Package Pals turns trash into treasure with secondhand packaging

Businesses generally rely on plastic packaging for their products and this often leads to heaps of plastic poly mailers, bubble wraps, wrappers and such, that end up as waste. While some consumers attempt to recycle these, this practice is not as effective or environmentally-friendly as they think.

According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), poly mailers can’t be recycled through the blue bins in Singapore. Yet, people still end up throwing them there because recycling guidelines can be unclear, which leads to a larger problem of the entire pile of materials collected being deemed unrecyclable due to possible contamination.

Meanwhile, the poly mailers and packaging that are not thrown into blue bins end up contributing to Singapore’s domestic waste. Despite Singapore ramping up efforts to promote the domestic recycling rates, total waste accumulated in 2019 stood at 2.9 million tonnes, with packaging waste making up about one-third of it, according to the NEA. 

Packaging / Image credit: Package Pals

Puan Xin, co-founder and marketing communications director of Package Pals, mentions that many simply discard items they deem recyclable, “without stopping to think about whether they could potentially extend its lifespan by using it for longer or upcycling it”, especially for single-use items such as plastic package and paper envelopes.  

But what else can be done with these single-use plastics if they can’t be recycled? 

Package Pals, a circular packaging initiative launched in 2020, collects single-use packaging and redistributes them to companies to use in their packaging of products, extending the lifespans of these single-use packaging. In essence, it resembles a circular distribution system that is aimed to reduce packaging waste. 

Through this project, Package Pals aims to correct the misconception that recycling is the way to go. To them, reducing and reusing — which are above recycling according to the waste hierarchy — are the actions that truly combat waste accumulation through extending the lifespans of single-use packaging.

“Rather than letting your packaging waste be incinerated and thrown in our landfills, they can be repurposed with us,” says Puan Xin. 

Circularity over other sustainable methods

Rachel Han, Puan Xin and Rachel Han, co-founders of Package Pals
Rachel Han, Puan Xin and Rachel Lee, co-founders of Package Pals / Image Credit: Package Pals

Puan Xin co-founded Package Pals together with Rachel Lee and Rachel Han, whom she met online via a Telegram community during the circuit breaker in May 2020.

The three of them are currently university students, studying at Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, King’s College London, and Singapore Management University’s School of Social Science respectively. 

Sharing more about how they came up with the idea, Puan Xin shared that Lee used to be a secondhand seller online. She faced a shortage in secondhand mailers, which many thrift sellers used to mail out orders.

Observing the amounts of packaging waste generated by the rise in online shopping during that time, she noticed that there were many who did not know what to do with them other than throwing them away. 

She then sent a text to an environment support Telegram group about poly mailer wastage in Singapore, generating conversations and eventually the beginning of her friendship with Han and Puan Xin, who shared similar goals and visions with regards to the waste landscape. 

Together, they identified many misconceptions when it came to sustainable packaging. 

“There are indeed lots of alternatives for sustainable packaging that currently exist in the market, but we’ve found that none of them are truly ‘zero-waste’ and still require much energy in order to be produced.”

For instance, companies opting for more “sustainable” packaging options such as compostable mailers or paper mailers, would be counterproductive because the production of such packaging may use up more resources than the production of single-use plastics. 

In 2011, a research paper produced by the Northern Ireland Assembly said it “takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag.”

Moreover, when it comes to composting in Singapore’s context, compostable and biodegradable packaging would not be the most ideal considering that we incinerate most of our waste and we lack the same composting culture that other countries like Australia have.

So they started asking themselves, ‘why not collect used plastic packaging, so that it can be reused for the same purposes?’

Our vision is to create a wasteless postal system. Since these ‘single-use’ packaging are made of good material and can actually be reused several times with minimal damage, this slows down the rate at which waste is being added to our bins.

– Puan Xin, co-founder and marketing communications director of Package Pals

Collection and redistribution of packaging

Package Pals’ business model is simple — collect, redistribute, educate. 

First, they collect six main categories of packaging from the general public that are relatively clean and in usable condition: poly mailers (≥A4), paper envelopes (≥A4), bubble wrap and padded envelopes. Donors are also advised to remove their personal details on their packaging by writing over with permanent marker or wiping off with nail polish remover. 

Donors can send in their used packaging via mailing, monthly meet-ups, or Package Pals’ islandwide drop-off points at 20 schools and businesses, malls and community centres. 

However, the founders emphasise that Package Pals should not be mistaken as a “dumping ground”, considering the number of random items they have received that are not packaging.

Package Pals drop-off site
Drop-off site at Our Tampines Hub / Image credit: Package Pals

Once the packaging is collected, Package Pals connects with businesses or individuals who require such packaging. Those seeking to receive packaging via mail, meet-up, or self-collection, can fill up a form to acquire the packaging from Package Pals for free.

Receivers who require packaging in quantities that go beyond the stated limit can also email them to order larger quantities through their bulk order system, for a nominal fee to account for the time and effort spent in collecting and sorting the packaging.

According to Puan Xin, they have worked with larger business, though a bulk of their clients are small businesses in the fashion and jewellery space, as well as non-profit organisations.

By collecting single-use packaging from the general public, Package Pals essentially reduces the waste collected in landfills. This initiative also helps businesses looking for eco-friendly packaging options to engage in the act of reusing while reducing the usage of brand-new packaging. 

For other types of packaging that Package Pals doesn’t accept such as boxes and styrofoam, Package Pals has created a resource-matching sheet to find sellers who do accept them.

