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The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

Why Packaging Should Be Both Recyclable AND Recycled

Image Credit EcoEnclose
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If you’ve picked up an online shopping habit in the last few years, you’re not alone. In the US, e-commerce sales have doubled in the last four years, growing 43% in 2020. The pandemic-fueled rise of online shopping has created a huge demand for packaging. In 2019, 103 billion packages were shipped worldwide, a number that is expected to increase to 262 billion by 2026.

While we often focus on what’s inside those packages, we can’t underestimate the environmental impact of the boxes and bags that our purchases arrive in. The reality is that a huge proportion of packaging comes from virgin material sources: plastic bags derived from fossil fuels and paper made from protected and endangered forests. 

According to research by McKinsey, the U.S. uses 16 million tons of plastic packaging every year and 72% of that is either landfilled, illegally dumped, or ends up in the natural environment. Only 14% of plastic packaging is recycled (usually it’s downcycled into lower-value plastics), while mixed material packaging, like paper envelopes lined with bubble wrap, isn’t recyclable at all. 

What can be done about this global packaging problem?

Avoiding Virgin Materials

EcoEnclose is a woman-owned and managed company working to solve these issues by creating eco-friendly packaging that is recycled and recyclable, avoiding virgin materials as much as possible. 

“There are two elements to our vision and all our sustainability framework ladders up to it,” explains Saloni Doshi, chief executive of EcoEnclose. “The first is: What would it look like for all packaging in the world to be made from packaging, where you’ve got an endless loop of reusability and recyclability?” Secondly, “When there is the need for virgin inputs into that system, can those virgin inputs be produced in net-positive, regenerative ways for the planet?”

EcoEnclose was acquired by Doshi and her husband, Kyle Wente, in 2015, when it was a small company with a handful of products. Seven years later, they’re selling around 200 hundred different sustainable packaging solutions from recycled paper and poly mailers, to shipping boxes and labels. 

And when it comes to blends, those mixed-up packaging materials that are unrecyclable? Never. “We don’t carry anything that isn’t mono-material, so everything that we carry can be recycled,” says Doshi. “We focus on the highest levels of recycled content possible and the highest levels of post-consumer waste possible. We are proud of what we offer, but we also know our current solutions are by no means perfect. So we’re always assessing the gaps between our packaging and our ultimate vision, and pursuing innovations to help get us closer to true circularity.”

“No one wants to cut down a tree or take natural gas out of the planet just to make a mailer to ship a shirt,” says Doshi. “It just makes intuitive sense that all packaging should just be made from packaging. We have the manpower and the technological advancements to make this happen.” While plastic recycling in the U.S is still in its infancy, paper packaging has a high rate of recycling — 80.9% in 2018 — making it an ideal alternative to its plastic counterpart.

EcoEnclose believes that the solution lies in moving away from virgin plastics and encouraging the growth of a circular economy for paper packaging. To achieve this, growing investment in local recycling infrastructure is key. “We recognise that a lot of the future that we want to achieve is going to be driven by a much better recycling supply chain,” she says. “And to me, that’s everything from the entities who pick up your recycling and sort it to the companies who buy it, to those who manufacture it, to the brands who use it.” 

Short Supply Chain for Small Businesses

EcoEnclose attributes the rising demand for responsible packaging options to a number of factors, including growing customer demand and increasingly ambitious ESG commitments from brands. “I think the largest factor is a collective recognition across consumers, brands and policymakers that we’ve got to get better at how we source our materials from a sustainability perspective,” she says. 

Ongoing global supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic have impacted thousands of small independent businesses that have smaller orders and less influence over their suppliers. Using post-consumer waste as a feedstock means that EcoEnclose’s supply chain is shorter and easier to track than if it was sourcing virgin materials from farms. By sourcing the majority of its recycled materials from the U.S. and manufacturing domestically, EcoEnclose has been able to avoid global shortages and effectively serve the 28,000 small mom-and-pop brands in its customer base. 

Avoiding Accidental Greenwashing

Upgrading to more eco-friendly packaging could be seen as an easy win for brands prioritizing a sustainability overhaul, especially when compared to more complicated and expensive tasks like tracing supply chains and ensuring living wages for workers across the supply chain.

When approached by companies without a holistic sustainability agenda, Doshi sees this as an opportunity to educate them on all the eco-friendly alternatives available to them. “If they really engage with us, eco-friendly packaging becomes a little bit like a gateway drug,” she says. “They start to get into it, and then maybe over time, it catalyzes other sustainability and ethical investments across their company.” 

The EcoEnclose team understands that making the right decision when it comes to packaging can be overwhelming. “We recognize that brands often make decisions that they truly think are better for the planet, even if those decisions aren’t actually net positive, like switching to recyclable virgin paper that comes from an old-growth forest; or looking for compostable e-commerce packaging without realizing recycled and recyclable is much better,” she says. “We don’t consider this greenwashing at all, but we work closely with brands to help steer them towards decisions that are going to have a positive impact.” 

The Future of Packaging with EcoEnclose 

EcoEnclose is working towards becoming net-positive by 2030, and investigating potential packaging materials that sequester carbon as they grow, such as algae, hemp and miscanthus (a.k.a. silvergrass). 

The million-dollar question on Doshi’s mind: “How do you take everything that has to go into a package, minimize its carbon, then add materials that are carbon sequestering so that it can actually become a net-zero package in the end?”

In the coming years, Doshi expects that the packaging industry will continue innovating to minimize the need for single-use materials altogether. “To me, the future is reusable and minimal,” she says. “Ideally, we’re not using that much packaging, we’re using reusable wherever possible, and anytime we have to use single-use or dual-use packaging, it’s actually been made out of packaging.” 

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