I’m sure those of you who know me will already know that I try to live and work in a relatively low-impact style. I’m not what you might call an eco-warrior or anything, I’m just a normal person who was brought up to not be wasteful and who cares about the environment that we live in.
With that in mind, I’ve always tried to keep the business reasonable in terms of sustainability. When I started out the biggest thing I was able to do was to re-use water wherever possible, thus reducing the volume that I used. It’s something I still do - people are always incredulous that I don’t use loads of fresh water or have big water bills but I really don’t. It saves me money and it’s not wasteful - I’d hate to think I was being wasteful with it.
Obviously I’ve always recycled anything that I possibly can, too. Not just paper, but we have plastic recycling, as well as foil, cans, glass, etc. so I use those daily in both business and home use. My yarn comes in boxes so I re-use them if I’ve got bigger wholesale orders going out, and the rest go to the cardboard section at the tip.
When I started ECY I was wrapping yarn in tissue paper to send it out, so that has developed into us getting our own countertop brown paper bags which are printed - I wrap the yarn in those, then they go in an envelope. Those countertop bags come with a minimum order of 10,000 though - this isn’t something that you could do early on in the life of a business, so it’s not terribly accessible as an option. I did it because wrapping yarn in tissue paper was just taking up so much time - it’s an extra minute of faff but when that’s per order and say I’ve got 100 orders to pack up in a day, well that’s more than an extra hour and half just for tissue paper. You get to the point where it’s more worthwhile to invest in the faster option. I love my brown paper bags - I know they’re not hugely glamorous but they fit in so well with our aesthetic and the latest batch of them are a bit sturdier than previously so that’s pleasing.
Our countertop bags ^^
Another thing I did a few years ago (I’ve been in business seven and a half years at this point) was switch to staple-less staplers in order that my yarn bands are fully recyclable without having to pull staples out, plus I’m not using the extra resource of actual staples. The staple-less staples come from Japan, and there are various ones that you can get but we had to get a fairly specific style as it had to be able to fit into the encircled yarn band so that you can actually physically use it. They’ve been a *bit* hit and miss in terms of the mechanism working (grr), so a few have ended up binned, but we have a couple now that have lasted 12 months or so, so I’m very pleased about that.
Japanese staple-less stapler ^^
There are absolutely loads of little things that we do and use daily that make us lower-impact - as soon as I finish writing this loads of things will spring to mind. It’s things like we use paper stickers instead of sellotape to stick the paper bags down; we use paper stickers on the yarn bands; if we have to pack yarn in clear plastic (for instance the Fading Point yarn packs) we use grip seal bags so that they can be re-used; we even collect all the yarn snips - that’s the ties that we cut off the yarn to neaten up the skeins - and take them to the textile recycling bin at the tip so as not to waste all that wool (yes, I have tried putting it out for the birds every year but a) they’ve never taken it in all these years, and b) there’s so much that it would require a vast number of birds to use it!).
One of the biggest things that I have always struggled with is the outer packaging of our parcels - ie mailing bags/mailers. For small wholesale orders (up to about 7kg) I have found heavy duty paper potato sacks to use - I’ve had those for a few years now. They’re wonderful, I really love them and have had no problem with them at all, BUT a) they’re way too big for most domestic orders. Also it’s not prohibitive but it’s a pain - recently the courier UPS have started retro-actively charging us DOUBLE for not using a box on parcels that they transport. Fortunately we have lots of other couriers that we can use, as for these size orders if I used a box I’d have to have a really wide range of different small box sizes in stock. With the potato sacks they’re flexible so will fold to accommodate the volume of the contents. That’s a bit frustrating, but as long as we make sure to not use UPS for those orders we’re ok for now.
Anyway, that still leaves the domestic order packaging - that’s the single biggest source of single-use plastic created by my business and I’ve always found it really galling. I use ‘biodegradeable’ plastic envelopes as I’m sure most of you will know, but what does that really mean? Well.. it means the plastic just breaks down into tiny plastic particles, and actually - is that worse? I recently realised that I think it’s worse than plastic not breaking down. I don’t know for sure, but that’s my feeling. There has been the option (which you may have come across) of using the Jiffy envelopes where they have two walls and between them is paper fluff for padding. There are a couple of reasons I haven’t used these - they’re very limited for sizes; they heavy so add a lot of bulk and weight to parcels (which would mean the postage would cost more); and - this is a big one for me - there is no way of opening them without the bloody fluff going absolutely bloody everywhere. It’s like when you open a greetings card envelope and it’s full of glitter. I just can’t do that to my customers.
