Can e-commerce packaging be sustainable?

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
Image credit: Adobe stock

Milkmen (or women) collecting empty glass bottles outside the front door may seem like a thing of the past, but the idea of reuse certainly isn’t.

That’s why TerraCycle made headlines across the globe last month after announcing its new Loop e-commerce circular economy system.

Consumers of well-known brands including Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo and Nestlé will be able to order household products online and, once consumed, place the empty packaging in a reusable tote bag ready to be shipped back and reused.

The announcement was the latest stage in the rapid growth of online retail which offers convenience and ease for consumers, particularly when it comes to ordering those last-minute Christmas presents.

Yet the price of convenience is seldom cheap, and e-commerce has led to more waste being created with every purchase given. Products are delivered in extra layers of e-commerce packaging which can often include mailer bags, polystyrene and bubble wrap.

As the market continues to grow, and more solutions such as Loop become available, will we ever be able to create a fully sustainable packaging system?

The internet has meant anyone can set up a business and build a brand, yet small traders using these online platforms are often too small to meet the thresholds for packaging compliance registrations. Guidelines currently state companies need a £2m turnover and 50 tonnes of packaging annually to register for compliance.

This amounts to a great deal of non-compliant companies when these small traders are added together, says Robbie Staniforth, head of policy at Ecosurety. “Small traders are aggregated under the online platform they use, it amounts to a great deal. There have been calls for online retailers to do more to help but as the UK law stands, there is no obligation for them, or the small traders that use them, to do anything.

“Effectively, the frog in the pot of water has been gradually heating over the last decade as more commerce goes through online retailers and fulfilment houses. It’s just about reached boiling point.”

Staniforth has witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of mailing bags used as a consequence of growing online commerce in the fashion industry. Because most of these bags are made from polythene, they are often not collected at the kerbside despite being technically recyclable.

He adds: “The lack of a coherent collection system means many are destined to be incinerated with the material being lost.

"The producer should start to harmonise the polymers they use to be the same as other soft plastics found in the domestic setting and the collector should collect them from the doorstop, provided they are given the appropriate funding.”

Catch-all solution?

Some retailers, such as ASOS, have begun using returnable mailing bags which can effectively be used twice as they have a second seal.

However, this merely extends the product’s life rather than being a truly recyclable alternative. Biodegradable bags are becoming much more popular, with magazines including National Trust and RSPB switching to biowrap, yet with so much confusion for consumers, it’s now up to the government’s upcoming consultation on standards to shine a light on end-of-life issues.

If e-commerce packaging does find its way into collection systems, it can be profitable for waste companies. Kevin Bell, materials sales director at Veolia, says: “Garment wrap is one of the more recyclable commodities as there’s a market and of course there is little to no contamination. There used to be more co-polymer products, which is a good example of packaging designers working together.”

Bell sees much more designer-customised packaging coming through Veolia’s plants, which offers a glimmer of hope that endless reels of bubble wrap and breeze blocks of polystyrene may soon be a thing of the past.

He adds: “We’re certainly seen an increase in e-commerce packaging but mainly in fibre as opposed to polymer. We’re now seeing an increase in corrugated and general fibrous products in the municipal stream, which has balanced the composition of mixed paper, making that material more attractive to other paper-making sectors and creating a more closed-loop system.”

One company feeding Veolia’s increased fibre collection is packaging supplier Antalis, which is gradually replacing difficult-to-recycle materials out of its product line.

It has worked with paper-based packaging brand Ranpak to create an e-commerce packaging which works as a ‘thermapack’ to insulate packages containing perishable foods. Using different layers of paper, the packaging can keep food at room temperature, chilled or frozen for 48 hours (by using dry ice as an original coolant).

Antalis head of business development John Garner says: “I was very sceptical about the product’s claims until I saw it. It helps alleviate polystyrene, which the most hideous stuff to get rid of, and the market is constantly looking for solutions to get away from plastic-based products.”

Despite the product’s development, which took six years to perfect, Garner is hesitant to rely on paper to resolve the single-use problem.

“The desire to avoid plastic is admirable, but how practical is it? There’s not enough trees out there to replace everything and for one tonne of paper, you create more CO2 emissions than creating polyethylene.”

Utilising new technology

Another alternative to boost e-commerce’s sustainable credentials is to team stronger, reusable materials with emerging technology.

American-based Limeloop partners with retailers by offering reusable shipping bags with every delivery. Once the product has been delivered, the consumer can use a prepaid shipping label to return the bags, ready to be used again.

The idea came to co-founder Chantal Emmanuel when her sister was looking for a sustainable way to ship her packages. Emmanuel sewed a fabric pouch which, unknowingly to her, became the first Limeloop prototype.

She says: “E-commerce is so ubiquitous with the way that we live our lives these days, it’s important to remember that it’s still pretty much in its infancy so these problems that we’re seeing as far as keeping up with demand and the environmental impact are new ones for retailers.”

An upcoming version of the Limeloop shipper, which has a lifetime of 10 years, will be embedded with a sensor which provides more information about the shipper’s whereabouts and interactions. Users will be able to track the amount of trees, oil and waste saved by using reusable packaging.

“Given the shipper’s extended life-cycle of a Limeloop shipper, we now have an opportunity to build an experience around a consumer.

"We can gather insights and data surrounding their journeys that wouldn’t be possible with its single-use counterparts, and then reinvest to create a more efficient and environmentally friendly process.”

Like most environmental issues, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. E-commerce packaging may have become a lot more efficient over the year, but it will take all brands, no matter how big or small, to commit to sustainability initiatives to see real progress.

“It’s imperative that sustainability will be a key pillar in every aspect of our lives, says Emmanuel. “Which is why, in five years, we see ourselves as the way packages are sent and received, be it the holiday card to your grandmother or a pallet of T-shirts from the warehouse to the store.”

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