Ecommerce is increasing year over year, making up 15% of the retail market in 2018 and more significantly, representing more than half of retail sales growth since 2008. And it’s probably not surprising that Amazon makes up nearly 50% of the entire ecommerce market.
Amazon has managed to edge out most competition in ecommerce and even in brick and mortar stores by lowering prices, increasing diversity of products, and creating incredible convenience. But at what cost?
Amazon has a major waste problem—and it’s not just catching the eye of consumers, it’s also costing them money. Packages that require multiple layers of boxes and bubble wrap can double the size of the parcel, making shipping quite inefficient.
But if packages are wrapped too sparingly, they could break in transit, costing Amazon money for replacements or shipping back a return.
Amazon’s solution to the problem of bulky cardboard boxes has been an overall shift to lightweight plastic and paper mailers. This packaging increases profits by allowing the retailer to fit more packages into fewer deliveries for better gas mileage—and it eases consumer guilt by giving them less bulky packaging to dispose of for each purchase. But is less more?
Paper or Plastic? A Mixed Bag
Amazon’s new mailers have some positive environmental effects. Smaller, lighter parcels being shipped reduces the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from deliveries.
Not to mention, while the traditionally used cardboard boxes are recyclable, they seldom actually made it into recycling bins. In fact, according to the American Forest and Paper Association, cardboard recycling has actually gone down as online sales have gone up since 1999.
On average, consumers only recycle about 25% of their cardboard consumption, which is quite alarming given that Amazon is estimated to ship as many as 4.4 billion parcels a year. That’s a lot of cardboard—and with China’s import restrictions having a strong effect on the prices of corrugated cardboard, even those that make it to the recycling bin might end up in landfills anyway.
According to Fast Company, about 165 billion packages are shipped in the U.S. each year, which equates to about 1 billion trees worth of cardboard with the amount of boxes and cardboard that are currently in use.
Both of Amazon’s mailers are recyclable, plastic and paper, but both have a catch. Like grocery store plastic bags, the plastic mailers can’t be recycled in curbside bins. If they do end up in your recycling bin, they’ll end up clogging up a sorting machine at a recycling center.
While most plastics can be recycled in nearby drop off locations, most are not. Even if plastic mailers are recycled at these locations, their labels need to be completely removed or else they will contaminate plastic recycling with paper and adhesive. This often leaves consumers feeling frustrated as these labels do not come off easily.
Alternatively, paper mailers can be recycled curbside, but often become corrupted with contaminants like packaging labels, adhesive, and ink chemicals that can cause shipments not to pass China’s impurities requirements.
Wrapping Up the Plastic Problem
Amazon is a trendsetter in the industry, and ecommerce isn’t going to slow down anytime soon. This shift to plastic mailers could cause a shift across the entire industry—and it’s not necessarily a good one.
Amazon needs to do a better job of educating consumers and incentivizing them to recycle the mailers properly. Their entire marketing strategy is framed around convenience—but recycling their packaging is anything but.
As ecommerce business increases and the race to get packages to consumers even faster picks up, recyclers are left having to process more and more of these packaging materials but at a slowed rate due to the high amount of impurities.
A Circular Economy May Mean Sacrifice
If done correctly, ecommerce can promote a circular economy that would be beneficial for the environment and convenient for businesses and consumers. For example, it has the potential to cut down on the multiple car trips that individuals make in their personal vehicles to brick and mortar locations.
However, because it’s so quick, people will often make multiple small orders online while also making separate trips to grocery stores and shopping malls.
Amazon’s deliveries aren’t making a positive impact when they prioritize consumer convenience over efficiency. When Amazon is working to get deliveries to customers within 2 days or even 2 hours, they send multiple vehicles and air shipments rather than consolidating. And when consumers make multiple orders a week, more packaging is needed than would have been needed if only one bulk order was placed at a time.
If consumers reduce their shopping to less frequent orders that are more complete and are willing to sacrifice immediate shipping, ecommerce has the potential to be an environmentally sound market. But ultimately, the best way to cut down on packaging is to reduce purchases altogether or make them locally to avoid the need for shipping.
We will continue to stay on top of the latest trends in the recycling industry and provide the timeliest updates to our readers. Berg Mill has a long history as one of the pioneers in the industry, we are here to help you navigate through all the recyclable import changes. If you handle large amounts of recycled waste and are looking for solutions, please contact our industry veterans at Berg Mill supply via our website or phone at 866-333-BERG. Talk to us about purchasing all your scrap paper, plastic, metal, textiles, glass grades, e-waste, and any other materials. Make sure to check out our new consulting department as well to help you navigate through any issues you might have.