Given that we just put out a whole issue of MIT Technology Review devoted to climate change, it behooves us to think about our own impact on the environment. Our subscribers periodically complain about one thing in particular: the plastic wrap, or “polybag,” that protects our magazines on their journey through the postal system.
The polybags are made of low-density polyethylene (LDPE). Under the international classification system for plastics, this is a #4, like plastic shopping bags. LDPE is recyclable, but in the US at least, most curbside programs don’t accept it, and few people know that it can be recycled at many grocery and retail chains.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, some 500,000 tons of LDPE and linear low-density polyethylene ended up in US landfills in 2015. We’d rather not contribute to that statistic, so we started looking into ways to cut back on polybags. It turns out to be more complicated than you might imagine.
MIT Technology Review mails out 170,000 copies of each of its six annual issues. We spend over $730,000 a year just on distribution, a sizable part of our annual budget. Polybags are extremely durable, lightweight, and cheap. They offer protection without significantly increasing the shipping weight, and we save a great deal on postage by mailing both MIT Technology Review and the alumni magazine, MIT News, in a single polybag to the alumni, who are two-thirds of our readers.
One alternative wrapping is a biodegradable plastic that’s tough enough to protect the magazines. This would cost about $20,000 a year, roughly twice what we currently spend on polybags. Moreover, while it’s designed to degrade without light in landfills, in compost piles, or even as litter, it takes 900 days to break down—and even then only half of it will degrade.
Another alternative is to wrap the magazines in paper, which can be recycled. To be strong enough it would need to be fairly heavy. That would cost about three times as much as polybags.
We could also put them in paper envelopes. These are more expensive than wrapping paper, and the process for inserting magazines into envelopes is costlier and slower, so using them could add several tens of thousands of dollars to our shipping costs and delay delivery as well. And either option involving paper could actually add to our carbon footprint, according to life-cycle assessments that consider the energy required to produce and recycle paper bags.
Finally, we could choose to not wrap the magazines at all, at least the ones we mail domestically; for mailing outside the US, some sort of wrap is required. We mailed them without a polybag when MIT Technology Review and MIT News were a single magazine. But we separated them into two last year, and without a polybag now we’d pay postage twice to send a copy of each to alumni.
Switching to compostable bags, paper wraps, or envelopes would also mean we’d no longer be able to take advantage of the dramatic postage discount we get by “co-mailing” our issues along with other magazines. Only “naked” magazines or those in traditional polybags can go into the large pool of magazines that gets presorted by our printer, which is more efficient for the postal service.
So for the climate issue we stuck to traditional polybags. But we know we need to do better, so we’re looking at our options.
We could do a small-scale trial with paper or biodegradable plastic—and maybe even ask readers who want that option to pay slightly more for it. We could perhaps go back to our former practice of binding MIT Technology Review and MIT News into a single magazine, and ship it without a polybag inside the US and Canada. We could print a “How2Recycle” label (like the one shown here) on our polybags, so more people dispose of them properly. We’ve also asked the MIT Materials Science Department to see if any students or faculty want to tackle the problem of developing a cheap, compostable protective film, which could also help make single-use shopping bags more sustainable.
We’ve already taken one step that could cut both our plastic pollution and our carbon footprint considerably—but it relies on you, dear reader, to help.
Our subscribers can now choose to forgo the print magazine and get an easy-to-read digital version on our new app (for both iOS and Android). It’s cheaper, too. Choose the “all-access digital” option if you’re signing up as a new subscriber; if you’re an existing subscriber or alumni reader, follow the instructions below to make the switch.
In the meantime, please recycle your polybags from us and any other magazines, along with your plastic shopping bags, in a retailer’s bag recycling bin. And if you’ve got other ideas for helping us reduce our impact on the environment, let us know.
If you’re not an alum, contact our Customer Service Team, and include your account number, which appears above your name on your mailing label: