The rise of e-commerce through Amazon and other online marketplaces has made all of our needs available to us with just a few clicks of a button. The convenience and accessibility of e-commerce have led to a major rise in online shopping that’s projected to double over the next four years.
Unfortunately, the rise of e-commerce has brought with it an increase in single-use plastic and packaging materials that flood landfills. Currently, packaging materials make up approximately 65% of all household waste , with that number projected to increase dramatically by 2050 if no changes are made.
In today's blog post we look into how e-commerce can be improved to reduce waste and make our shopping habits more sustainable.
The Problem In e-Commerce Waste
E-commerce currently accounts for 13% of all retail in the United States and is predicted to increase exponentially over the coming decades. In some ways, e-commerce is more sustainable than shopping in physical stores, as it reduces the amount of mass shipping needed to distribute goods to stores - and eliminates the emissions from customers driving to the store and back.
However, the fundamental problem with e-commerce lies in its excess packaging. Often we see our purchases packaged in plastic wrap inside at least one cardboard box. The plastic used in shipping is most often designed for single-use purposes and then thrown away once the package has been safely delivered. This leads to massive amounts of plastic waste in landfills and our environment, as the vast majority of shipping materials are not designed to be recyclable or reusable.
Shipping materials have improved dramatically over the past few decades, but as e-commerce begins to overtake traditional retail, packaging systems need further efforts towards sustainability. The heavy usage of Styrofoam packaging has been on the decline for several years, but the cardboard and single-use plastics that make up our packaging still account for more than half of our household wastes. As the use of e-commerce is expected to rise in the coming years, the plastic pollution that comes with it will outweigh the progress that has been made.
Companies around the world are looking to improve their packaging systems to be more sustainable. Amazon has recently recognized the growing trend of using disproportionately large cardboard boxes to ship small products, as well as using split shipping to separate multi-item orders into multiple shipments. While Amazon is undoubtedly still a major contributor to environmental problems, after recognizing and addressing these concerns, Amazon has worked to eliminate more than 83 million cardboard packaging boxes.
Many online companies are using environmental auditing services to improve their quality management systems. A significant portion of a product’s waste comes from its supply chain, but approximately 69% of companies lack full supply chain transparency. By analyzing quality management systems, companies can track and manage their supply chains to gain better control of their packaging and shipping processes. In an effort to reduce the dependence on single-use material, companies can invest in biodegradable packaging.
Biodegradable materials differ from traditional recyclable cardboard in that they are designed to degrade without leaving any harmful residues in the environment. Recyclable materials are a limited and imperfect system, as materials can only be resalvaged a few times before the material is no longer usable. Biodegradable packaging, however, is designed to break down after a few months, leaving no waste behind.
These types of materials can double for both plastic and cardboard substitutes, and can help significantly reduce the amount of long-term waste e-commerce generates.
The effort to reduce packaging waste rests not only on the shoulders of e-commerce merchants, but on consumers as well. By pressuring online sellers to transition away from single-use materials, consumers can use their purchasing power to shift online retail industries into more sustainable practices.
As conscious consumers, we have the responsibility to reach out to our favourite brand and demand more sustainable products and packaging. With enough pressure, companies have no choice but to do what their customers expect them to. Next time you receive a delivery, and you notice excessive and single use packaging, email the brand and ask them to switch to sustainable packaging.