There was a time, not so long before online shopping became so popular, when cardboard was not the problem it is today. Of course, people used cardboard boxes for shipping items around the world and perhaps when they were moving from place to place. However, when they bought household items, clothing, or food, they usually did so in person and did not require a cardboard box.
If you have ordered something online recently, you know how this packaging has entered a whole new realm of waste. The simple purchase of one or two novels from Amazon can translate into the arrival of a giant brown box on your doorstep, often filled to half-capacity with bubble wrap or some kind of cushioned plastic. Despite the convenience of having your new purchase ship to you, it’s hard to celebrate the additional waste that you are now required to handle.
While the internet has brought us many wonderful things, it has greatly increased the use of cardboard boxes and general packaging around the country and world. To save costs, many companies will ship small items in large boxes because it does not make sense economically to stock boxes in numerous sizes; instead, they just use the sizes they have.
Between the extra cardboard, plastic inserts, foam, and packaging slips, it’s not unusual to end up with far more packaging than purchased items. Unfortunately, this sheer amount of extra waste is weighing down the planet.
The Impact of Packaging on the Planet
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2012 this type of packaging accounted for 30 percent – or 75 million tons – of solid waste in the U.S. alone. This means we are we are discarding our own weight in packaging almost every month.
As ecommerce continues to grow, so will the problem. As of 2012, the protective packaging business had become a $22 billion industry. That said, a growing number of companies and entrepreneurs are developing innovative ways to tackle the problem. Fortunately for everyone involved in finding a solution, the vast majority of this material is recyclable. However, there is also some bad news: only half of it is actually making it to the proper waste management location. This means a tremendous amount – roughly 40 tons – ends up as waste in the landfill.
Strategies for Improving Packaging
Considering society’s newfound love for online shopping, this number is not likely to decrease anytime soon. What can be done to alleviate the environmental impact of direct-to-consumer packaging? For starters, the responsibility rests on companies to use environmentally-friendly material when shipping goods around the globe.
Eco-experts recommend simple fiber-based containers free of environmentally-damaging elements like Styrofoam peanuts and other nonbiodegradable materials. And the more consumers press for these changes, the more likely companies are to adhere to these standards.
In the case of Dell, which began to receive complaints about its excessive and non-recyclable shipping boxes back in 2008, these changes ended up being extremely positive. Through emails and social media, consumers made themselves heard, and the company listened. People wanted the company to change, and it did.
As a result of consumer demand, the company reduced its box size by 10 percent and replaced existing foam packing material with a fast-growing substance called bamboo cushioning that can be recycled like paper. It also began using a cushioning material called wheat straw, which is produced from agricultural waste and mushrooms and can be composted.
Just these two actions eliminated a significant amount of consumer waste, as well as decreasing transportation costs for the company. Smaller things are just easier to deal with, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to make packaging as light and compact as possible.
The Future of Packaging
As wonderful as this may be, eco-friendly packaging is still not a priority for many companies, which are concerned with the impact change can have on their bottom lines. Shifting to new models of business can have upfront costs and may therefore be viewed with trepidation. However, change is precisely what the planet needs at this juncture if it is going to weather the increased amount of packaging.
As the popularity of online shopping grows, it’s clear a lot more innovation will be needed before it becomes compatible with environmental preservation. When people shop on the internet, they are usually trying to save time and make their lives more convenient. But as we continue to fill landfills with excessive packing from online orders, we also jeopardize the very thing we hope to enjoy with all the extra time we saved – nature, fresh air, and a healthy world.