Online Shopping Creates A Sea of Cardboard For the Sake of Convenience

21 Jun

While online shopping is a great convenience, it creates a massive amount of cardboard packaging that goes into our waste stream.

Online retail is convenient, but is it environmentally friendly? Photo: Shutterstock

Online shopping can be a huge boon. You can order whatever you want, and within hours (or even minutes) it can be delivered right to your doorstep. Businesses have rushed to respond to consumers’ demands for speed and convenience from e-commerce.

Amazon leads the charge with its subscription membership service to Amazon Prime. According to its website, “Amazon’s Prime membership service has grown to more than 50 million subscribers, by one estimate.” And its faster service, Prime Now, can “get customers pretty much anything in minutes.”

Other companies are also marketing speedy delivery. The New York Times reported that “Google Express can deliver in less then two hours from dozens of stores. And Postmates, a San Francisco startup, promises to deliver in less then an hour. It dropped off nearly one million packages in December.”

But as online retail has increased, so has the amount of packaging in our waste stream. Some researchers believe that online shopping is not replacing but complementing brick-and-mortar retail creating additional waste.

Companies are stuck between the expectations of consumers for speed and efficiency, and generating share-worthy engagement with additional packaging. They want to make a good first impression on consumers, and packaging is a great way to make a product feel special. Apple’s Jonathan Ive says, “Unpacking can be designed to create a story.” An authentic and unique story can create loyal fans and repeat customers.

Taken too far, wasteful packaging could tell a different story. Excessive packaging can suggest inefficiency and irresponsible business practices.

Sealed Air’s Pasi Pesonen believes in the importance of combining good customer service with ecologically friendly packing techniques. “Overpacking is an issue that more and more consumers are becoming increasingly vocal about,” Pesonen wrote. “Many people find packaging wasteful, especially when they receive a small item in a large box filled with void-filling material or a number of small items packed in separate boxes.”

Amazon is aware of the packaging issue, too. It uses its “packaging feedback program” to make sure box size is consistent with the size of the product being shipped and works with manufacturers to reduce or eliminate Amazon-branded packaging when an item already ships in a box.

A recent study explored the environmental effects of internet shopping in Newark, Del. The study suggests that the rise in e-commerce deliveries has resulted in more local delivery trucks on the road creating increased carbon emissions. Rensselaeer associate professor Cara Wang and other researchers believe that the rising consumer demand for instant delivery, “in particular, creates challenges for trucking companies trying to be efficient. Instead of taking big truckloads to single retailers, they now make more scattershot deliveries.”

Don Fullerton, a professor of finance and an expert in economics and the environment at the University of Illinois, said one possible solution would be to make the retailers responsible for taking back the boxes. That would create incentives for them to come up with solutions for less packaging.

What do you think? Are we using too much cardboard packaging? What do you think we can do about this? Do you think online retailers are doing enough to eliminate wasteful packaging? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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