Environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic bubble wrap

Do you typically reach for bubble wrap when mailing or shipping packages?

Plastic bubble wrap has been a go-to mailing supply for individuals and companies who ship items.

But plastic, as you know, is a material that is proving immensely toxic to our environment and health.

Since 1950, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced.

Since more than 90% of that plastic is not recycled, where do you suppose it all goes? That’s right: landfills, oceans, and other waterways.

By turning to more eco-friendly packaging options that are good alternatives to bubble wrap, we can cut down on a significant portion of plastic waste.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the problems with plastic bubble wrap and show you some great eco-friendly and safe alternatives.

The scope of the plastic packaging problem

According to National Geographic, this is the shocking reality about plastic packaging:

40 % of plastic produced is packaging is used just once and then discarded. Click To Tweet

For decades, plastic bubble wrap has been the go-to choice for packaging materials for shipping.

It’s typically produced to be transparent, it’s cheap, and it works well to protect items in the mail.

But it’s important to note that there are smarter (non-plastic) alternatives that are equally effective.

Many commercial retailers are turning to biodegradable packaging solutions for their products.

As demand increases for these eco-friendlier solutions, plastic bubble wrap may ultimately become a thing of the past.

Plastic bubble wrap: it’s everywhere

scissors bubble wrap
photo: Stefan Schweihofer

Since it was first produced in 1957 in New Jersey, plastic bubble wrap has been used to package an immense range of products that include pharmaceutical drugs, household appliances, glassware, dishes, toys, artwork, perfume, lampshades, and countless more.

It seems that every individual as well as manufacturers have either shipped or received products laden with plastic bubble wrap.

Although bubble wrap can theoretically be reused for future mailings, it’s inconvenient to store owing to its bulky design.

Besides, let’s be honest, we all know what usually happens:

Once the bubbles are popped – and don’t pretend you haven’t done that – the wrap is no longer effective for protecting items that are shipped, so it must be discarded.

And that’s where the problem lies.

The disposal problem

dump truck landfill
This is what usually happens to bubble wrap and other non-recyclable materials
Bubble wrap is almost never recycled and ends up in landfill – or worse – in nature. Click To Tweet

Plastic bubble wrap is produced from polythene, and although it is technically recyclable, the sad reality is that most councils and communities don’t accept it and won’t recycle it.

Laura Freeman from the Dailymail actually asked her local council in the UK (which doesn’t recycle bubble wrap) what she’s supposed to do with the absurd amounts of bubble wrap after redecorating her place.

The council suggested she keep it for a potential future move, or to “wrap vases”.

Alternatively, she was told, she could throw it in her household trash, which would then be taken to landfill.

Which is essentially the same thing as suggesting “bury it in your backyard”.

Environmental issues of bubble wrap

Polythene, being a petroleum-based plastic, is not biodegradable, let alone compostable.

On that note: don’t be fooled by so-called “biodegradable” or “eco-friendly” plastics. Unless they are actually 100% plant-based, it’s highly probable that those are “oxo-biodegradable” plastics, being marketed as a “green” alternative.

But the reality is that those “oxo-degradable” plastics are actually even worse than regular plastics. Find out why you should stay away from them in this article (under the section “Beware of “oxo-degradable” or “oxo-biodegradable””).

What’s more, previous incarnations of plastic bubble wrap (manufactured before 2008) were made from a polymer film that is regarded as “biologically toxic” to the environment.

Although more producers are turning away from this toxic material, the main issue remains: not only is traditional bubble wrap hazardous to the environment, it takes up significant space and an unforeseeable amount of time in landfills.

Health dangers

man bubble wrap
photo: Mitchell Griest

Plastic is made from harmful or even toxic chemicals.

We’ve taken for granted that plastic is both convenient and safe for use, but research is showing us that plastic is not safe for humans.

For instance, the chemicals that create the plastic containers and materials we use can leach into the food and beverage products we consume. These chemicals are now found in nearly all of us.

Exposure to plastic chemicals can lead to birth defects, some cancers, and other serious health conditions.

While we may try to protect ourselves by avoiding plastic water bottles, just consider that the other plastics we dispose of like bubble wrap ultimately wind up in landfills or the ocean.

Once there, it pollutes the soil, water and injures or is ingested by animals. Either way, it enters into the food chain and therefore ends up on our plates or in our drinking water.

Dangers for marine life

whale full of plastic trash

No matter how much we attempt to minimize the plastic we use in our homes, we must be aware that plastic continues to pollute the environment where it affects animals.

Most of us have seen the video above which went viral or read similar headlines about whales and dolphins washing up on beaches with their bellies full of plastics.

But what about the animals that don’t make headlines – for instance, the fish many of us consume? They, too, are subject to plastic pollution.

According to scientists, there are tiny particles of plastic in the shellfish and fish we consume.

