Amazon recently received negative feedback from the recycling industry for its switch from cardboard boxes to plastic shipping packages that are difficult to recycle. Amazon has responded with an option for Prime members to choose a day of the week as their delivery day and group shipments to reduce packaging.
“Parcel delivery services companies such as Amazon are concerned about sustainability, but that often does not mean they are concerned about whether the containers used to ship products to customers are recycled,” says David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA). “The increased use of plastic mailers is adding another type of contamination to residential municipal recyclables.”
But the flexible plastic packaging still remains an issue for the recycling industry, which has been increasing over the past year as more retailers have opted for this type of shipping material.
“We find that a lot of this packaging ends up in paper bales as contamination because it behaves the same way as paper does in our system due to the size and dimension,” says Kevin Kelly, general manager for Recology King County in Seattle. “We try to get as much out through our quality control stations, but the volume, along with film, make it difficult to capture everything that come through our lines.”
Technology can play a role in sustainable parcel delivery.
“Technology has become a key enabler of sustainability on both sides of the equation because the ability to exchange data and information on preferences and impacts is rapidly closing blind spots for consumers and delivery companies,” says Vivek Sakhrani, global director of analytics for CPCS Transcom Limited in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Packaging design is a critical element in reducing waste in shipping.
“Typically, MRFs [materials recovery facilities] are designed to sort by size and dimension,” says Kelly. “By designing packaging with that in mind, manufacturers can improve the recyclability of materials that come to facilities like ours.”
According to Sakhrani, sustainability in parcel delivery means balancing the cost of delivery with other resource impacts, such as material and fuel consumption, emissions, fair labor standards and good use of public space and infrastructure. It can help in a few specific ways, on both the supply side and demand side of delivery.
“On the demand side, it means sharing more information with consumers about the implications of their choices and then allowing consumers to indicate their preferences in a way that is directly actionable by the delivery company,” he says. “For example, by indicating just how urgent a package is, when it can be received and the best way in which to receive it. On the supply side, technology enables delivery companies to more efficiently load their vehicles, plan routes, anticipate delivery preferences and reduce the time it takes to complete an individual delivery.”
Artificial intelligence (AI) is another way technology can reduce waste in parcel delivery.
“It can help consumers predict better quantities, timing and types of purchases, possibly reducing their overall demand for deliveries and streamlining these over time,” says Sakhrani. “AI also helps companies stock products nearer to where they will most likely need to be delivered, which reduces the distance of delivery and the externalities, such as fuel use, emissions and other infrastructure impacts.”
The vehicles used to deliver packages also can have an effect on sustainability in shipping. Technology improvements and data can help with decision-making.
“Delivery vehicles can be equipped with sensors to collect data on the need for maintenance, real-time fuel consumption, wear and tear and driving behavior,” says Sakhrani. “Delivery companies can leverage this data to manage their fleets in a more sustainable manner.”
Manufacturers and retailers need to keep sustainability in packaging and parcel delivery in mind when developing or selling a product.
“Whether packaging or any manufactured product, it is important to think about how its design and material composition will impact what happens to it after one of our collection trucks takes it away and that will have a big impact on whether the material will be recycled or landfilled,” says Kelly.
Biderman suggests retailers commit to utilizing recyclable materials in their packaging.
“If Amazon committed to using 100 percent recycled content in all of its containers, it would be a material benefit for local governments and our private sector partners,” he says.