The old fashioned way of recycling largely consisted of re-using old envelopes to keep old receipts in, but that’s a generational thing. These days, recycling paper is more about trying to save trees and cut waste. And one of the main areas where that can be easily achieved is in recycling – properly, not just reusing – envelopes and mailing bags.
The rise of ecommerce has seen a similar boom in the use of mailing bags and envelopes to carry the smaller items being ordered in abundance from the web. So what can be done with this mountain of used packaging?
Read on as we find out just what you can do with those envelopes and mailing bags.
Can you recycle envelopes with windows?
Many businesses still send out bills and other information in business envelopes with plastic windows in them. The first question many would-be recyclers ask is can envelopes with plastic windows be recycled?
Traditionally, the answer here has been no: the paper part of the envelope is fine, but the plastic window is a bit trickier – even a small amount of plastic contaminant would ruin the entire batch of paper recycling.
For many eco-consumers, this has meant laboriously cutting the windows out of the envelopes before recycling – and still leaves a significant amount of plastic to go to landfill.
However, some modern post-consumer paper mills have systems in place that can now remove some plastic contaminants. So, while the windows still can’t be recycled, the envelopes can be without having to keep removing the plastic manually.
Can padded envelopes be recycled?
The rise of ecommerce has seen a proliferation of padded envelopes and mailing bags used to protect more delicate small items sent by post. The recycling question here, however, is more complex as there are many different types of padded envelopes, crafted from a range of materials.
Bubble padded envelopes
Bubble envelopes are typically mid-sized paper envelopes lined with bubble wrap. Are bubble padded envelopes recyclable? Typically, no, and for the same reasons that window envelopes aren’t: they are made of a mixture of materials, each of which may be recyclable, but together contaminate one another.
The best way to recycle these envelopes is to reuse them, by adding new sticky address labels.
The alternative is to try and manually remove the bubble wrap from within and recycle that and the paper envelope separately.
Bubble envelopes are different again. These are pouches that can be sealed like an envelope, but which are made entirely from bubble packing materials. Can bubble envelopes be recycled? If it is purely made of bubble wrap, then yes these can be recycled as they are a single material. They must be recycled with plastics, but can be recycled – as can the bubble lining of a bubble padded envelope.
Not all padded envelopes are padded with plastic bubble wrap, some are organically padded. Are padded envelopes recyclable? Since they are usually packed with paper fibre in a paper envelope – so together are a single source of material – then these envelopes can be recycled easily in the paper recycling.
These ‘green’ envelopes offer the same degree of protection as their plastic, bubbly counter-parts, but can be both reused and recycled much more easily.
Can you recycle envelopes?
What about basic envelopes: are envelopes recyclable? Standard issue, plain envelopes can be recycled so long as they have no plastic on them or anything else that may act as a contaminant.
Stamps can also be recycled, so envelopes with stamps, paper labels and postmarks can all go into the paper recycling, regardless of colour.
If the envelope has been stuck down using Sellotape or any other kind of plastic tape, then this has to be fully removed, as it isn’t recyclable.
Interestingly, recycling envelopes means they are turned into more envelopes.
If you don’t want to send used plain envelopes to recycling, they are also quite easy to reuse. Among some of the less-obvious uses, Readers’ Digest suggests that they can be used to “funnel bulk spices into smaller jars” if you tear off a corner; use them as “files for things”; “help keep receipts together when shredding”; and, our personal favourite, “use them as envelopes”.
So, yes, can envelopes be recycled? Very much so.
Can you recycle envelopes with glue?
While there is a vast array of envelope types with differing recycling demands, one thing most of them do have in common is that they come with glue-down flaps. Can these be recycled?
In general, yes. Most glue is made from biodegradable organics and so it can be decomposed. However, some recycle plants won’t take it as it will contaminate their paper recycling if they are making pulp to re-use as paper.
Again, as with small amounts of plastic contaminants, many modern recycling plants can cope with small levels of contaminants so that glue isn’t an issue.
Plastic tape, however, is as this is generally not recyclable and can cause, along with plastic windows, too much contamination.
If you are planning to shred paper and envelopes and use them for compost, then the glue isn’t an issue.
Are plastic mailing bags recyclable?
While many people are using the wide variety of paper-based envelopes and mailing bags out there, sometimes only plastic will do – and there is a similarly large array of plastic mailing bags on offer. Can you recycle plastic mailing bags?
Again, it all comes down to whether it is a single material or not. Most polyethylene is recyclable, however, if it comes with paper labels then it isn’t – unless the two are separated and put in their respective recycling channels.
Many retailers who use poly mailing bags print onto the plastic, so that the bag can be recycled.
Another alternative are Kraft paper mailing bags, an environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional polythene mailing bags, made from FSC Kraft paper from sustainable forests. These are not only recyclable, but are also sourced from green raw materials: an environmental win-win.
As ecommerce continues apace, the quantity of envelopes and mailing bags is only going to grow. With many people increasingly aware of the environmental impact of what they do, making sure that simple things such as packaging are recyclable is a must.
The rule of thumb with any packaging, however, is that it can be made up of recyclable materials, but if mixed together renders the whole un-recyclable. Looking to have organically packed padding in paper envelopes or not sticking paper labels of plastic mailing bags is more a case of changing user habits that changing product choice.
Typically, most envelopes and mailing bags are, in essence, recyclable. They are also eminently reusable, so while it may seem daunting to have to separate windows from envelopes, bubble packing from paper and paper labels from plastic mailing bags, you may well be able to find other uses for these things.