Global consumers’ love affair with online shopping is never more apparent than on trash day, when packages once filled with new shoes or meal preparation kits start to overflow the recycling bins. Proof? The influx of corrugated boxes and other packaging materials was so great in San Francisco last year that the city had to raise its collection fee by 14 percent.
But despite headlines bemoaning e-commerce’s grave “cardboard consequences” and “packaging problems,” has online shopping actually created more waste? Not necessarily. Big players in the packaging industry are innovating and finding solutions to actually reduce their global footprint.
The real environmental implications of e-commerce and cardboard
Online shopping is quickly overtaking brick-and-mortar sales. The sector grew three times faster than the entire U.S. retail industry last year, and it’s expected to reach $4.87 trillion worldwide by 2021.
“Online shopping is expected to reach $4.87 trillion worldwide come 2021”
This phenomenon has dramatically shifted the way the industry is looking at cardboard box production. According to T. Rowe Price equity research analyst Jon Hussey, “With e-commerce making up about 10 percent to 15 percent of retail demand in the U.S., it makes sense that we have seen an increase in box industry demand.”
But despite the general assumption that more corrugated boxes leads directly to more waste, Packaging Digest executive editor Lisa McTigue Pierce said that’s not the case. “The thing that is clear is that the waste is more visible now because the disposal has now shifted from the retail stores to the consumer,” she said.
That means customers now are responsible for the end of a box’s life, rather than the retailer, who historically would have recycled the package in a back room.
According to Pierce, the visibility of cardboard boxes filling neighborhood recycling bins has contributed to the public outcry to limit waste. And retailers have responded to these consumer demands with innovative packaging, creating custom sizes, reusable boxes and using other technologies that not only reduce waste, but improve online retail efficiency as well.
Customized boxes cut down on waste
The shift in retail from brick-and-mortar to e-commerce has inspired the packaging industry to rethink its role, particularly where size is concerned.
Industry veteran Brent Nelson used to develop in-store packaging for major food, drink and home goods brands. “My whole job and my team’s job was designing packaging innovation for brick and mortar retail environments that stood out on shelves,” he said. “The priority in package design was to stand out vs. competition and capture the customer’s attention. The role of packaging in e-commerce is quite different.”
These days, the objective of packaging design for e-commerce is primarily to get product safely from points A to B vs. helping to sell the product, and Nelson has seen firsthand how that priority shift has led to less waste across the board.
As senior manager of Customer Packaging Experience at Amazon, Nelson now focuses on the company’s “Frustration-Free Packaging Program,” a sustainable initiative that has eliminated more than 244,000 tons of packaging materials, meaning 500 million fewer shipping boxes to date. Like other big retailers, they also optimize package sizes to make them as small and dense as possible.
“Amazon’s program has eliminated more than 244,000 tons of packaging materials, avoiding 500 million shipping boxes to date”
If corrugated boxes are to have a sustainable future, everyone from manufacturers to retailers to consumers will have to do their part.
Packaging manufacturers already are dedicated to creating a “circular economy” where packages will be recycled and/or reused. A box’s life can be extended by sending it back to its retailer for recycling, or it can be completely repurposed.
More than a box
Innovative packaging is more than just a way to cut down on waste; it can also help brands stand out among competitors and elevate the consumer experience. While out in the field talking to corrugated box manufacturers, Hussey has observed a huge opportunity for packaging companies to differentiate how they’re presenting their boxes and paper materials. A few companies are taking advantage, dreaming up ways to ensure packages aren’t aesthetically boring.
“You’re seeing all sorts of neat things going on with printing and people are trying to do more with corrugated to make it more than just a box,” said Mike Richmond, co-founder of Packaging & Technology Integrated Solutions, LLC. “You can create talking packages with QR codes, you can do about anything with the internet of packaging or the internet of things.” These things excite consumers, but don’t create more waste, making for a win-win situation.
According to Nelson, Amazon recently experimented with packaging by turning boxes “into a play activity that encouraged customers to cut out aspects of the box and turn them into costumes or toys.”
What the future holds
A sustainable future only works if consumers participate as well, according to Nina Goodrich, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and executive director at GreenBlue. Goodrich explained how efforts like her company’s “How2Recycle” label will fuel progress on this end. “It’s a label that is designed to help a consumer understand what to do with the package at the point of discard,” she said. Currently, Americans only recycle 34 percent of waste.
“Americans only recycle 34 percent of waste”
As e-commerce continues to proliferate, packaging engineers will keep developing ways to deliver products as efficiently and sustainably as possible.
Although still in early stages, Nelson said artificial intelligence and machine learning could eventually be implemented more widely to reduce waste and simplify the packaging process.
“We’re absolutely talking about leveraging those technologies,” he said. “We’re researching how machine learning or AI would provide smarter, more real time information about which package format would be best served for individual products.”