Valerie Schafer Franklin
Mar 28 · 6 min read
Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

We experience plastic trash on our local beach every week. Inspired by recent news reports and nature documentaries, our small husband-and-wife e-commerce business, Walnut Studiolo, is committing publicly to eliminating single-use plastics in our product packaging.

In this article we’re sharing how and why we’re doing this as a case study and hopefully a road map for others trying to do the same (hint: telling people about it — raising public awareness — is a big part of the solution).

Why we’re eliminating single-use plastics

We live and work near the ocean, and we experience plastic debris on our beaches every time. We know how big the problem is. We do our part and help at beach clean-up days but the sheer quantity of tiny plastics is overwhelming. Even though our small business isn’t introducing new plastic goods into the world (we only makes products out of natural materials like leather and wood) and we operate by strong sustainability values, we realize there are improvements we can make in the use of plastics.

There are two main plastics problems: 1) not enough durability / reuse / recycling of plastic goods, and 2) the sheer volume of plastics that are designed to be destroyed and disposed after only one use (“single-use plastics”).

Trying to figure out how to reduce plastics is overwhelming, but the UN has made it straightforward for us on where to put our focus: they prioritized the elimination of single-use plastics as our first, top priority — for the oceans, for the food chain, and for our own health.

Plastic packaging accounts for nearly half of all plastic waste globally, and much of it is thrown away within just a few minutes of its first use. Much plastic may be single-use, but that does not mean it is easily disposable. When discarded in landfills or in the environment, plastic can take up to a thousand years to decompose.

The most common single-use plastics found in the environment are, in order of magnitude, cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other types of plastic bags, and foam take-away containers.

We used the UN Report’s road map to help guide our program to end single-use plastics, focusing on the products we send out first, with an extension goal of reducing what we bring in and use for our operations.

How we’re eliminating single-use plastics

1. Identify the most problematic single-use plastics in your business

As a small operation focusing on products made from natural materials, this was relatively straightforward: to inventory our plastics, we reviewed our finished goods and raw materials inventory lists and did a walk-through of our operations areas.

Conclusion: Plastics come to us via suppliers as part of our raw materials and operations — such as packages of screws or food supplies in the office — and we purchase and send out plastics out to our customers with our products as packaging and shipping materials.

Clearly the most problematic single-use plastics are the ones we choose to buy and send out to our customers for our products.

  • Packaging: This is the main area where we purchase and use single-use plastics. We already use recycled paper packaging for most of our products, but nonetheless we do use plastic bags for a few of our products: the most go into drawer pull hardware kits. This is thus the most problematic area of our business and where we can have the greatest impact.
  • Shipping: We use up-cycled / reused shipping materials first (as much as available), then we rely on newly-purchased shipping materials. Most shipping materials are made of recycled paper such as boxes, but we do also use bubble mailers, which have a plastic bubble sleeve on the inside of a recycled kraft paper exterior; recycled plastic poly mailers from EcoEnclose, and plastic bubble wrap. All of the plastic shipping materials can be re-used (we re-use the ones that come to us), and we feel okay about creating demand for recycled plastics by choosing recycled poly mailers, but we can have an impact by choosing less plastic material in our shipping.

2. Consider and implement the best actions to tackle the problem.

  1. Walnut is committing here and now to eliminating single-use plastic bags in our product packaging — no more new single-use plastic purchases going forward. We have identified recycled kraft coin envelopes and wax paper sleeves as biodegradable alternatives. These paper alternatives will cost slightly more but the additional cost is insignificant to our material costs and will not change product prices.
  2. Walnut is also reducing reusable plastic bags in our product packaging. We have identified recycled kraft merchandise bags and wax paper sleeves as biodegradable alternatives. In some cases these paper alternatives are actually less expensive (!) than plastics, and in other cases, the additional cost is insignificant to product pricing.
  3. Walnut is also reducing reusable plastic packaging in our shipping materials. We’re trading plastic bubble wrap for kraft paper “GreenWrap.” Finding a non-plastic, lightweight, cost-absorbable alternative to the bubble mailer is our next priority.
  4. Walnut is striving to reduce purchases of single-use plastics from our suppliers as much as possible, such as buying bathroom tissue wrapped in paper rolls instead of plastic bundles, purchasing materials in bulk and implementing a loose tea bar in our office.
  5. Walnut will keep this program going by having one point-person dedicated to this initiative who will track, review and research all sourcing choices.

How you can reduce single-use plastics

We are writing this blog post today because we want to raise public awareness about single-use plastics. We were inspired to do this after reading the UN report and watching David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II while stitching together our leather goods one night. We hope that by adapting the UN’s single-use plastics road map to a small business and providing our analysis transparently, we can provide a model for other small businesses to crib.

Here’s what you can do to help:

  • Check out the Resources section below to learn more
  • Support businesses who are doing their part to reduce single-use plastics
  • Share this article with other small businesses
  • Recycle and reuse your shipping materials: Cardboard boxes can be recycled. Clean packaging peanuts can be brought to participating UPS stores for re-use. If you know other small businesses like ours that ship regularly, ask them if they want your gently-opened plastic bubble mailers and poly mailers for re-use. Bubble mailers and poly mailers are often thrown away, but if you know a friend with a small business like an Etsy shop, they may be happy to use them (as we are). Our local craft re-use center, SCRAP PDX, could hardly keep enough used bubble mailers in stock at one point!

How to open your mailers for re-use:

To open a bubble mailer or poly mailer so that it can be re-used, resist the temptation to rip or tear apart. Take out scissors and either:
a) cut cleanly across the top of the package, or
b) score the tape with the scissors and open at the tape line, or
c) slide the scissors underneath the envelope flap and cut right above the glue line.

The goal is for the next user to simply re-tape it shut in the same place it was first taped or cut.

Conclusion

The planning of our plastics program and this UN road map exercise took about five hours, and was totally worth the thought exercise. By looking at everything we do, it challenged us to make improvements we might not have considered before. It also helped us really hone in on the most problematic plastics in our business and identify our highest priorities, so that finding implementable solutions was relatively easy because the list was short.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. We were surprised and pleased to find out we could eliminate the worst plastics in our business for either insignificant cost increases or actual cost savings. Most of these changes we can implement immediately and with surprisingly little effort.

More Resources


Originally published at http://blog.walnutstudiolo.com on March 28, 2019.

Valerie Schafer Franklin

Written by

Running a family business and writing for fun.

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