​Please could you not put the cards in the plastic sleeves?

by Claire Senior

**this article has been recently updated in light of new information about polypropylene recycling** 

"Please could you not put the cards in the plastic sleeves?"

I received this request in the comments box of an order that came in last week. As far as requests go it’s a perfectly understandable one and I can completely see where this lovely customer is coming from. More than anyone, as a small business owner, I am all too aware of the masses of plastic packaging that our stock arrives in, that we accumulate every month. It galls me to see it all in a big pile in our office. It’s particularly annoying on a slightly different level that we get so much plastic packaging because our big cat, Dexter (pictured), is a bit weird and loves to eat plastic! I must therefore make sure it’s all immediately disposed of so that we can avoid yet another £80 vet trip, but I digress!

Plastic, especially single use plastic, is pretty much enemy number one right now. David Attenborough and the amazing Blue Planet series have opened our eyes to the horror that plastic has and continues to wreak on our environment. We can no longer stand by and pretend this isn’t happening.

From plastic straws, to coffee cups, the large companies are finally bowing to public pressure and time and effort is now being pushed into alternative, eco-friendly solutions.

But what of these greeting card plastic sleeves? Why are they needed at all? And what can we do to lessen our footprint on the planet?

To answer the first point, there are several very sound reasons why your card comes encased in a plastic sleeve. It prevents against dirt, stops the card getting wet, allows you, the customer, to see exactly what you’re buying, and it ensures that the card arrives with you in perfect condition. At The Curious Pancake some of our illustrators and designers use corn-starch biodegradable ‘plastic’ sleeves. These sleeves feel slightly different to the traditional ‘cello’ sleeve, and although their eco-credentials are high, they tend to be quite brittle and often do not have a very long shelf life. They are also more expensive to buy, and I think these two down sides are the reason that they’re not more widely used by the greeting card industry.

There is some good news, or so I thought....

Nearly all of the plastic sleeves that your greeting cards come in these days will be made from polypropylene, or PP for short. In the old days they used to be made from cellophane, and indeed we still call them “cello bags” on our website. Even when we buy them, this is how they’re described in the title. This is because cellophane, or “cello” has become synonymous with searching for greeting card plastic sleeves, in the same way that we mostly refer to sticky tape as Sellotape. However, when you look closely at the description of these sleeves, nearly all of them will reveal that they are made from polypropylene. The good news about this is that polypropylene is 100% recyclable. In a previous iteration of this article I erroneously thought that our local council would take the polyproylene as part of our recycling bin collection, and I urged everyone to recycle this plastic. I have since, sadly found that it's not so simple. Whilst it's true that polypropylene is 100% recyclable, it's not widely recycled. The bad news is that most local council waste facilities do not have the machinery in place to recycle polypropylene. Indeed, I have not yet found anywhere in the country that I, as a member of the public, could take my polypropylene waste to. In a moment of inspiration I contacted my local supermarket, Tesco, to see if they would take polypropylene in their carrier bag recycling, but sadly they only take polyethylene plastic. 

Why is it so difficult to recycle? Why is there so little information about how and where to recycle these different types of plastic? 

I was delighted to read at the start of March that Woodmansterne cards have just introduced a Smart Seal system for their greetings cards. Instead of plastic surrounding the card, they use a sticker that temporarily bonds the card and envelope together for easy, eco friendly, displaying. As an online retailer, where I can control the cleanliness of my cards, this would be a perfect solution for me, but I can understand bricks and mortar retailers being a little more skeptical in terms of dirt and damage to the product. Woodmansterne have countered this argument this by saying that all their cards have a dirt repellent coating, and I'm sure measures could be put in place to limit damage by not overstocking etc. As a slightly ironic side to this, I have always wanted to stock Woodmansterne cards, but they'll only supply them to bricks and mortar stores. So whilst they're changing some practices for the better, I kind of wish they'd change a few more! Read more about Woodmansterne's Smart Seal system.

Another initiative that is gaining momentum in the online greetings card world is the social campaign Naked Cards. Naked Cards is a campaign to encourage online card sellers to ditch the plastic sleeves in favour of either "Naked" cards or paper packaging, and quite a few have signed up to the pledge. I would like to be able to take part in this, but it will involve contacting all my suppliers to request they send my orders to me "naked" which, in some cases, I know will be a request that falls on deaf ears. However, change can start with a single person, and I'm willing to take on the challenge so watch this space!

So what's the conclusion? Well, it's not a simple one. Hopefully in a few years’ time, we might have something new to replace the PP. We must keep the pressure on the big companies that can pioneer this new technology. As a small business owner, I am trying to do my part. I have started creating ecobricks out of my waste polypropylene, because anything to keep this plastic out of landfill is a win in my book. 

Do you know of any polypropylene recycling programmes? Let us know! And if I find any in the meantime, I will definitely be shouting it from the rooftops!

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No cats were harmed in the making of this blog-post image!