Gaynor Humphrey, Director of Best Years, takes us through the considerations, challenges and consequences of removing plastic packaging, and explains why this has to be a joint effort at all stages of the supply chain…
The problem with big changes is that they require an awful lot of detailed decisions about tiny little things which you haven’t had to worry about before. Although taking bags off our dinosaur toys seemed on the face of it a simple enough task, it has required a huge amount of work to make sure that the details behind that one big task were all thought through properly.
The first question was why did we have plastic bags on our dinosaur toys in the first place?
Plastic packaging is only really a recent thing, especially in the scale that it is used now.
Originally if we used packaging at all we used paper, which had obvious drawbacks – the most obvious being that it was porous and collapsed in the rain.
In comparison plastic was infinitely more efficient, so it’s no wonder that plastic packaging took off in the way it did. It doesn’t leak, it’s much cheaper and it’s lighter. It is also transparent so both retailers and consumers can see what they are buying.
In order to take the plastic bags off our dinosaur toys we had to look at the benefits of plastic packaging over other materials:
- Safe – plastic doesn’t shatter or break if dropped which makes it particularly useful for heavy or fragile items
- Clean – it keeps all dirt and contaminants off the product, especially useful in the case of medical or hygiene products
- Light – it doesn’t add to the cost or pollution of transport as it’s so light
- Secure – you can use plastic to make products tamper proof, which is great for food as it’s obvious when it’s been opened
- Recyclable – many plastics can be recycled, and recycled plastic can be as efficient as normal plastic.
So plastic is very efficient at its job, but do any of these benefits apply to our dinosaur toys? They are not heavy or fragile, they don’t need tamper proof seals. We did try to look for different packaging with all the benefits of plastic but without the environmental repercussions – however in working through the process the more obvious question was why do we package them at all?
The simple answer is that it was expected of us. As plastic packaging became more and more widespread both consumers and shops expected to have products individually wrapped and so we did it.
When we polled our customers about whether they would be okay with receiving our dinosaur toys without individual bags only two people objected. However behind the scenes it was a different matter. Many people emailed offering support but also raising doubts about having their stock delivered without bags and asking for their shop to be an exemption to the policy. Interestingly it is internet shops who seem to be most bothered about keeping the bags, and more understandably those people who sell at outdoor events.
The main worry was about dirt. Would the toys get dirty? Would they still be saleable?
This led us to review the toy’s journey from manufacture to customer to identify when and how it could get dirty.
We have been working with our Chinese production partner for over a decade and have visited the factory many times. It’s spotless. One of things you look for when assessing a factory is their customer base as it indicates where their strengths are. If they work for certain large retailers you know that they will be able to produce vast quantities at accessible prices, but perhaps their standards may slip at times. Our factory does a lot of work for Japanese companies who have very high standards. They are the hardest of customers to keep happy as they require top quality work and attention to detail. This is great if you also value quality over volume.
So with a few detailed conversations and a couple of additions to our written processes we are happy that the toys will leave the factory in pristine condition.
We have decided that the toys in each box will be sealed in one large bag so that there is no chance of water damage or dirt transference during their journey to our warehouse.
Once in the warehouse we have changed our policies to ensure that only one box will be opened at a time. Currently the toys are all unpacked into large bins so that the stock can be picked from several places. In order to minimise the chance of the toys getting dirty they will be picked from the box. As we supply a lot of dinosaur toys every week the toys will be in an open box for a very short amount of time.
Our customers’ orders will also be sent out in waterproof packaging so that if they are left outside by a courier they cannot be damaged.
So we are as confident as a small company can be that the toys will be clean when they reach our customers. However without a doubt having products without individual bags is going to cause retailers more work as they will also have to plan the toy’s journey from their delivery to the final customer.
Plastic has given us the convenience not to have to worry about issues like getting dirty, and there is no doubt that removing plastic will entail more careful attention in areas like storage.
The question we all need to ask ourselves is why is this an issue? Our toys can be sponged if there is a mark and machine washed if really dirty, so why are we all so bothered about this?
If we are to remove plastic bags from products, and not just easy things like dinosaur toys, we all need to challenge why we want products individually wrapped. It’s not enough to pass the buck back and demand that someone else takes the problem away, we need to change our mindset and each of us needs to accept that removing packaging requires everyone to do their bit.
The second thing we need to do is to look at the packaging on our products and ask ourselves if it is necessary. If it isn’t then we need to shout about it. As a small company we had the will to remove plastic packaging but we got bogged down with the detail and how we could manage the process. It wasn’t until we got a good hard shove from a couple of customers that we made the leap to remove them.
As an individual we can’t influence companies like Proctor and Gamble, but we all still have people we can influence even if it’s only the corner shop. As a museum you have the ability to influence many of your suppliers, especially the ones that mainly supply into tourist destinations.
Best Years have been specialising in making ethically sourced toys for over 10 years. Offering the widest range of handmade crochet and knitted toys in the UK they were also the first to introduce knitted dinosaurs to the world! Find out more at bestyears.co.uk