While the idea of a compostable mailer sounds pretty perfect, it unfortunately depends on the end-of-life treatment of this mailer that defines it. Brands shipping with compostable mailers tout their eco-friendliness, but we aren't totally sold on this product. Read on to learn how the compostable poly-mailer stacks up against the recycled mailer and which aligns better with our brand mission.

Compostable Poly-Mailer


We started seeing these black compostable mailers a few years ago and were intrigued by the concept. Just as you can see, it reads "Hey! I'm 100% Compostable." Finally, we thought, someone figured out how to eliminate the plastic necessary to ship our goods. Turns out, there are overlooked details to these seemingly perfect mailers.

The compostable poly-mailer is made from a combination of non-renewable petro based source materials (PBAT) and polylactic acid (PLA), which is fermented plant starch. The PLA in these mailers is derived from corn. While this is technically a renewable resource and "carbon-neutral", some issues do present themselves:

GMOs: At least in the U.S., PLA is made from genetically modified corn. PLA here is produced from corn owned by Cargill-- the world's largest supplier of genetically modified corn seed. The long-term effects of GMO corn on the environment and humans is still widely unknown and poses quite the risk.

VIRGIN MATERIAL: To construct this mailer, everything is sourced (aka harvested for specifically this purpose) new. These mailers also contain the petro-based materials, meaning petroleum still must be extracted from the earth. 

BIODEGRADABILITY: This is our main issue. While the package claims "100% Compostable," this is under specific conditions. For this claim to hold up, this mailer must find its way into an industrial composter. As of 2018, there are 185 full-scale food-waste composting facilities in the U.S. Not even one of these facilities can be properly verified in every state. This means there is no guarantee of this compostable mailer making it to the proper end-of-life facility. Why provide these products if they will not make it to a composting facility? The purpose is defeated. 

While this mailer breaks down in industrial conditions (140 F and plenty of microbes), it will take still take 3 months to compost-- and much longer in your at-home compost bin. However, the landfill is where we have some serious challenges. With no light or oxygen--the conditions necessary for breakdown--this mailer might take anywhere from 100-1,000 years to break into parts and degrade. This statistic is comparable with our typical plastic grocery store bag. Similarly, that they do not break down in marine environments

100% Recycled Paper Mailer

Given these characteristics of the poly mailer, we opt to use the 100% Recycled Paper Mailer. Wanting to stay true to our ethics and morals, we believe this option provides to most environmental and social sustainability. Recycling has reached a high level of prevalence in the U.S. In 2018, 67,390 tons of paper were generated and 45,970 tons were recycled (a 68.2% rate). 

RECYCLED MATERIAL: Our chosen mailers are constructed from 100% recycled material. Although energy and chemicals are required for recycling and reforming paper, no virgin materials are needed to make these mailers. These paper resources were previously harvested for other purposes to then find a new purpose as a mailer. 

RECYCLABLE: These mailers are curbside recyclable. Industry experts and the EPA explain that papers can be recycled 4-7 times. All of this much remanufacturing takes a toll on the wood fibers. Ray shares that,

"The paper is shredded and chopped, then subjected to a mixture of chemicals and water and heated as it is repulped. It is centrifuged and screened to remove impurities; de-inked with more chemicals; then sprayed onto a wire screen, drained, dried and squeezed through heated rollers."

Each of these steps results in the fibers becoming shorter and stiffer. These fibers that have been recycled many times on their own, then need to be combined with virgin wood fibers to make quality paper. BUT at least these fibers will still be in circulation and not sent to the landfill. 

BIODEGRADABILITY: While it is certainly preferred that these mailers end up back in the recycling stream, they will biodegrade with proper conditions. They breakdown in marine environments, and if you wanted to compost it, paper typically takes 4-6 weeks. If they end up in the landfill, it is definitely not ideal, especially knowing that newspapers from decades ago have been discovered at the bottom of landfills. With recycling facilities being readily available in the U.S., we expect these mailers to have a great chance making it back to one of the 633 recycling facilities.

eMpulse Pick

Comparing these two options, we see the 100% recycled mailer as superior to the compostable poly mailer. The recycled mailer uses materials that already exist in the materials stream, can be continuously recycled, and will more likely find their way to the proper facility. The compostable poly-mailer--in comparison-- harvests virgin materials, relies on GMOs for these materials, and its end-of-life will most likely be a landfill, where it will not biodegrade due to improper conditions. 

With the protection of the PLANET and our PEOPLE as our brand priority, it only makes sense that we select the most eco-friendly way to ship our products. With shopping being done more and more online, this means more and more mailers will be used. It is important-- at eMpulse-- to provide not only apparel that our customers can feel good about, but 100% recycled and recycled and recyclable mailers that deliver them in an eco-friendly manner. 

Continuously Questioning the Norm, 

eM and the eMpulse Team 

And a big shout-out to ecoenclose for providing us with our 100% recycled mailers!

November 04, 2021 — Kristy Karrer