As convenient and cost-effective as e-commerce is for consumers, there’s one giant drawback we seem to be ignoring: its waste.
In the U.S. alone, 165 billion packages are shipped each year. The cardboard equates to roughly 1 billion trees, then there’s the abundance of plastic in each box.
And unlike bags, straws and other plastic waste that should decrease with more plastic bans around the world, e-retail is forecasted to grow over 23 percent in 2018, with similar growth in the years ahead.
Thankfully, solutions are being introduced to curb waste. Here are a few packaging initiatives making e-commerce more sustainable.
All-Paper Mailing Envelopes
In 2017, 1.66 billion consumers made an online purchase. A significant chunk of these purchases, and shipments, were comprised of small, non-fragile items. These items are typically mailed in small bubble-wrap-lined paper packages. While bubble wrap can actually be recycled at processing plants that accept plastic bags, they aren’t recyclable when lined with paper. The paper and bubble wrap can be separated, but so too can plastic bags and the trash bin, and we’ve seen the lack of consumer follow-through there.
Given that consumers often prioritise faster shipping (i.e., ship my items as they’re ready) over consolidated shipments, this creates an influx of small, wasteful packages in the ecosystem. Packaging companies like Hazel 4D are now offering their Surf all-paper, completely recyclable mailing envelopes. Whether a brand sells beauty products from home or a range of different apparel, the shift to all-paper mailers that offer the same level of protection can cut down on waste considerably with widespread adoption.
Reusable Packaging Companies
In e-commerce, if there’s a need, there’s a business somewhere filling that need. Limeloop is one reusable shipping company that looks poised to fuel sustainable e-commerce initiatives, aiming to put an end to the one-use shipping mailer. By including a zipper, snap buttons and shipping label insert into modular packaging, Limeloop customers can send their soft goods over and over again.
Operating on a similar note is RePack, bringing retailers and consumers together by offering reusable packaging and incentives for that packaging to be returned. Companies that use RePack can offer donations, vouchers or just a heartfelt thank-you for returned packages. Compliance is easy on the consumer end with RePack’s packaging able to be placed in a postbox for free.
Then there’s a liaison like the Package Free Shop, which encourages companies to shed their plastic packaging and, in some cases, their packaging altogether. According to Founder and CEO, Lauren Singer, 3,061,240 plastic bags, 1,419,260 single-use cups, and 4,025,600 plastic straws have avoided the landfill because of the Package Free Shop’s collaboration with companies. The company also offers a full line of eco-friendly, package-free products for everything from school supplies to travel.
Fun fact: all of the trash that Singer has produced over the past five years fits inside of a 16 oz mason jar. Can you say #wastegoals?
More Efficient Packaging
Ever open a giant package containing a single item one-tenth of the size? Shipping inefficiency is still a major issue in e-commerce. Custom products that might require a large, awkward package because of their unconventional shapes and fragility concerns can result in a lot of waste. Companies that account for these packing inefficiencies in their pricing are less likely to lose margins in their supply chain, but also develop more sustainable solutions as they see their demand decrease against higher shipping prices.
More initiatives need to develop in the vein of the Amazon Certification Program, which has eliminated 181,000 tons of packaging and 307 million boxes in a decade of operation. A measure like ACP dissuades many brands from developing custom, inefficient-to-ship products for Amazon’s marketplace. Independent e-commerce brands need to follow suit in shipping from a more efficiency-minded perspective.
A recent campaign states there will be 1 metric ton (tonne) of plastic for every 3 metric tons (tonne) of fish in the ocean by 2025.
These packaging techniques making online commerce more sustainable are far from the only answer to combating global plastic waste. However, they’re a big step in the right direction, especially as the market keeps growing and more packaging is developed.