“Poly” means “many.” And indeed, polybags are everywhere. It’s often the first thing an e-commerce customer encounters with their new purchase, and it fills retailers’ waste bins on a daily basis. What exactly are polybags, and can they be sustainable?

What are polybags and what are they for?

Polybags are clear, typically low-density polyetylene (LDPE) single-use plastic bags designed to protect a product during transit from manufacturing sites onwards to distribution centers, retailers and consumers. For certain products there is a very real need for such protection: In transit to protect from dust and moisture; in warehouses to protect from damage during transport and storage; and in distribution centers and retail outlets to preserve cleanliness on handling. Currently, there remains a need to continue using protective packaging in circumstances where the environmental conditions cannot be controlled or for particular product lines which are more prone to damage or discoloration (e.g., white t-shirts).

What is a polybag’s environmental impact?

LDPE is a thermoplastic derived from fossil fuels. But from a materials perspective, the primary issue is not plastics themselves, but rather what happens with plastics once they have been used. Without intervention, plastic packaging in the outdoor industry is nearly always given over to municipal waste collectors, where it will end up almost entirely in a landfill or an incinerator. Thus, while an individual polybag may have a negligible impact, the global volume of discarded polybags collectively represents a staggering amount of waste.

Can’t we just stop using polybags?

Indeed, this is happening across many product lines. But given the polybag’s significant role in protecting the product, it must be done with careful consideration. The least sustainable packaging is the one where the product gets damaged. Initial tests in removing polybags from outdoor products indicated that this frequently results in product loss from damage, rendering them unsellable. As products represent such a significant environmental cost, any damage to them offsets the tiny gains from polybag elimination efforts. In other words, the ecological costs of losing products far outweighs any potential gains from polybag removal across all product lines.

Are there alternatives to polybags?

There are several alternatives to LDPE polybags on the market. But alternative materials risk shifting, rather than mitigating, environmental impacts, and often present new and problematic negative costs that are equally difficult to control or eliminate. Bio-based plastics, for example, are fully or partially derived from renewable biological sources. But they may not readily break down in nature or be recyclable together with conventional plastics. Similarly, natural materials like paper and cotton may be preferable in terms of littering or human toxicity, but packaging made from these materials may not provide the necessary levels of moisture protection required to keep products safe. Research tends to agree that from a material perspective, recycled plastic does some things very well. At almost every segment of the lifecycle, recycled plastic outperforms alternative materials across key environmental impact criteria. Again, it is just its end-of-life that is at issue.

What can be done about polybag waste?

There is an ongoing focus on redesigning end-of-life systems, such as numerous national programs that incentivize plastic recycling. There are also numerous pilot programs in the outdoor industry exploring how to reduce the use of polybags and keep them out of the retail and consumer spheres by collecting them and recycling them already at distribution centers.


Illustration: Kicki Fjell

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