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Could Worm-Friendly Mailers Revolutionize Retail Packaging?

As consumers forgo brick-and-mortar stores due to the spread of COVID-19, online shopping continues its steady rise to prominence. But as countless parcels move through the mail system, retail risks creating more waste than ever before.

As the world has become more dependent on e-commerce in recent months, New Zealand’s The Better Packaging Co. has found a platform for products that the company’s founders believe could address the problem of packaging waste on a worldwide scale.

Using mostly bio-based inputs, partners Rebecca Percasky and Kate Bezar’s non-toxic packs, bags, bubble wrap, labels, liners and more are made to return to the Earth after protecting their contents on trips across the country—or across the globe.

“The range is made to perform like plastic, but it was engineered out of materials that biodegrade completely,” Percasky said.

Made from polylactic acid (PLA), which is derived from cornstarch, along with polybutyrate adipate terephthalate (PBAT), derived from oil found in the ground, the packaging and packing materials are designed to decompose under compost conditions within a matter of a few short months. Traditional plastics, by contrast, can last for hundreds of years.

What’s more, the waterproof, durable, tear-resistant line can be stored and used by brands for about nine months before its strength is compromised by natural breakdown processes inherent in the materials.

Percasky was inspired to break out her chemistry degree after a stint in the retail technology space, working to facilitate online orders for e-commerce brands. “I saw an incredible industry that was growing quickly, and with that growth came increased packaging waste,” she said. “I just thought there must be a better way to do things.”

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Joining forces with Bezar, who also studied chemistry and spent part of her career in tech, the two sought to create a range of packaging products that were both earth-friendly and affordable enough for brands to buy at scale.

“I thought it would be a simple solution, but there’s actually a lot of complexity,” Bezar said. “It’s really important that seams are strong, it’s waterproof, it’s tough and durable, and that labels can be stuck to it. We have to ensure that all of those qualities are there.”

While there are a bevy of brands that have been wishing for just such a solution, finding the sweet spot between biodegradability and performance has proven elusive for many packaging innovators.

“Plastic is an incredible product and we’ve gotten so used to its qualities and behaviors, so trying to replicate something that does as good of a job but is made of plant-based materials that biodegrade naturally is a challenge,” Percasky said.

Adding pressure to the task is the ever-shortening time frame for saving the Earth, Bezar said. “We have to move quickly because we are in a crisis situation when it comes to the environment, and get products to market that work,” she said.

The Better Packaging Co. has amassed a loyal following of mostly beauty and swim brands that take a special interest in bodily health, the ocean and nature more broadly. Makeup titans Maybelline and L’Oreal are clients, along with beachy favorites Roxy and Billabong. Sustainable California brands Monday Swimwear and Stone Fox Swim have also taken the packaging plunge.

“Our customers have been so excited and grateful to see us switch to eco-friendly packaging,” Chelsea Bell, owner and designer of Stone Fox Swim, told Sourcing Journal.

Bell said the company has received a multitude of positive messages from shoppers buoyed by the brand’s association with The Better Packaging Co. “They have helped us to reduce so much waste in individual plastic bags, while keeping our branding looking as beautiful as ever,” she said.

Bezar said word about The Better Packaging Co. has spread largely through the product itself. “Each bag is a flier about what it is, what it’s made of, what we do, and why,” she said. Emblazoned with the cheeky slogan, “I’m a Real Dirt Bag,” the mailers’ message is hard to ignore.

“As they fly around the world and land in the hands of different people, we’re having brands come to us and say, ‘I just ordered a bikini online and it came in your packaging—tell me more about it.’”

Environmentally minded labels whose teams have scoured the web for effective and affordable packaging solutions have also landed on the business, she said.

The founders also endeavored to create products that brands across the globe, regardless of size, could afford to buy into. Sustainable advancements across the industry have traditionally come with a hefty price tag, and Bezar and Percasky wanted to dispel some of the movement’s exclusivity.

“If a brand was buying products in the hundreds or thousands from an office supplies company, our products aren’t much more expensive,” Percasky said. “A larger company that’s buying products in the tens or hundreds of thousands can get much more if they’re buying at scale—it’s ridiculously cheap.

“We applaud the larger companies that have bitten the bullet to use our packaging, because there’s a cost increase for them,” she added. The recognition and loyalty from an increasingly shrewd consumer contingent makes up for the higher spend, she said.

While The Better Packaging Co. has amassed a multitude of certifications from organizations like the Ellen MacArther Foundation’s New Plastics Economy, the Packaging Forum, and the Sustainable Business Network, Percasky is keen to tout the Australian Bioplastics Association’s AS 5810-2010 verification for home composting as a point of pride.

“It means that it’s worm-friendly, so when it breaks down, the worms can munch on it,” she said. The products have undergone the association’s worm toxicity test, ensuring that they’re safe for consumption by the garden dwellers and microorganisms commonly found in compost bins and landfills.

“Even with the best intentions, plastic bags get blown around; things end up in the environment,” Bezar said. While composting is the most effective option, The Better Packaging Co.’s products will indeed decompose even if they end up as litter—it just takes longer.

Home and commercial composting has become an accepted and common practice in countries like New Zealand and Australia, but working with brands in the U.S.—which, Percasky said, only recycles 8 percent of its plastic waste—meant devising a fully biodegradable solution was a must.

“A big part of our role is around education,” she said. “We want to start a composting revolution.”