The big Indian shopping festival was great. I ordered a lot of things I never wanted.
I received all the items on time, neatly packed in small and large cardboard boxes. After I opened the package, I threw the boxes on top of the boxes from my previous online orders. Every day, my mom scolds me for having empty cardboard boxes all over my room.
Being a lazy guy, I chose online shopping to make my life easy. But, with the piled-up boxes in my room, I realized modern solutions come up with their own set of problems. Piling up of packaging materials is one such problem the e-commerce industry is trying to tackle for a while.
The eCommerce industry in India that currently has a $50 billion market cap is currently focusing on offering deep discounts and pushing private labels but is not putting enough thought on how to tackle packing waste.
The need for secure packaging
Before online retail, the transfer of goods only had four to five touchpoints. To put in simpler words, a product would pass four to five centers from the time it starts from the warehouse to the time it reaches the customer. Products were often packed in bulk and sent to a local distributor who then supplies them to local stores. This minimized the use of packing materials.
But, when it comes to online retail, there are four times more touchpoints than the conventional distribution method. According to ANAMA, a packaging and container testing firm based out of New York, an average box is dropped 17 times before it reaches the hands of the customer. This is the reason retailers often ship their products in oversized boxes with a lot of padding.
Why should we care?
We need to care because the need for more packing materials is making enough damage to the environment.
According to a 2018 article published in FastCompany, 165 billion packages are shipped in the U.S. each year, which utilizes cardboard that roughly equates to 1 billion trees (this calculation does not other forms of packing materials).
I don’t have to emphasize this fact, but we both know that that is a lot of trees that are utilized for making cardboard boxes.
The situation is becoming too difficult to handle as the eCommerce market in the U.S. is $520 billion. Every stakeholder in the ecosystem right from logistic partners like DHL, eCommerce partners like Amazon, and startups like Repack and LimeLoop are trying to solve this problem right now.
But, in India, the scenario is a little different. We’re still at infancy when it comes to online retail. Our market cap is just 10% of the scale at which the U.S. operates. If we could solve this problem right now, we’d be able to considerably bring down the use of packing materials.
I believe that with the right amount of technology and logistic planning, we can effectively collect, manage, and repurpose packing materials. In many countries, the concept of the circular economy is used as an approach to solving this problem.
According to Wrap, “ A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.”
Here are a few ways we could reuse packing materials
Companies like Repack and LimeLoop are trying to solve this problem with reusable shippers. Reusable shippers are packing envelopes made using a highly durable vinyl material that is upcycled from used billboards. After receiving the package, customers can fold the envelope and drop them in a post box near them. The return label in the package will help it reach the eCommerce retailer. This way, the same shipper can be reused for multiple shipments.
Store Pick up should be encouraged
The amount of packing material used for packing an item is less when you prefer a store pick up instead of home delivery. This is because the number of touchpoints is comparatively less when you prefer to pick an item from a local pick up point near you. It also reduces the logistics effort. Retailers like Amazon already know this and are encouraging store pick up by offering cashback on every order.
If an item can be picked up from a store near your location, it is okay to do it. This creates a win-win situation for you as well as the delivery partners.
An e-commerce association to collect and reuse packaging waste
E-commerce companies should come together in order to effectively manage and repurpose packaging waste. Imagine an e-commerce association in India where every major and mid-sized online retailer is a member. Customers who want to get rid of the empty boxes and other packaging materials can log into their website and schedule a time for the boxes to be collected. The customers can cut off the packing tapes, fold the cartons and keep them ready for collection. The delivery vans that are around the customer’s area can collect the packing materials and store them in the space left in the van. The collected packing items will be delivered to a local processing center where they can repurpose these boxes and send them again to their respective online retailers.
As we enjoy the perks of online retail, we should also understand the impact it creates on our environment. At this moment, I can only think of a quote from a very wise man who was killed by a robber soon after he’d said this quote. He is uncle Ben from Spider-Man, and the quote is
“With great power comes great responsibility”