HOWEVER…. The recent surge of anti-plastic products and companies has seen a very sudden appearance and availability of products, and this includes a company that we’ve found who do heavy duty but domestic-sized paper envelopes!! We’ve got samples on the way, but as it happens I recently bought some organic cotton string produce bags (you know, for putting apples, courgettes, etc in instead of those crappy little plastic bags) from Wisehouse and they came in one of these very same paper envelopes - I was so delighted as they are EXACTLY what I’ve been looking for. Really sturdy (I’m not binning it because it could be used again - easily), a really practical size, and if it’s not too expensive we could get them printed with our logo which would be cool (we wouldn’t to start with but it’s an option). So I am very excited about this development - given the volume of orders that we send out this could be a HUGE difference in reduction of single-use plastic and that really makes my heart sing.
This is the envelope from Wisehouse: it's been sat out in the garden now for two days and we've had a LOT of rain in that time. I've opened it a few times and the tea towel inside remains dry, PLUS the sticky strip is (incredibly) still sticky! I've got paper tape on it (see next paragraph) to test that, too, and it's holding up amazingly well.
There’s one more recent discovery that I’m very excited about, too - paper tape! Because you see the problem is that if I pack orders in one of the large potato sacks or a box, I HAVE to tape them up. They need to be really strongly packed, not because yarn can break - obviously it does have the benefit of being squishy, but if the parcels were to come open the yarn could still get marked, cut, or wet (for example). Plus couriers will charge you if they have to add packaging to your parcel because yours was inadequate. Anyway, so I’ve been using brown parcel tape, as you might expect. But… that’s not even slightly environmentally friendly, unfortunately. I’ve tried to just limit how much I use, but that’s not really an answer, is it?! Imagine my excitement when (at the same time I found out about the paper envelopes) I found out about proper paper parcel tape. I was trepidatious because I was worried it wouldn’t be very sticky or strong. I ordered a roll from Anything But Plastic to try out, and I have to say I’ve been really impressed with it so far. I’m still worried about it, but I haven’t had any complaints from anyone whose parcel had it on, so we’re off to a great start. Just today I’ve used it on a smallish box of yarn - a re-used box so it does have some plastic tape on it already but the whole of the top is closed up using paper tape. It’s nice to be able to apply it liberally without worrying that you’re wasting single-use plastic. It does seem adequately sticky and strong, so we’ve ordered another 20 rolls to be going on with.
All in all, that brings us into line with where I’ve always wanted to be in terms of recycling and sustainability.
With one more exception - and this is less within my control - that is the mills who package undyed yarn in plastic bags. I understand why they do it - they want to present the yarn as beautiful clean skeins, and it’s at high risk of damage during transit, so the bags really do help with that - they also make it easy to label and stock take. Now.. I don’t mind too much because a lot of it has been in type 4 recyclable plastic, which very fortunately is a type that our local council takes, so I could chuck it in the green bin. However… rather infuriatingly they seem to waver between plastic types! So at the moment I’ve got some of the type 4, some of that really brittle type, and then some that’s in rather nice heavy duty clear plastic bags - they are totally re-useable (you will see our next batch of Fading Point kits appear in them), although there are way too many for me to re-use personally so I’ll have to try and distribute them to people who might reuse them. I’m considering sending them back and asking if they’ll put new undyed yarn in them - I don’t see why they couldn’t but you know what these things can be like, so we’ll see. So.. I am nagging them an awful lot to at least choose the type 4 recyclable plastic if they’ve got to use it. We’re a big enough customer now that I would hope that my voice counts for something! They’re a family business - they’re not some enormous faceless corporation, so I intend to continuously press them about this. I’m thinking that now that government are starting to show an interest in this issue, it might help bigger companies to listen up, too.
Re-used plastic bag with a Fading Point Gradient yarn kit in ^^
Either way though, if all of us smaller businesses and individuals do as much as we can that’s still going to make a big impact.
UPDATE (August 2018)
Following up on the issue of yarn coming packed in plastic: 75-80% of the undyed yarn comes in recyclable polythene (LDPE which is type 4) bags; and ALL the Milburn 4ply comes in polythene bags too.
Not all of these bags are stamped, which was what threw me - apparently the stamping is voluntary and most suppliers simply don't bother. I think that's a shame as it means many people won't know that this plastic is recyclable, however it can be taken to supermarket plastic bag recycling points as well as put in any recycling bin that will take polythene/LDPE/type 4 plastic.
Our biggest undyed yarn supplier has confirmed that the remaining 20-25% of non-recyclable plastic that comes from their suppliers is being phased out and will be gone altogether within about six months. Hooray!