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.

Consumers and logistics providers in the circular economy

Circular economy models are one promising way to tackle the problem. They are designed to keep resources within a system as long as possible, in part by reuse; these models differ from linear models that focus on making, using and disposing of products.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is working to see circular economy models implemented around the world. For instance, it is bringing together diverse organizations to end what it calls “systemic stalemates” that organizations cannot overcome in isolation. With regard to the plastic challenge it does this through the New Plastics Economy initiative, which is focused on re-thinking and re-designing the future of plastics, starting with packaging.

Still, there’s much more to do, especially to educate consumers, who are the ones who are essential to close the circular economy loop but may not know how to do it.

WRAPPED UP: Higher online sales are generating more plastic waste.

Designing waste out of the system

One idea is to get logistics providers to pick up packaging from end consumers for reuse, recycling or sale. This is what Dhruv Boruah, a U.K.-based plastic waste consultant and campaigner, would like to see put into action. Boruah is on a mission to educate consumers about plastic waste and help companies find new business models for managing it. In 2015, as he was competing in an ocean race, he observed plastic waste floating by on his way from the U.K. to Brazil; back on land, he took it upon himself to get the word out through the media, activism and consulting.

Boruah says the logistics industry can create metrics to help end consumers better understand the total environmental cost of transporting their purchases and incentives for them to receive consolidated items in bulk. Logistics companies could also design reverse logistics processes for returning reusable packaging to fulfillment centers, or they could help create secondary markets for waste. “Packaging waste can be sold as secondary raw materials to other businesses. Companies can create a mini marketplace as a case study to showcase this ‘waste to resource’ approach and demonstrate reclaimed revenues. By designing waste out of the system, they will get one step closer to achieving a circular economy,” Boruah says.

The reverse logistics processes that Boruah describes require significant investment because multiple delivery systems have to be coordinated, and those systems must be transparent for consumers and vendors. One industry has made some progress. According to the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment, the meal kit industry is a frontrunner in establishing collection and take-back programs for packaging waste. The industry, which supplies recipes and cooled ingredients in precise quantities for making meals, had been criticized for the voluminous packaging required to ship preplanned meals directly to homes.

David Foster, Director of Packaging Development at Adept Packaging in the U.S., a company that engineers packaging and consults on packaging, puts more onus on companies and the public sector for closing the loop on circular models than on individuals. “The correct infrastructure must be in place to allow consumers to channel waste to where it needs to go. I don’t feel that this is so much about consumer education. It’s more about investment in systems to allow consumers to complete the circular economy,” Foster says.

Of course, recycling infrastructure varies widely from country to country. In Germany, sorting and recycling household trash is ingrained in the culture, and different channels exist for disposing of household, organic and packaging waste. According to OECD data from 2013, some 65 percent of municipal waste treated in Germany is recycled or composted. In Turkey and Chile, that number is one percent.

Technology and packaging

Retailers and brands are looking to new technologies, as well as materials and designs, to make packaging more sustainable. This may include biobased and/or biodegradable packaging, or packaging that is edible, for instance inside meal kits. Here as well, the landscape is complex, and moving to alternative materials does not necessarily address the problem, because alternatives come with their own risks. For instance, oxodegradable plastics are sold to consumers based on the idea that they will biodegrade, but the European Commission says that’s not necessarily the case and is banning them. The vast majority of biodegradable materials do not degrade quickly, or in many cases at all, in the open-air environment, and hence do need collecting. Labelling something as biodegradable may encourage littering since consumers will think it just ‘melts away.' Other ideas include making packaging lighter (sometimes called lightweighting), or so-called right-sizing, which means making sure transport boxes are suitable sizes for their contents.

Even as companies explore new materials and designs, the packaging and unboxing experience may be becoming more important as part of the product experience as unboxing videos gain popularity on social media. A brand may be known for its aesthetic or artistic packaging, or it might try to appeal to customers or cultures that place particular value on the way a product is presented.

Some responses offered for maintaining the packaging experience while cutting back on waste include more personalized packaging for products sold via e-commerce, which traditional retail cannot offer, or providing an augmented reality experience that can be accessed online after a consumer scans a QR code.

GOOD SORTS: Packaging waste is sifted at a recycling center.

No easy solution

Within the supply chain, stakeholders are working on ways for plastic waste to be mitigated as well, such as improved processes or technology applications. Foster sees potential in connected packaging that will make it easier for companies to track and trace items and have better control over their supply chains, possibly opening up new business ideas or new processes for reusing and recycling materials. And advanced analytics can help shippers and logistics companies identify those shipments that could be combined to reduce packaging waste and emissions.

Maurin Broil, Senior Expert Business Development, Corporate Shared Value, DPDHL, says the company is working with customers, policymakers, citizens and other stakeholders to identify circular economy models and pilot various ways to reduce waste, including plastic waste. For example, tests have been conducted in Germany, China and the U.K. involving reusable straps with hooks to hold goods on a pallet instead of single-use plastic stretch wrap.

Broil says he recognizes how difficult it is to reduce plastic packaging in the entire production-consumption cycle. “There’s no easy solution, no one-size-fits-all answer. You can’t say let’s just move from traditional plastic to biodegradable plastic. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple,” he says, adding: “Everyone agrees that there’s a problem, but it’s still unclear what the solutions are. What we are doing is working toward solutions and testing them in the market.”

But even that is not so easy, says Ken Allen, CEO of DHL eCommerce Solutions. “It’s a complex task. There’s a great variety of demands from various stakeholders in the process, and there’s no recycling standardization. However, easy or not, protecting our environment and the world’s oceans is something that needs smart solutions. Therefore, private industry needs to step up and work hand in hand with governments and other organizations to help tackle the problem. At DHL we engage closely with our customers, and we are committed to playing our part in finding solutions that work.” —  Rhea Wessel

Published: April 2019

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