It started with single-use carrier bags, then progressed to plastic straws, water bottles and food packaging.
Now, pretty much anything that’s a single-use plastic is viewed as a potential pariah. And that includes one particular type of plastic product that is in widespread use across the printing industry: polywrap.
Polywrap is used for lots of applications, from direct mail pieces to magazines and catalogues, and for keeping weekend newspapers and their supplements together.
Every week, in fact, millions of polywrapped items make their way into the hands of consumers and businesses.
And there’s good reason for that, polywrap is light, strong and weather resistant, making it extremely effective at the task it is required to fulfil.
It is also, despite perceptions to the contrary, recyclable.
“Polywrap is LDPE [low-density polyethylene] and as such is one of the most easily recyclable materials on the market. The trouble is local authorities don’t want to take it back because it’s so light,” explains Malcolm Atkinson, managing director at Hereford-based flexible films extruder and printer Alfaplas.
Unfortunately, the UK’s frankly dysfunctional recycling systems doesn’t help. As the BBC recently reported, across the UK there are 39 different sets of rules in force for plastics recycling. In the absence of a national standard, no wonder end-users are confused about what to do with their polywrap-type waste.
And, understandably in the light of Blue Planet II and the current Drowning in Plastic television series, the reaction of consumers in particular to receiving plastic-wrapped items is increasingly negative, recyclable or not. It is little wonder that many are clamouring for what they perceive to be a more planet-friendly alternative.
So, what are the alternatives? After the false start offered by oxo-degradable plastics (effectively banned by the EU in January), the three main options for those looking to move away from traditional polywrap are: starch-based bio-plastics; paper wrapping; or ‘naked’ distribution with no covering at all.
Alfaplas has been making starch-based bio-plastics for more than a decade, but it’s a product line that has only really taken off this year. Atkinson reports that sales of Bioplast film, which were “next to nothing”, rocketed by 300% in Q2 this year, when the National Trust switched all 2.4 million copies of the UK’s highest-circulating magazine to the wrap.
The Trust made the decision to switch in a remarkably short timeframe, explains print manager Graham Prichard.
“Before Blue Planet aired, we were already looking into the obvious alternatives but hadn’t found anything suitable. However, we had to accelerate the research – members were demanding action, so you could say the period of time was actually from Christmas 2017 to March of this year,” he says.
“We didn’t trial any other options – initially we were looking at either paper wrap – and what we saw didn’t inspire us – or naked mailing. We are still exploring the naked option, but when presented with the option by ADM of the starch-based wrap, our executive board members felt that it was something that had to be done. The starch wrap is certified as home compostable as well as biodegradable (although it may not be accepted by all local authorities in their waste streams) and fitted the brief in terms of getting rid of single-use plastic.”
There are a number of factors to take into account when considering such a switch, says Julie Ray, client services director at the charity’s mailing supplier, Advanced Direct Mail (ADM) in Dudley.
Ray says that starch-based wrap, with its milky appearance is “not clear enough for Mailmark – we’ve done lots of tests and Royal Mail says no at the moment”, while handling the film took some adjustments. “It was difficult to start with, it was difficult to seal and needed hotter bars, so we had to run a bit slower to make sure it’s really sealed,” she says. “The National Trust made a decision very quickly, but for other customers this is a much longer journey and they have more questions.”
Price is, of course, another factor as the starch wrap is anything from twice to six-times the price of polyethylene, depending who you talk to. However, Atkinson says “the price has come down and will continue to come down”.
Little wonder, though, that another ADM client, the RSPB, has really gone to town with the messaging on its starch wrap, which it has emblazoned with information regarding its biodegradable creds, urging readers to re-use it as a liner for home composting caddies.
Exactly what it says on the tin. Products are mailed without carrier sheet, polywrap, or envelope. Advantages include associated cost savings and postal discounts, the main disadvantage is: no inserts. Cataloguers, including Lands’ End and Lakeland, are among those to use this method.
