Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

March 16, 2021

6 Min Read

E-commerce is growing at unprecedented rates, accounting for 16.1% of the retail market by 2020 Q2, which represented a 42% jump in a few months, largely due to COVID-19. But the growth spurt started long before the pandemic and is continuing, ratcheting up demand for packaging—specifically packaging to work in this unique distribution model. The big questions are, how do you design this packaging to be cost effective, functional, and to mitigate environmental impact? Those who are starting to work toward answering these questions face both challenges and opportunities.

On the “challenges” side, a big issue is that there are more touch points along e-commerce channels –about 20 of them—with products beginning at a warehouse and moving on to where they are packaged for shipping, among other stops on their way to the buyer’s door.  This extra handling presents more risk for damage, calling for more robust and protective packaging. And the surge in online food sales particularly has necessitated packaging to preserve contents and prevent leaks.

That’s some of the story of what brands and packaging companies deal with. Then the waste management sector –both government and industry –have their own challenges. The most daunting of them is limited infrastructure to collect and process these materials that are fast-accumulating due to high order volumes, more returns, and often excessive packaging. Add to this that as new packaging types evolve, many on the waste-receiving end have limited to no capacity to turn some of these materials into marketable commodities.

There’s a fairly early push to find solutions that work for everyone along the supply chain – those who have to protect packaging and those who deal with it at the end of life. This push is giving way to such innovations as recyclable mailer bags, reusable and or reinflatable mail pillows, and “rightsized” packaging that requires less materials.

Dan Felton, executive director of AMERIPEN, a trade association representing the whole packaging value chain, reflects on some of these innovations. He first points to a shift to rectangular container cartons made from fiber.

“With these containers you can put more in the same box. Think of putting containers next to each other in a circular package; there will be space between them. But in a rectangular package you eliminate that space. You ultimately, reduce weight and or amount of packaging.”

“Then there is a model called Ships in Own Container (SIOC). It’s one unit designed to reduce packaging, and it displays the recognizable brand on the container’s exterior,” he says.

An example of an SIOC product is Tide detergent that’s shipped in a flexible film bag that’s tightly wrapped in a cardboard exterior. This particular design, known as bag-in-box, eliminates the need for a second or third box.

Every option has tradeoffs and swapping one material for another is not necessarily more sustainable, with plastic bubble mailers as a prime example. They are light weight, saving in materials and shipping costs, but they are not accepted in residential curbside recycling programs because they would get caught in materials recovery facilities’ sorting machines, similarly to plastic retail bags.  

The e-commerce trend that is having the most environmental impact is the shift from 100% recyclable cardboard boxes to this bubble wrap and some other plastic materials, according to Axel Iglesias, director of Commodity Marketing at 4G Recycling.

Riding alongside this trend, and perhaps to address resulting issues, is conversations around using 100% recyclable, compostable, or reusable material.

“That’s a big discussion in the U.S., now,” says Felton.

“And if you look at recycled content, that becomes a more circular solution. So, our member companies are trying to see if they can meet recycling requirements of states.

“But with state mandates, the question becomes, ‘What infrastructure will you have in place to recover sufficient supply?’ That’s the conversation our industry is having, especially with the increase in e-commerce,” Felton says.

Alison Keane, president and CEO of the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), thinks that with COVID-19 we could see e-commerce spike to 20 to 28% of consumer buying into 2021. With this increase comes a growth in flexible packaging, which is usually made from paper, plastics, foil, or laminate, and it’s formed to fit products to save space while protecting them. This packaging may have a bag inside the box and multiple other layers as well dunnage, which is pillows or bubble wrap placed inside. These designs are commonly used to ship apparel and footwear, beauty and personal care and packaged food, among other goods.

A July 2020 report by the Flexible Packaging Association examined several case studies, leveraging a life cycle analysis. The findings indicate that often flexible packaging can have more preferable environmental attributes for carbon impact, fossil fuel usage, water, as well as material disposed, when compared to alternative package types (cardboard, rigid plastics, etc).

But many of these applications, are made of low-density polyethylene, which is technically recyclable, but is usually collected only at drop off locations and sent to specialty recyclers to go into products such as decking.

There is a need for more collection infrastructure and collaboration between collectors and converters who make the packaging, admits Keane.  

“We are working now with a couple of coalitions representing the whole supply chain, whether package manufacturers, brand owners, retailers, or waste management companies. We are looking at how to finance more recycling, with a focus on access and building the infrastructure to handle more material than what’s recycled today.”

Keane notes recent improvements in flexible packaging.

“Think about mailers that used to be plastic bubble wrap inside and outside was paper. These multilayered materials could not be recycled. But some packaging companies are now going to a monomaterial that is all the same resin and more easily recycled.”

NOVA is working on several innovations in the e-commerce space, with a priority on sustainability. It’s focusing in two areas.  The first is polyethylene product development. The other is application development, which could be around new package formats or film structure optimization.

“One of our key developments that addresses both areas is around leakproof packaging. Liquid products purchased through e-commerce present a great deal of challenges, and we have worked on a number of innovations to eliminate packaging leaks from the film and the fitment [to fit applications, for instance pouches with twist-off caps for easy consumption],” says Jonathan Quinn, E-commerce packaging market manager, NOVA.

“At the same time we remain focused on ensuring films are recyclable and working to use recyclable materials in packaging.”

The key to higher recovery rates of e-commerce packaging in general is having access to curbside recycling programs, notes Iglesias, adding that only 59% of single-family homes in the U.S. now have such access. 

The other issue he says is that many residents don’t know how to properly recycle.

“This in turn causes a lot of contamination with materials ultimately destined for landfill.  So, education is as important as innovation when it comes to successfully recycling e-commerce packaging,” Iglesias says.

Meanwhile, industry folks such as Quinn and Keane believe e-commerce will remain strong, as it’s firmly cemented in consumer buying habits.

Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z consumers were already embracing this purchasing model before the pandemic, which simply accelerated the shift. Now, even the 55-plus demographic is buying more on-line, Quinn points out.

Notes Felton: “It’s important to recognize that e-commerce is here to stay.  And it requires different packaging considerations.”


About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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