The growth of the e-commerce industry has led to demand for protective and branded packaging, says sustainable packaging solutions provider Mielie Mailer cofounder and MD Trent Pike.
Unlike warehouse-to-store fulfilment – usually by road, with consignments usually packaged in bulk format of about 40 items in one container – e-commerce delivery usually consists of one to four items that are individually wrapped.
Pike explains that it is during the different stages of a typical e-commerce order fulfilment process that single-use plastic packaging increases.
Order fulfilment is the process of storing inventory, picking and packing products, and shipping online orders to customers. This process can be completed in-house by an e-commerce company or outsourced to a third-party logistics provider.
When using third-party logistics providers, businesses are required to have their products – which require protective packaging – delivered safely and undamaged to fulfilment centres.
As a result, businesses are encouraged to ensure that every item sent is wrapped individually, which serves as protection, and is easier to pick and pack, he says.
Also, owing to the array of products handled, fulfilment centres have only a small selection of standardised boxes and fly-bag sizes. Consequently, ‘fillers’ are used to fill up empty spaces inside parcels to ensure the product does not shift around or break.
Placing products in an often ill-fitting fly-bag increases the use of packaging and the carbon footprint of delivery trucks, as fewer items can now be transported since some products are ‘bigger’ in the fly-bags because the bags also contain a lot of fillers, adds Pike.
For smaller businesses that run e-commerce stores, the ill-fitting fly-bags and increased use of packaging are not particularly relevant, so those impacts are mitigated.
However, Pike says smaller charts and the “unboxing experience” lead to an increase in packaging.
Since these smaller businesses have a smaller selection of products, customers have to shop at more stores to get all their items. This results in smaller packages being shipped to one customer and, consequently, an increase in packaging.
Smaller companies also go to great lengths to create a unique and exciting “unboxing experience” for customers. This experience usually consists of more attractive wrapping paper, labels and personalised cards – apart from the fly-bags and protective layers.
Pike adds that awareness regarding the effects of single-use packaging, particularly plastics, on the environment has snowballed.
“This, coupled with laws and regulations by government, is encouraging further adoption of sustainable packaging solutions.”
Mielie Mailer has created sustainable alternatives to everyday products – most notably single-use plastics – by creating sustainable mailers and recycled glass packaging.
The company’s first solution is a 100% home compostable fly-bag mailer that is made from spoiled corn – a plastic alternative derived from plant fibres called polylactic acid and the biodegradable polymer butylene adipate-co-terephthalate.
Another sustainable solution is the packaging – made from recycled wine bottles – of plant-based milk producer Oh Oat’s oat milk. Oh Oat is a subsidiary of Mielie Mailer.
The plant materials used for Mielie Mailer’s mailers – also called Mielie Mailer – are sourced from sustainable areas where no forest or natural habitat was cleared, he adds.
“The plant materials that we use in our mailers comprise less than 0.01% of the global yearly corn crop, which makes it an extremely low-impact resource. Also, because we use corn that is unfit for human consumption, the production of our mailers does not direct food away from people.”
These mailers are reusable and compostable. Pike notes that, once the Mielie Mailers are composted, they “disappear” within as little as three months.
“With disappear, we mean that it turns into carbon dioxide, water and nutrient-rich humus, which is an organic matter,” he clarifies.
The compost derived from Mielie Mailers is food safe and can be used to grow food fit for human consumption, Pike adds.
He highlights that, although there has been an increase in the use of sustainable packaging solutions in South Africa, a few limiting factors are hindering mass adoption.
The first factor is the lack of a sustainable fly-bag offering, as there are few companies that specialise in the production, distribution and sale of sustainable packaging products, he explains.