How Fashion is Taking on the Plastic Crisis, One Polybag at a Time


There’s no getting around it: the fashion industry is drowning in plastic, and the single-use polybag is a big part of the reason.

Thin, lightweight and derived from low-density polyethylene, roughly 180 billion of these bags, both large and small, are employed by the apparel supply chain every year to protect stock in warehouses and distribution centers or to cosset online orders as they traverse vast distances by truck, ship or plane to someone’s porch. The polybag is so ubiquitous, in fact, that it “unites every fashion brand”—from fast fashion to luxury—”regardless of whether the customer sees it or not,” said Kathleen Rademan, innovation director at Amsterdam-based sustainability initiative Fashion for Good.

Bags made from low-density polyethylene are “technically recyclable,” yet their rate of uptake remains fairly dismal, particularly since inks, paper labels and stickers—all hallmarks of online orders—can foul up existing recycling technologies, Rademan says. And though packaging represents a “very small part” of garment production’s overall impact, the problem has grown more acute with the pandemic-driven e-commerce boom. IBM’s U.S. Retail Index predicts online sales to swell by 20 percent in 2020 in the United States alone, accelerating pre-Covid-19 retail trends by nearly five years.

The appeal of the polybag is clear. It’s an effective way of shielding shoes, clothing and accessories from moisture, which can promote mold and cause damage. Even better, it’s cheap. But plastic, made from nonrenewable resources such as crude oil and natural gas, contributes to climate change at all stages of its life cycle. It takes centuries to break down, and despite long-running ad campaigns extolling the benefits of recycling, most plastic waste is landfilled, incinerated or left to clog up rivers, lakes and oceans.

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