Challenges in the early days

When Package Pals first launched in May 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown period, Puan Xin recalls that they were worried about the take-up rate and support as donation and seller sign-ups numbers were below their expectations. 

“Despite feeling strongly about our cause, I think we largely questioned whether others felt the same,” she adds.

Little did they know, the reception largely improved in July 2020, with a tremendous increase in support garnered online. Those who came across their Instagram page shared about their project on social media platforms, ultimately causing their donor and seller base to also grow.

“[W]e’re incredibly grateful for those who saw value in what we do and helped spread the word, as well as those who reached out to us for collaborations,” Puan Xin says, adding that there is also a sizeable zero-waste community focused on reducing waste before it gets recycled or discarded as trash, which provided a lot of support for their initiative.

We never expected to fulfil such a huge need within the community, or that second-hand packaging would be this well-received, but we often receive comments from businesses and individuals who say they’ve been looking for eco-friendly packaging, or a way to repurpose their packaging, for a long time. You’d be surprised how many people in Singapore actually hoard their packaging!

– Puan Xin, marketing communications director of Package Pals

However, there were concerns some donors had with regards to privacy. In that aspect, Package Pals ensures that personal details are removed to comply with the Personal Data Protection Act.

“We check all our packaging before they’re distributed and remove details such as addresses and phone numbers if they’re found on mailing labels,” reassures Puan Xin.

Removal of personal details
Removal of personal details / Image credit: Package Pals

Another factor contributing to consumer hesitancy was hygiene, especially at the height of the pandemic. Puan Xin shares that all packaging are sieved through a rigorous sorting process, to ensure that they are of good quality and safe for distribution. 

If the packaging is found to be contaminated, dirty or not fit for reuse, it will be disposed of or ideally refused at the point of donation. Packaging is also wiped down with an alcohol-based solution to ensure cleanliness. 

Unfortunately, there was another problem they had to address. Though secondhand packaging and having a circular postage system is novel, many were still sceptical and not used to it.

Some customers looking to use secondhand packaging from Package Pals for their own businesses were worried that it would not be well-received by their consumers, due to it being deemed cheap or inauthentic. 

“Many are actually concerned about branding and how their customers may perceive second-hand packaging to be like,” highlights Puan Xin. 

However, a 2021 Ipsos study commissioned by the Package Pals and Lazada showed that 62 per cent of Singaporeans are actually quite, or very receptive, to second-hand packaging. 

The report also demonstrated that when retailers manage customer expectations effectively, such as by including secondhand packaging as an ‘opt-in’ choice, this significantly increases consumers’ receptivity, with 52 per cent of respondents expressing receptivity in such cases.

Puan Xin also lamented that they tend to face an oversupply of most packaging. “In order for us to effectively extend the life cycle of the packaging we collect, the loop between consumers and businesses definitely needs to be closed,” she urges.

For the initiative to reach its full potential, she feels that businesses need to rev up their operations and start incorporating secondhand packaging. Debunking the myth that secondhand packaging is not welcomed by consumers, it is high time businesses rethink their packaging models for the greater good of the environment. 

On the business side of things, Package Pals are concerned over generating sufficient revenue to keep the cost of their packaging low, in order to encourage businesses to take up secondhand packaging.

They’re currently working on building their revenue streams, and have received a S$20,000 grant from the Youth Action Challenge Season 2 by National Youth Council as well as launched a fundraising campaign.

According to Puan Xin, once the robustness of their sales model is ensured, Package Pals will shift from operating as a non-profit organisation to a for-profit structure.

“As there has been increased interest in sustainable packaging solutions and sustainable solutions in general, we have confidence that there is growing investor interest in this area”.

Business partnerships and educational campaigns as growth pillar

Package Pals volunteers
Package Pals volunteers / Image credit: Package Pals

The three 20-year-olds have now grown into a team with 20 other volunteers. Since their inception, they have received over 600 orders of secondhand packaging and distributed about 1,500 pieces of packaging per month.

They have also provided secondhand packaging to more than 400 businesses, including World Wide Fund For Nature Singapore, Halogen Foundation and essential oils brand Ollie.

They have also established a partnership with The Sustainability Project under the Zero Waste Packaging Initiative that helps to provide businesses with reused packaging, saving a total of 13,990 packaging pieces to date.

Other partnerships include those with community organisations such as Our Tampines Hub, which hosts their first and only public drop-off point for packaging. Non-governmental organisations like SUN-DAC also works with Package Pals by contributing to their logistics operations as part of its clients’ occupational therapy programme. 

“We believe as more people hear of the idea of circular packaging, it could potentially encourage more businesses to adopt secondhand packaging,” says Puan Xin.

She adds that Package Pals also raises awareness on sustainable packaging, which is a “key goal” of its initiative.

Package Pals talk
Rachel Han giving an educational talk / Image credit: Package Pals

So far, over 20 workshops and talks for corporate and governmental organisations have been conducted. For schools and the general public, Package Pals has provided educational campaigns like talks and webinars. 

They have also expanded to other social media platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn to spread awareness on packaging waste, address misconceptions, and encourage a conscious mindset towards waste and shopping. 

One of our primary aims is to shift customer perception of secondhand packaging and waste in general, in the long-term. We’d like to get our audience thinking about the end life of the products they purchase, and the packaging that comes with them.

This includes taking greater responsibility over the packaging they pass to us, and using consumer power to influence businesses to adopt the packaging option we offer.

– Puan Xin, marketing communications director of Package Pals

Featured Image Credit: Package Pals

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