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Consumers Love E-Commerce’s Convenience, But Not Its Cardboard

Cardboard is highly recyclable, but e-commerce is (literally) driving more cardboard than ever before. | Image Credit: Recycling Works Massachusetts

While consumers are becoming more comfortable with online shopping and are enjoying the convenience it can bring, there are growing concerns around its environmental impact. The human desire for instant gratification is driving faster and faster delivery services for e-commerce, and that quick service carries a hefty impact.

The e-commerce industry has doubled in the past five years and represents $350 billion. As a recent New York Times article put it, internet retailers are in an arms race to provide the fastest delivery. Amazon now offers several membership packages under its Prime banner, including free two-day, free same-day, and in certain cities, a new 2-hour service called Prime Now. It’s no surprise that the problem is especially evident in densely-populated cities, which have more service options, such as Google Express' 2-hour delivery service, Uber’s “on-demand delivery fleet” service, UberRUSH, or Instacart’s 1-hour grocery delivery service. San Francisco startup Postmates promises deliveries in less than an hour.

The New York Times shared stories from Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ruchit Garg and self-professed Amazon Prime addict Monica Rohleder as examples of conscious consumers who sometimes get several deliveries to their doorstep in a day and are confronted with the guilt and frustration that the shipments’ packaging presents.

Their experiences are representative of the sentiment of the larger American public: According to a Harris Poll survey conducted on behalf of Sealed Air, more than half of Americans (56%) say they have packaging pet peeves, with the top two concerning recycling and disposal of packaging. About one third (32%) say their pet peeve is packaging that is difficult to dispose of (e.g., takes up too much space in garbage, requires breakdown). In a response to the New York Times article, Sealed Air pointed out that consumers are frustrated with excessive packaging such as unnecessarily large boxes, multiple boxes within a package, or wasteful packaging material: "Nearly seven in 10 (68%) Americans are more conscious of packaging materials and design today than they were five years ago. Roughly three in ten (31%) Americans complain that packaging that creates a mess in their home and just under half (47%) also feel that extra packaging is wasteful."

Cardboard is highly recyclable, but with the vast amount of it that is being used and disposed of, it is hardly sustainable. 35.4 million tons of containerboard were produced in 2014 in the United States alone, and e-commerce companies were among the fastest-growing users. Recycling is good, but it requires water and energy consumption, and transporting the materials to recycling facilities generates emissions.

The deliveries have an even greater impact. Several transportation experts, including professors from the University of California, Davis, the University of Delaware, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, shared their opinion with The New York Times that the fleets of delivery vehicles are doing more harm than good. One might expect people to use their cars less when they use delivery services more, but this does not seem to be the case – at least not yet. So far, it seems that shoppers are travelling to brick-and-mortar stores at least as much as they have in the past, even as they shop online more. Why this is or how many direct emissions this accounts for is uncertain, but researchers suspect that online shopping and delivery services are a primary contributor to increases in transportation emissions over the past several years despite the incentives for delivery services to find the most efficient routes to keep fuel costs (and emissions) down.

The situation seems unlikely to improve: Consumers have little incentive to wait longer for their shipments, and little incentive to slow down their consumption – the only action that would guarantee an environmental benefit.

It is worth noting, however, that there have been several corporate success stories recently in the fight to reduce waste and improve recycling rates. MillerCoors, adidas Group, and Veolia have leveraged employee engagement to achieve landfill-free operations, reduce plastic pollution, and develop circular models, respectively, while Carlsberg’s sustainable packaging initiatives are benefitting from consumer engagement, and TerraCycle is proving that consumers are willing to pay for waste recycling.

Hannah Furlong is one of Sustainable Brands's Contributing Writers, based in Canada. She is researching the circular economy as a Master's student in Sustainability Management at the University of Waterloo and holds a Bachelor's in Environment and Business Co-op. Hannah… [Read more about Hannah Furlong]

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