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Polywrapping – the eco options

Within the pages of our publications, we cover green issues extensively, but are we actually adopting more eco-friendly processes ourselves? As environmental concerns rise inexorably up the agenda, publishers need to be aware of the more eco-friendly options available to them, and, at the very least, have extremely good reasons not to adopt them. Ian Phillips looks at the greener alternatives to one of our biggest consumables – polywrap.

By Ian Phillips

We’ve all seen how the environment has been rightly creeping to the top of the social and political agenda in recent years and, odds are, it is only likely to go higher still. So far, our industry has largely avoided too much criticism, but if you think about it realistically, the negative press publishing could be subjected to is greater than a large number of other industries simply because we consume vast amounts of paper, chemical based inks and fuel just to produce the very products we sell and not forgetting the consumables we use to get them to our customers.

A larger proportion of our products than we’d obviously like go to waste in the form of unsold copies, however we are able to deal with these responsibly. But, what about the copies we do sell and the wrapping that once contained them? Clearly, most of it still ends up in landfill where it takes decades for the paper to break down and centuries for the polythene wrapping. Whilst things are starting to change for the better as local authorities slowly increase the amount of household and industrial waste they can recycle, it’s clear that there is a mood of change within the industry and we are now starting to think about how we can reduce our carbon footprints and improve the image of the industry.

One of the products we buy in vast amounts is polythene, or more precisely polyethylene, in which we mail our subscription copies and polypropylene in which a large number of newstrade copies are still packaged. Regardless of which type of polythene used, as major users of polymer based products, our industry is starting to become aware of the impact we are having whilst at the same time being realistic about what we can and can’t do. The fact is, whatever its use or form, polyethylene and polypropylene are not particularly friendly to our environment and, as a result, they are getting extremely bad press at the moment. Whilst both are perfectly suitable for recycling, there are few local authorities willing to take and recycle them, so the vast majority of it ends up taking up valuable and ever decreasing landfill space. To date, it’s been the retail industry that has taken the vast majority of the flack from the media and conservationists, but surely it is only a matter of time before somebody picks up on the fact that our industry also consumes vast quantities and starts to ask what we are doing about it? The PPA certainly thinks they will and have been discussing the matter very recently amongst senior publishing figures.

Thanks but no thanks

Unfortunately, as far as I am aware, there is no realistic environmentally friendly alternative to polypropylene yet. More pleasingly, there are at least three alternatives available for users of polyethylene and all three are most certainly kinder to the environment. However, there are implications, pros and cons to all three, and I’m not just talking about the cost.

The first and most obvious alternative to polythene is paper envelopes. Unfortunately (for paper and envelope manufacturers at least) mailing subscription copies and packaging newsstand copies (particularly promoted issues), in a paper envelope is probably the least practical solution available and almost certainly the most expensive. There are a very small number of mailing houses out there who do have wrapping machines capable of mechanically packaging a magazine in a paper outer, but sadly the cost of the paper combined with the cost of the physical wrapping makes this option totally impractical and unaffordable for probably every publisher currently trading in the UK.

I’ll have some of that!

Our saviour has actually come from the manufacturers of the polythene. Clearly they saw the threat coming a long time ago and have been developing different types of degradable polythene for a number of years and there are now two types commonly used. It’s not all good news though. Like the paper envelope solution, each type of degradable poly comes with its own problems, pros or cons and we have got to be very careful about what we say and claim about these alternatives to standard polyethylene. At least, we have if we are to avoid being vilified by the green brigade. That said, there is no doubt that these films are kinder to the environment and the amount of oil and chemicals used in their production have been vastly reduced.

The two degradable polythene mailing films I am aware of are firstly a Starch or bio based (hydrodegradable) film and an additive based (oxydegradable / photodegradable) film. The question is which one should we use and why. I’m not about to answer that question in this article as I think it’s down to each individual company to decide how environmentally friendly they want to be and what they can and can’t do. What I’ll attempt to do instead is give you the information you need to make your own mind up.

