The cardboard box is 120 years old. This mundane creation has flourished during the on-line shipping era, and has ballooned during the COVID19 pandemic. E-commerce has made the simple cardboard box a worldwide phenomenon, and a major problem.
I went on line to check on companies offering packaging products. One company alone was offering 38,500 types of shipping boxes and packing materials – that number was cited in their on-line pitch. Another, seemingly unrelated report, stated that, in certain categories, over fifty-per-cent of e-commerce packages are returned. That compares with less than 20% returns of items purchased in bricks-and-mortar stores, and they are generally returned by hand.
Each of those e-commerce shipments requires packaging, boxes, transportation, people, and storage. The transportation requires fuel and trucks, which pollute the environment. Packaging is mostly discarded at the end of each shipment, which also pollutes the environment. The result is a mountain of landfill problems, and increased contamination of breathable air. Demand for filled-air packaging products, such as bubble-wrap, is poised to swell by $1.16 billion by 2024, just because of the spike in online sales.
We tend to think that paper packaging is somewhat benign. However, some 3 billion trees are pulped every year to produce 241 million tons of shipping cartons, cardboard mailers, void-fill wrappers, and other paper-based packaging products, according to forest conservation group Canopy.
Technology can solve a lot of these problems, but un-training people is a far greater challenge. We seem to have accepted that we can buy things without much thought, based on the idea, that “we can always return them if: We don’t like them, they don’t fit, they are the wrong color, we saw something else in the meantime, and a multitude of other excuses for not paying attention to what we buy in the first place”.
Every time we do that, we increase our contribution to the destruction of the planet. Mankind has always been almost totally self-centered when it comes to using Planet Earth, and waste from e-commerce is just one more example, albeit more comprehensive and more destructive.
SO, what are we doing about it?
Fortunately, there is a crop of start-up companies focused on making e-commerce more sustainable, by reimagining the disposable box, delivery conventions and mailing schedules.
One such service, Olive, founded by Nathan Faust, is partnering with more than 100 major retailers, including Anthropologie, Paige, Ray-Ban and Ugg, to consolidate home deliveries in reusable tote bags that are dropped off once a week. Other newcomers offer reusable plastic mailing boxes, compostable packaging and algae-ink shipping labels.
Faust got the idea for Olive while he was taking out the trash one night. “After 30 minutes of breaking down boxes, and multiple trips down the driveway, it dawned on me that this is crazy,” said Faust, 41. “Twenty-five years into online shopping, and this is what status-quo delivery looks like.”
I might add that the cardboard box is 120 years old and we haven’t learned from that either.
He came up with a blueprint for a company that would not only reduce the amount of waste being shipped to customers’ homes but also streamline deliveries, so that orders from multiple retailers are dropped off in a batch, instead of piecemeal.
“The real power comes in the last mile to the consumer’s doorstep, where so much of the waste from post-purchase supply chain eminates, largely because it’s an average of one box per stop on the delivery route,” Faust said. “That’s where we have the biggest impact.”
As an aside, reading about Faust’s comments made me realize that even the postal services have got this simple idea right – they deliver once a day, unlike the four UPS trucks that delivered packages to our door in one day this week.
With Olive, shoppers buy items as they normally would, using the company’s app, or a Google Chrome plug-in. When it’s time to check out, Olive has the order routed to one of its two warehouses, in Southern California or northern New Jersey. From there, workers unpack individual orders, recycle packing materials and place items in a reusable bag that is delivered once a week.
There is hope that technology, and common sense may rule the day before we all disappear under a mountain of garbage. Now all we have to do is retrain people, a far more formidable task.