Things I've recently popped in the mail: packages to long-distance siblings, a birthday gift to a faraway friend, an old computer sent in for refurbishment, a pair of shoes returned, a secondhand belt to a new home. And that's just in the last few months. Point is, I send and receive packages somewhat frequently, and you probably do, too.
To mitigate the impact, I've learned to be a little savvy both when purchasing things and packing them up: reusing old supplies, taking care to wrap things securely but lightly, asking the seller if they'd mind wrapping my package in something other than plastic. Sending a package is never going to be the most sustainable activity there is, but we can approach it how we approach everything else: thoughtfully. Here's what I've found works for me:
-Hoard used supplies. When I receive a package, I tuck it into a box in my closet for future use. Mailing envelopes are easy to store, of course, and boxes can be dismantled so they store flat, too. Then, when I need to mail something else, I check for an envelope that's the right size and use it again! Reusing them as many times as possible is always preferable to recycling them or buying new envelopes made from recycled materials. Just make sure you firmly cross out any past labels and tape over any areas that are showing too much wear and tear.
-Look for secondhand mailers. If you do need to purchase mailers, "new" ones are better than new ones. Look to see if there's a creative reuse store near you - one near me accepts donations of art supplies, crafts, mailing supplies, and more, and sells these secondhand items for a low price. I've gotten secondhand mailers that were never used and still in perfect condition. Choosing secondhand helps keep new items from being produced, which is a win. Admittedly: sometimes I also sneak empty mailers out of the recycling bin at work, but you certainly don't have to go to that extreme.
-Write a note on the mailer. If the mailer is recyclable - entirely cardboard or recyclable paperfill, with no plastic on the inside - a gentle reminder can help the recipient remember to get it to the right place once they've opened it. A friend of mine has taken to writing "Please recycle me!" on letters and packages she sends my way, which I think is genius - and now I've adopted the method, too. A smiley face or little drawing keeps it from feeling too judgmental.
-Switch to paper tape. I'm still working through my last stash of clear plastic tape, but when I run out, I'll switch to paper tape like this stuff. (I'm not actually sure if it's recyclable, though - does anyone know?).
-Shop small. Sustainably-minded small businesses will likely have a shipping policy that's more in line with your own. They might pack their boxes with kraft paper rather than styrofoam, use paper tape in lieu of plastic, and group items into fewer shipments. Finding companies whose ethics you trust and sticking to them can be a boon here.
-Ask for the type of packaging you want. When possible, politely ask the seller to package your items thoughtfully. For example, when I'm purchasing a secondhand item from someone directly, I ask if they'd mind shipping their item in an old, reused mailer instead of a new one (and people are always happy to do so!). If you're buying from an Etsy seller or a small business that allows you to include a note with your order, request that they send your items without plastic packaging, bubble wrap, and the like. Because you're the customer, they should be able to honor your request, as long as you're not purchasing something incredible fragile.
-Return bubble wrap and packing peanuts. When you've implemented the above measures and you get a package filled inexplicably with plastic packing materials, don't despair. Or do. But then move on and take them to your nearest UPS Store, which accepts bubble wrap and packing peanuts for reuse.
What else do you do to keep your mailbox in line with your zero waste lifestyle? Share, please!