In 2017, e-commerce sales worldwide were $2.3 trillion and were expected to grow to $4.88 trillion in 2021, according to eMarketer. The boom in e-commerce seems unstoppable, as more people sign on to the convenience of home delivery and the extra variety that can be found when shopping online.
Yet the shift to e-commerce is leading to more single-use plastic waste due to packaging. This is happening even though environmental consciousness has become a common value in much of the world, evidenced in part by consumers’ willingness to pay more for sustainable products.
No organization has quantified just how much additional plastic packaging is being used due to e-commerce, or the net impact on the environment. Yet the plastic waste generated through e-commerce is one point of strong criticism from the general public, since B2C online purchases must be packaged one extra time (as compared to bulk B2B items) to protect them during shipping. In addition, return rates for items bought online are as high as 30 percent, which implies multiple purchases of the same item. (Return rates for purchases in traditional retail stores are estimated at nine percent, according to Sourcing Journal.)
In many cases, these purchases require more packaging than bulk items headed to a store. For instance, an item may need air pillows to protect it because of additional handling.
A range of actors is stepping up to take on the problem. The European Union has set a target of 55 percent of plastics to be recycled by 2025. The U.K. has proposed a tax for packaging that does not contain recycled plastic. In India, the government of the state of Maharashtra has banned the manufacturing, use, sale, distribution and storage of a range of single-use plastic items. Companies and NGOs worldwide are making commitments and initiating actions to reduce plastic waste. Researchers are developing more sustainable packaging options, and consultants are analyzing production and consumption process steps to understand how and where plastic waste can be eliminated or reused.
Still, solving the problem of how to reduce and manage plastic waste is a vast, complex and challenging task. It’s one that companies are tackling in multiple ways – including conducting research, creating incentive programs and involving communities in finding solutions.