ethical retail outlet.
Please get in touch if you have any insight or questions. We love to discuss and explore options as we try and work towards creating a more responsible and ethical retail experience.
Thanks to team member Steven Cristofaro, our Impact Coordinator for producing this article.