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The Impact of E-Commerce

E-commerce is built on the guarantee of almost immediate delivery. That’s why you occasionally see large boxes carrying a small product.

A year ago, I was at my daughter’s house when a delivery truck dropped off a very large box. We opened it and discovered a long roll of paper inside. At the bottom was an envelope containing a product that had been ordered online. Our immediate response was “what a waste!” Why such a big box for an envelope?

E-commerce now accounts for 8.3 percent of all retail sales—an increase that has continued unabated for the last decade. Undoubtedly over the next decade, we will see continued growth in online sales. Fewer brick-and-mortar retail stores are open now due, in part, to the rise of online shopping.

Many online purchases, such as event tickets and travel tickets, don’t require packaging. However, many more do. Electronics products and clothing and accessories are the leading online products. You want good packaging to protect them because who would buy something online without wanting some assurance their purchase would arrive intact?

E-commerce is nothing new. It is simply the catalog industry on steroids. When I was growing up, the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs were staples in homes across America, promising all kinds of consumer goodies. However, you had to wait—often several weeks—to get what you ordered. E-commerce is built on the guarantee of almost immediate delivery. That’s why you occasionally see large boxes carrying a small product. The shipper is determined to meet the delivery deadline even if it has to use too much packaging (and maybe not make a profit) to keep the customer happy. These problems will go away as online companies improve their internal packaging supply logistics.

But what about the impact of this new sales option on waste and recycling? Recently, I had two media inquiries asking just that. The reporters wanted to know if all those boxes were playing havoc with recycling programs.

No, they are not. Commercial recycling programs have been collecting corrugated boxes for years. They have no problems collecting or processing them. The distribution centers used by e-commerce companies are prime sources of used boxes for paper recyclers. Ironically, the headquarters office of the Maryland Department of the Environment is located in the former east coast distribution center for Montgomery Ward.

For residential programs, the increased supply of boxes does create some problems. We started learning about the impact of these boxes on curbside collection over two decades ago when mixed paper was being added to the list of what goes into the blue box. Now, of course, that is the blue cart because of the addition of mixed paper and all those boxes.

The rise of e-commerce a decade ago has forced processors to learn how to manage so many boxes. Residents don’t always break their boxes down. They take up space on collection trucks and require changes to processing lines. But given the value of old corrugated containers as a raw material, recycling companies have an extra incentive to figure out how to keep collection and processing costs down.

E-commerce has also been a boon to the American paperboard industry. While the large boxes used to import products to this country are made overseas, the smaller boxes used to ship those products to individual homes are all made in this country. It’s worth noting that a number of newsprint mills switched to making linerboard or corrugated medium to satisfy the need for new boxes.

Perhaps the biggest downside of e-commerce is all those returns. When you buy a product in a brick-and-mortar store, you can see it, feel it, know how well it fits and have more assurance it will meet your needs. When you buy online you are gambling that the pictures you see represent the reality of what you get. Because they often don’t, online shoppers return products two to three times as often as in-store buyers. I wonder, what happens to all of those unwanted items? Are they the price we pay for immediate gratification?

If you would like to learn more about packaging and e-commerce, Ameripen has two very good publications on the resource page of its website.

As for that very large box that showed up at my daughter’s, it, the paper inside it, and the envelope were all recycled before the end of the week.

Chaz Miller is director of policy/advocacy for the National Waste & Recycling Association in Washington, D.C.

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