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I've been wondering a lot - when did we begin to use plastic to package everything? I visited Myanmar, in South East Asia, this year and there there is a problem with single use plastic - everything is packed in flimsy single use plastic bags - from takeaway noodles to coffee, hanging like fairground goldfish from bike handlebars. The cities are pristine but as soon as you go out into the countryside there are bonfires burning plastic and drifts of bags blowing along the side of the road.
Yet Myanmar has not been open to a lot of foreign trade for long - this influx of plastic must be recent - so what was used before?
We in the UK have a longer history with plastic, with foam chips and polystyrene - I remember the excitement of popping the bubbles on the first bubble wrap I came across, which must have been the late 1970s or early 1980s. That wasn't that long ago, so what did we use before?
I grew up in an antique dealing house - an awful lot of my childhood was spent packing up china and glass and moving it in cardboard boxes from auction house to home, to antique fairs, to market stalls. Unpacking it, setting it up for sale, packing for customers or wrapping to take home again - depending on the success of the day.
We used newspaper. Layers of newspaper carefully wrapped round handles. Saucers wrapped and stacked on end, cups nestled together. There were very few breakages.
There was skill involved - you had to think about what went where and keep things snug in the box, it was a messy job because newsprint got into your hands, but it worked.
So, earlier this year, when we began to re-jig all our packaging that is where I began. What did we do before plastic? Could we go back?
Reduce, Recycle, Reuse - that has been the green mantra for years - and it is what we have been trying to follow as we change things up.
And so we have been experimenting with how we can start again from the beginning.
We kept a note of breakage levels that we had using bubble wrap and 2 layers of cardboard boxes so that we have a base line and then we have been changing things to be more ecologically responsible as and when our existing packaging ran out. (For the record we still have some plastic sleeves for notebooks which we are continuing to use for Not on the High Street orders until they run out.)
We decided to run the experiment for 3 months and look at number of breakages (because having to replace broken orders is not exactly environmentally friendly either) and then rethink if necessary.
This is where we are. All general cardboard, paper and tissue that we use is - as it has been for 3 years - FSC approved, all tape used is paper tape, our thank you postcards are on 100% recycled paper stock and more often than not are cut down misprinted ones that I would rather use up. All are obviously recyclable.
Our string is either jute or vintage yarn from my personal stash that I'm trying to use up. We made the decision to be lavish with this in the hope that this helps it to be reused by customers.
I spent a catharctic hour wrapping and throwing misprinted mugs about the workshop and we ended up with packaging that provides as much protection as bubble wrap but contains no plastic. The mugs are wrapped in an unbleached recycled unprinted newspaper type paper (so no messy hands) and then put into a paper bag and wrapped a bit like an old fashioned sandwich bag with string and a label.
Boxed kits -
We decided to take a different approach with our boxed kits - spending more on creating packaging that is sturdy enough to be kept and reused, either as storage or as a plant pot. Again they are tied with string and we use either tissue or paper to wrap everything inside.
Bagged Kits -
We decided that some of our kits would actually be better in bags - for example the knitting kit, the paint a birdhouse kit - as it is handy storage and can be reused again and again. The bags we use are made from organically grown and unbleached cotton and we are printing them in-house so that we can make really small runs of products and avoid waste.
The experiment runs until Monday officially - but, unless there are any last minute surprises, it is very much on a par with then we used bubble wrap. We have learned that boxes have to be stuffed tight so that the contents won't move at all - so we need to use extra sheets of the unprinted newspaper to pad them out. We have also learned that quite frankly there are some places (like France) where post gets a really, really hard time and that there is not much you can do. We are currently stockpiling reused bubble wrap to pad out French orders.
Recycling - This obviously deals with the orders we are sending out, but what about the things we get sent? Some suppliers have us rolling our eyes in horror - and we do let them know that more environmentally responsible packaging matters to us. Realistically we are a tiny business but we hope that if enough tiny businesses raise the matter then things will change and we will not be sent random bits of polystyrene.
Cardboard is either used in the compost heap, as a mulch in the garden or fed to the worms. I am very excited about the potential for the wormery as wet cardboard is the worms favourite snack. We save bubble wrap and other plastic packaging. The horrible polystyrene gets broken up as crocks in the big planters to save on weight and compost. Pallets either become building materials or kindling when we can't send them back.
That leaves us with pallet wrap - like large scale clingfilm, plastic straps that bind boxes down, and lots and lots of plastic bags. We are working on it.