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The Growing Problem of E-Commerce Waste

By Nithin Coca

The rapid rise in online shopping and food delivery is creating mountains of cardboard and packaging waste, a problem that, so far, few of these so-called “innovative” companies are trying to solve.

Amazon is the most notorious, particularly for its Prime Service, which incentivizes buying things when you need them, and having them shipped individually, often in boxes in boxes in boxes. But a whole host of new wave, e-commerce companies are even worse: Google Express, Instacart, even the popular fast-food delivery companies such as SpoonRocket or UberEats.

Even the socially conscious e-commerce companies like Blue Apron, an increasingly popular service that delivers the ingredients for a healthy, locally-sourced meal to users' homes, are ignoring this problem. They package each ingredient in a separate box, which they say is acceptable because it's recyclable. And the impact of these companies is only getting bigger and bigger. According to the the New York Times, "35.4 million tons of container board were produced in 2014 in the United States, with e-commerce companies among the fastest-growing users — and the emissions from increasingly personalized freight services."

The common counter is that much of this packaging is recyclable. But recycling, as many have said over and over again, is merely the least-worst option when dealing with waste. It’s better than sending waste to a landfill, and that’s about it. The production, transportation and even recycling all have their own environmental footprints, all of which are growing as more and more cardboard packaging waste is being created.

Another counter argument by supporters of the e-commerce industry is that the overall impact is less certain. If people buy online, they are less likely to shop in a store, hence, less footprint. But the evidence is scarce -- people are just buying more, both online and offline. And this also falls in the same trap -- saying the current system is okay because it’s better than what we all knew was a faulty system. It must be noted that grocery stores and retailers have evolved, charging for bags in many states, using less packaging in cereals and laundry detergents, and providing more and more products in bulk. Some are even trying to reduce food waste.

What we need now is an e-commerce evolution, away from speed and toward sustainability. Amazon, which only recently set up its first Sustainability Office, could put its new staff to use in figuring out how to avoid using so many cardboard boxes. Perhaps, if people are buying products over and over again, the company should provide reusable containers? Imagine Amazon Prime with a “Prime Box” which the company would use to ship your purchases without sending you a new cardboard box every time.

Consumers also need to play a role. Call out companies that use too much packaging, and purchase items together, not separately. If they hear us, they will listen. Otherwise, the mountains of cardboard will only increase, which is not good for anyone.

Image Source: Wikimedia

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Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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