In August, YM Group announced that it had perfected a new paper wrapping solution for magazine and catalogue customers by taking its existing expertise in paper wrapping of direct mail products and adapting it for larger, heavier products.
As with starch-based wrap, this is a more expensive solution, although Lance Hill, sales director at YM’s Lettershop business, says it can be cost-neutral if a project is planned properly to take advantage of postage and sustainability discounts.
Multiple trials are underway and at least two YM clients have already switched to paper wrapping, but are yet to go public with the details.
“We have committed to another paper wrap line to increase capacity which is due to be installed in January. Our two existing lines are now virtually full between now and Christmas,” says Hill.
A more widespread adoption of paper wrapping could be underway. The Sitma polywrapping lines that are commonplace at magazine printers and mailing houses across the country can be adapted to run paper, and Richard MacLean, director at UK distributor Engelmann & Buckham, reports an upswing in interest in conversions across the company’s customer base.
“The majority of Sitma polywrapping machines out there can be converted to paper-wrapping and can then swap between the two. We had at least 15 enquiries initially and this significant interest is continuing,” he says.
Elsewhere, the heightened environmental awareness has resulted in increased demand for a more conventional type of paper wrap – envelopes. “We’ve dusted off our C4 machine and we can handle 7mm spine products on that, which is quite hefty,” says Malcolm Baker, sales director at Document Despatch in Basingstoke.
What could be a very impactful project is also underway in Liverpool, where gravure printer Prinovis is trialling a paper banding option for newspaper supplements.
It is commonplace for the supplements and inserts for weekend newspapers editions to be polybagged, and sometimes the whole paper is then polybagged as well, because wholesalers and supermarkets want all the component pieces to be kept neatly in place.
The Prinovis trial involves using a prototype Sitma machine to keep supplements and inserts together using a paper band – which can itself be branded or act as an additional advertising space.
News UK is taking part in the tests. “We are currently running a trial where 27,000 customers of The Times Saturday edition are receiving their papers with a paper band rather than a polybag. We want to maintain the high standards of service that our customers are used to and are testing if all elements of the edition can be manufactured and distributed in one piece,” says a spokesperson.
It’s early days but other newspaper groups will be watching closely. DMG Media says the Mail stopped using plastic bagging for the Mail on Saturday in March, and is currently exploring ways that it can do the same for the heftier Mail on Sunday supplements package.
It’s no surprise that large membership organisations with a conservation ethos such as the National Trust, the RSPB and the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust were among the first to switch from traditional polywrap to a starch-based alternatives.
However, even though the National Trust magazine is the UK’s single-biggest title, it is only published three times a year.
Compare and contrast with, say, the Radio Times and its weekly circulation of 577,087 of which more than 271,000 are subscribers. At 51 issues a year that’s in excess of 13.8m polywrapped subscriber copies per annum.
Radio Times publisher Immediate Media is among many publishers (PrintWeek’s included) that have added prominent messaging emphasising the fact that standard polywrap can already be recycled.
“I think Immediate Media is taking a sensible approach. They are taking it seriously and looking at it but they don’t want to jump too soon and make the wrong decision,” notes one mailing expert.
The consensus is that large parts of the industry are likely to continue to use polywrap in one way or another.
Paul Butcher, managing director at Priority Mailing & Digital Print in Salisbury, says: “We mail around 50 million items a year, and well into 30 million of that is polywrapped. The question mark I have is, is it the polyethylene in itself that’s wrong, or the way it’s recycled and dealt with? I don’t know the answer to that one.”
This brings us back to the issues around variances in recycling rules across the UK.
Atkinson at Alfaplas urges his customers, and their customers, to make sure their messaging is clear – even though he could eventually convert all of his company’s 5,000 tonnes of extrusion plastics capacity to bio-plastics: “The key thing is that people are educated to recycle polywrap.”
However, if the elimination of single-use plastics is an imperative, alternatives are available albeit potentially at a cost or a compromise. But then, as the National Trust’s Prichard says: “What price do you put on the environment?”