These fibers, fragments, and microbeads of plastic are often stored in the guts of marine animals.

This can be particularly dangerous for them since these fragments can clump up and seriously injure or even kill their host.

Needless to say, this is another way how microplastics enter into the food chain and ultimately into the human body.

How much is stored in our bodies after a year, a decade or a lifetime of ingesting these toxic plastic substances? What are the long-term effects on our health?

When one stops and considers all the many ways that plastic bombards us and pollutes the environment, one begins to understand that boycotting plastic bottle use is only one solution.

A comprehensive reduction in plastics – including bubble wrap – is what’s needed to make a dramatic change in our as well as the earth’s exposure to plastics.

Alternatives to plastic bubble wrap

The following product types are some viable alternatives to plastic bubble wrap that are increasing in popularity among retailers as well as individual consumers.

While some can be found in stores that sell packaging and shipping supplies, all can be purchased online.

Learn more about the following options to see which are ideal solutions for you.

Biodegradable Packing Peanuts

biodegradable packing peanuts loose fill

Just like plastic bubble wrap, conventional Styrofoam packing peanuts are not any better for the environment.

Moreover, while this loose fill is cheap, many consumers dislike them for the mess they make when unpackaging items.

But there are biodegradable packing peanuts as a smart alternative to bubble wrap and Styrofoam peanuts.

These eco-friendly peanuts are made from starch or other biodegradable materials, so they decompose easily, causing no harm to the environment.

Most of the plant-based packing peanuts are even static-free, so they won’t cling to your hands, clothes or other surfaces.

There is one con to consider, especially if you ship in bulk. These types of peanuts generally weigh a bit more than Styrofoam peanuts, so they may increase shipping costs slightly.

Corrugated paper rolls

corrugated paper flute roll

Corrugated wrap is crafted from cardboard or paper, so it’s perfectly biodegradable and safe for the environment and your health.

It’s recyclable and compostable and, of course, it serves its purpose as it cushions and protects shipped items.

Although this type of packaging may not be the most cushioning of alternatives (so consider carefully before using it to protect items made from glass), it can be safely used for many types of product mailings.

Shredded crinkle cut paper

shredded crinkle cut paper

Shredded crinkle paper is a great practical alternative to plastic bubble wrap since it is completely compostable and very cushioning.

Not only is it affordable in comparison, but it’s effective as a protective material. Though typically delivered in compressed form, the paper expands when used.

One of the cons of using this type of material is that you may need to use extra when packing highly breakable materials like glassware.

However, since this material is cost-effective and often designed (depending on the manufacturer) from recycled paper, it’s a great option for replacing plastic.

Kraft gap filler paper

kraft paper roll gap filler

Some companies are turning to gap paper to secure products as they’re shipped.

The paper, typically sold on a roll, fills the gaps between the product and its outer box or packaging. The paper keeps the items from sliding around their box and provides some padding as protection.

The downside is that the level of padding may not be sufficient for breakable or delicate items. However, gap paper is effective for holding items securely within their containers.

Mushroom Packaging

Ecovative mushroom packaging
100% compostable mushroom packaging by Ecovative (photo: mycobond licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

Made from mushroom roots, mushroom packaging is an eco-friendly packaging material that’s easily compostable and ideal for shipping small items.

The American startup Ecovative made a name for itself when it attracted the interest and even made deals with big companies like DELL and IKEA.

These big players recognize the benefits and will use the ecological and completely compostable mushroom packaging – instead of polystyrene (commonly known as Styrofoam) – to wrap their computers and furniture.

This type of packaging pairs cleaned and dried mushroom roots with cotton or other types of agricultural waste.

Producing this material emits no toxic substances and you can compost it in your backyard, so it’s a wonderfully green alternative to plastic packaging.

Check out what mushroom packaging is and see its benefits in this short video:

mushroom packaging as an alternative to Styrofoam

The downside? None, really, other than that it’s still relatively hard to purchase – even online.

However, once they expand their production capacity and maybe other companies start offering similar solutions, this might be the long-needed substitute for Styrofoam.

Learn more about or buy mushroom packaging here.

Creative & future solutions

When mailing items from home, remember you can also recycle items as a replacement for bubble wrap when shipping items.

Does your grocery store continue to bag items in plastic? Save the bags and bunch them together to use for packaging. Newspaper, magazines, and old clothing can also be used to mail materials.

Furthermore, as the demand for eco-friendly packaging materials grows, keep a lookout for packaging made from mushrooms, as mentioned, as well as seaweed, bagasse, and palm fiber.

Conclusion

There is absolutely no reason to keep using plastic bubble wrap, which is so harmful to our environment and health.

As we’ve explored in this article, there are plenty of great alternatives, all of which are natural, eco-friendly and non-toxic.

Which one is your favorite?

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