Potato power

Firstly, let’s look at the film which, of the two, is kinder to the environment. This is the starch based polythene which is actually made from maize, potatoes, or wheat. Starch is extracted from these crops and mixed with sugar and something called a copolyester. The mush this mixture forms is heated and pushed through a screw towards a large sieve producing spaghetti like threads. The threads are then washed and cooled then cut into granules to be converted into poly film in a similar way to standard poly. Because the poly is made from starch, it is 100% biodegradable. Once it has been used, it can be thrown in landfill or even a home compost bin and after about six months, 60% of it will have degraded. In twelve months it will have turned into nothing more than carbon dioxide, water, energy and a neutral residue. So good is it, it meets both US and Euro biodegradable standards which is no mean feat. Consequently, any users of this film can say with confidence that it is kinder to the environment.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, that’s about as good as it gets. The first problem with it is the cost. Although it comes from a renewable and, in theory, a readily available source, the vast quantities required make it very expensive. It also has a relatively short shelf life. As stated earlier, after six months, 60% of it will have degraded. It must therefore be used within about a month of manufacture. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to have to order poly on a monthly basis.

Worse still, it isn’t very strong and it isn’t waterproof though it should make it through the post in one piece. Considering we use poly to protect the contents from environmental damage, such a problem hardly makes it ideal for our industry. Whilst it takes print fairly well, of the examples I’ve seen, clarity is what can only be described as appalling. It actually has a very milky or creamy appearance to it and isn’t what I would call the most attractive packaging I’ve ever seen. As an image conscious industry, I can’t really see our marketing teams or publishers getting very excited about it from that perspective. Finally, it has to be said that it does not run very well on the wrapping machines. It will run, but speeds have to be reduced and set-up times are almost doubled while operators struggle to calibrate the sealing heads so that they don’t just burn through instead of sealing. No prizes for guessing who’ll end up paying for that.

Not green, but greener just the same

The other additive based degradable polythene is an altogether different film. These films are made by blending a secret additive to the polymer which provides a UV / oxidative and / or biological mechanism to degrade it and is extruded in a similar way to standard poly. I’m reliably informed that under normal circumstances, the additive based poly typically takes between six months to two years to degrade in a landfill site and, to degrade, it basically reacts with the oxygen, heat and mass in the soil to break it down into oxidised molecular fragments that water can wet. These molecular fragments are then broken down by micro organisms in the soil into carbon dioxide, water and biomass (chemical waste). Unfortunately, complete biodegradation, ie. transformation by micro-organisms in energy, CO2 and H2O, has never been established. As it is, at the end of the degradation process, the biomass is still too big to be degraded by the micro organisms and simply remains in the soil in the form of tiny particles we can hardly see, smell or touch without specialist equipment.

Whilst the impact is drastically reduced, it is still made from fossil fuels, post degradation the molecules are still there in the soil, it is still taking up space in landfill, and it is still polluting the environment. With this in mind we must be very careful about what we claim about this film and what it will or won’t do.

On the plus side, the cost of this poly is considerably cheaper than the bio based alternative. In fact, so common is this poly becoming, the cost is dropping, and fast. It may not be too long before we can buy it for the same price we are currently paying for the standard poly we’re all familiar with. It gets better still. To the untrained eye, it is very hard to tell the difference between this poly and the standard poly meaning it has multiple uses. It also takes print extremely well. Anything that can be printed on standard poly can be reproduced on the oxydegradable poly. The clarity is good too meaning it is suitable for newstrade use. It has a long shelf life and, because it runs well on the wrapping lines, our third party suppliers are happy to use it as well. This final point is something we should all be happy about as anything that helps our mailing houses avoid reducing machine speeds has got to be a good thing. After all, they will only pass the cost onto us, so why wouldn’t we consider the people who have to use it?

The decision is yours

In summary, at the end of the day whether you choose to stick with standard polyethylene or switch to a more environmentally friendly option, it’s all a matter of deciding how environmentally friendly you want to be, how much more money you want to spend and how much work you want to create for yourself and your third party suppliers. Given the advances in the plastics industry over the last five years, I think there is every chance that if I were writing this article this time next year or perhaps the year after that, I may well be advising on another, greener type of mailing film.