Are stickers bad for the environment?

  • Date: May 13, 2022

Stickers are everywhere, from the annoying sticker on your lunchtime apple to the one on your car bumper. Often their environmental impact is overlooked however, although small, the sheer volume of them could potentially have a significant effect on the planet. So, are stickers bad for the environment? Generally, yes. But some more so than others. Let’s take a closer look…

Firstly, what are stickers made out of?

Knowing what an item is made from is a good starting point when trying to determine if it is kind to the planet or not. Stickers fall into two main categories – paper and vinyl. Paper stickers are a more cost-effective option. As well as coming in an uncoated version, they sometimes have a thin plastic layer to make them a bit more water-resistant. Vinyl stickers, on the other hand, are extremely durable. They are made from Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), hence the shorthand name ‘vinyl’.

So, are stickers bad for the environment?

Plastics are derived from fossil fuels

Plastics, such as PVC, begin their life as fossil fuels. According to the British Plastics Foundation, PVC is made from both salt and ethylene. The ethylene comes from oil – a fossil fuel. You may be aware that fossil fuels get a bad press, and for good reason. They are non-renewable and extracting them from the environment causes significant impact. These include, but are not limited to, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Stickers are not always biodegradable or compostable

An item is said to be biodegradable if it can be broken down naturally by micro-organisms such as bacteria. The component parts return to nature. Uncoated paper stickers are fully biodegradable. Unfortunately, plastic-coated paper stickers will only partially biodegrade whilst vinyl stickers won’t biodegrade at all. Vinyl stickers and the plastic-coating, instead break up into tiny pieces over time and have potential to cause chaos in the environment.

Composting is a great way to divert waste from landfill whilst creating a homemade nutritious fertilizer for your garden. For an item to be fit for the compost pile, it must (amongst other things) be biodegradable. This rules out the vinyl and plastic-coated varieties straight off the bat. Paper stickers, on the other hand, can be composted – as long as they have not been covered in nasty chemicals during their use.

However, it should be noted that the biodegradable versions are not perfect either. If an item ends up in landfill, often biodegradable items take a lot longer to biodegrade than quoted. Landfill sites do not provide optimal conditions for an item to break down and return to nature. Poor airflow and moisture levels mean that even the most natural of materials can take a long, long time to biodegrade. Bear this in mind when you opt for single-use ‘eco-friendly’ biodegradable items – they could around for a long time as well!

Resources are needed to make stickers

All stickers use some resources in their production. Paper stickers need trees – and the trees need space. The vinyl stickers and plastic-coated paper stickers also introduce the perils of plastic production. Lots of water may be used during the process, diverting it from ecosystems that may need it to thrive. The process may also be particularly energy intensive – and although some manufacturers will opt for clean energy sources, many won’t.

Although sustainability is of increasing importance to the industry, ultimately, resources are being used that wouldn’t have been used otherwise. Do you really need that sticker on your laptop? As a teacher, is there other ways to reward your kids?

But its not all bad news – more eco-friendly options are becoming available…

As more of us look for ways to reduce our impact on the environment, companies are seeking to offer more environmentally friendly options. In the sticker world, this is no different. In addition to paper stickers, which are recyclable and more planet-kind in general, there are other plant-based alternatives.

Sugarcane stickers are one. These are mainly made with sugarcane (around 95%), with the rest being made up with hemp and flax fibers. In terms of production, they use less resources than paper – and after use they biodegrade and compost even quicker. Their increased durability is an added bonus. Although they don’t have the durability credentials of vinyl stickers, they are more durable than standard uncoated paper stickers – although not waterproof, they are splashproof.  

However, perhaps the most innovative alternative is a sticker made from cellulose. Natureflex stickers are derived from wood pulp and, in terms of general sustainability, cellulose ticks lots of boxes! After use, they are biodegradable and fit for the compost pile. They also look good. Shiny and modern, they are moving away from the typical view of a what an eco-friendly sticker looks like.

The bottom line

Although they look great, vinyl stickers come with huge environmental impacts – both during production and after disposal. They will stick around for thousands of years in the environment in some form or another. Where you can, opt for uncoated paper stickers. Although they do need resources for production, these are (generally) less harmful to the planet. Newer options are becoming increasingly available too  – sugar cane and cellulose being the main contenders to compete in the market in coming years.