Minimizing Packaging Waste - and How to Reuse Padded Mailers

I've spent a lot of time thinking about packaging. And mailers. As a small business owner, making handcrafted, gift-able products, I wanted my products to reflect my personal and brand philosophy, but also to make sure that my work reaches my customers safely and protected from the elements. And I didn't want to bring more unnecessary material into the world, especially plastic, for this single use of getting my products from my shop to my customers. 

Product Packaging

For the products themselves, I wanted a simple, no-plastic, flexible option that I could make myself for small batches and then outsource as I grew. I settled on simple paper cards with my logo printed on recycled kraft paper. 

For protection and presentation, I put each item in a kraft paper bakery bag hand-stamped with my logo. It is simple and rustic in nature, but more importantly, it’s minimal, recycled and recyclable / compostable (take your pick). 


Shipping with Minimal Waste

As for shipping, I researched a lot of options: Compostable bags, which were nice but expensive and only worth the cost if my customers have access to industrial compost systems. I tried making boxes out of old cereal boxes, but that was a lot of work. Corrugated cardboard boxes are pretty low-impact, especially when paired with paper tape. However, they aren't waterproof.

I had a bunch of padded mailers from all those online orders lying around. You know what I'm talking about. Could I just... reuse them?? 

In short, YES!

But, as simple as this seems, it took a while to work out an efficient process that felt intentional, even if I am in fact, mailing out re-used trash.* Want to try it yourself? It works for gifts, clothing returns and other things you might need to mail too!

Here's. my how-to guide if you want to learn from my trials, on how to ship small items with re-used padded mailers. 

Padded Mailers: They are Everywhere

Start by saving your own padded mailers. Ask your friends and family to save them too. And when you need more, try posting to local groups. For me, I use a local "everything free" Facebook group where people post items they either need or want to get rid of to avoid trash and new purchases. I swear, I can only post "ISO" (in search of) padded mailer posts once a year or so because bags of them just start showing up in my driveway for weeks after, but it's a good way to prep for holiday orders. Be creative - these mailers, unfortunately (and fortunately) seem to be everywhere. 

Tip: Don’t use Priority Mail envelopes unless you ship with Priority rates; Amazon and other logos are fine. I learned this the hard way - the USPS will charge the rate of those services, even if you affix a First Class shipping label. One of my first customers received a shipping bill for an order I sent her this way. Ouch! Don’t worry, I refunded her, apologized, and she has placed several more orders from me since. 😀

I also save bubble wrap, plastic pillow-shaped air packs, and newsprint paper to pad and fill packages as needed, and cardboard boxes for larger retail orders and wholesale orders. I do have a backup stash of standard sized boxes, which I purchased before I figured out how to ship with re-used mailers but have not yet needed to use them!

Tidy, Branded Reused Mailers

I cut my mailers to slightly larger than the item(s) I ship, and then try to use the piece I cut to wrap around my items for extra padding. If more padding is needed, I use saved bubble wrap, newspaper (grocery store ads, mostly) or saved plastic air pillows packs. My items aren’t brittle or breakable like glass - instead I am concerned about them being crushed under the weight of other packages. My general goal is for the items to be surrounded by padding in the smallest possible package. 

For tidiness, I trim rough edges with a giant pair of upholstery scissors. And to minimize the amount of  filling needed, I fold extra material into the mailer using an origami-style valley fold. 

Once sized and packed, the package is sealed using a heat sealer. I use this one (which also has a vacuum option that I don’t use), but I’m sure there are better options out there. 

A simple alternative is packing tape, and you can get biodegradable versions which work quite well too. But if you are packing a lot of orders, the heat sealer saves a lot of time!

Branded recyclable tape

For a clean finish, I cover the sealed edge with a strip of branded paper tape (from Sticker Mule). It’s not necessary but it’s the one touch I feel clarifies that the reused mailer is intentional and if judged, should be done with consideration of the benefits.  

This won’t be obvious to my customers, but I also print my labels with a thermal label printer (no toner cartridges!) on Ecoenclose’s Zero Waste labels, and purchase shipping at home (no trips to the post office!) online from Packages are picked up by my local postal carrier when he delivers my mail. 

I hope this info can help another small business owner get a bit of trash out of our waste stream too!

Regarding the recycling of padded mailers: 

*Pure plastic padded mailers are recyclable (including the re-used ones you may receive from me). For most of us, at least in the USA, you can't put them in your curbside bin, however you can bring them to your local grocery store. Look for plastic bag recycling containers, which are, in most cases, collected by recycled lumber manufacturer, Trex, to be turned into decking and other outdoor products. This is a great program for more than just plastic shopping bags! They accept any #2 and #4 plastic film, bag, and bubble wrap mailers!

But those paper mailers with bubble wrap lining? Not easy to recycle due to the combination of materials.

Brown paper padded mailers can be recycled, combine as is appropriate locally for corrugated cardboard. 

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