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How is e-commerce packaging waste an issue, and what can be done?

As the world turns to online shopping for convenience, a pressing issue is developing -- packaging waste. Here are some considerations to get the conversation started.

These days, customers are doing a lot of their shopping from home, but that ease comes with a cost. One issue: E-commerce packaging waste is well on its way to becoming a problematic issue.

Most businesses in manufacturing, distribution and retail do a really good job of recycling packaging material. Nearly all collect used corrugated boxes, bundle them together and get them to a recycler on a regular basis.

But as more and more products are now being shipped direct to consumers via e-commerce companies, more packaging materials are required, and more of it is ending up in the household waste stream. Consumers only recycle a small percentage of the packaging material that brings those online shopping purchases to their doorsteps, so the environment is taking a double hit -- more packaging in the supply stream and less of it being recycled.

Those ubiquitous brown corrugated cardboard boxes are mostly made from recycled material, and the boxes themselves are recyclable, but the recycling circuit is interrupted when the cartons are stacked up in the consumer's garage, attic, cellar or, worse yet, simply tossed into the trash.

E-commerce packaging vs. traditional retailer packaging

And there may be a bigger problem. Smaller shipments like those that are typical for direct-to-consumer sales require more padding or filler to protect the contents as they travel through a longer supply chain with more handling of the cartons.

Products that are typically shipped in cases and pallets of goods from the supplier to the retailer are designed for efficient packaging and don't require much, if any, filler. Different-sized individual items put into a box by an e-tailer often require more filler. Much of the plastic foam, packing peanuts, organic fiber material and other e-commerce packaging waste ends up in the landfill. Switching from plastic to biodegradable organics is certainly a step in the right direction, but only a small step.

Manufacturers, e-tailers and consumers must continue to find ways to decrease the amount of packaging and filler material used.

Let's look at the sustainability pyramid for help in prioritizing actions: Manufacturers, online retailers and consumers must continue to find ways to decrease the amount of packaging and filler material used. Consumers can reuse packaging for their outgoing shipments, including returns to the supplier, storage in the home and other creative uses that keep the materials out of the waste stream. Producers should continue the transition to recyclable materials, if they haven't already, to satisfy the recycle portion of the process, and should emphasize the use of biodegradables when and where possible.

Using the carrot approach

Equally important, consumers must be incented to reuse and recycle packaging materials. HP is a good example of early success.

Reduce e-commerce waste

For years, toner cartridges for laser printers have been shipped to stores and direct to consumers in corrugated cartons that are reusable for returning the spent cartridge to HP for recycling. The box includes a return label, enabling the consumer to simply drop the used cartridge in its shipping box at any UPS location for post-paid return.

A small startup in Finland called RePack offers a program through several clothing companies where online shoppers pay a small deposit and get reimbursed after the bag or box finds its way back to the company via any post office in Europe, with a 95% return rate.

Burgeoning innovation in reducing e-commerce packaging waste

Other examples of innovative recycling solutions include Dell, which has reduced its box sizes by about 10% and developed bamboo cushioning -- a fast-growing material that can be composted or recycled as paper -- to replace foam, and which also began making packaging with wheat straw, which is produced from agricultural waste and mushrooms.

Simply recycling, however, is not the real answer, as the increased volume of packaging materials in the supply chain means more does end up in the landfill at the end of the day. And recycling itself has its own environmental impact on transportation, water usage, energy consumption and so on. 

Next Steps

Work continues to solve the packaging waste issue

Business sustainability
has become a sign of long-term success

How the internet of things can help reduce supply chain waste

This was last published in October 2017

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How is your company looking to improve e-commerce packaging?
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I am busy these days searching for data on e-commerce packaging for my Ph.D research.
I read a lot about what Amazon is doing about it and it seems to me that the main cause for their efforts is to improve the distribution and reduce costs. The sustainability issue is not top priority.
The world is drowning in e-commerce packaging materials.
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