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Ideas | Amy Crawford

Boxes, pouches, cartons, and envelopes — oh my!

A child's toy and plastic packaging in a pile of recyclables at the San Francisco Recycling Center.
A child's toy and plastic packaging in a pile of recyclables at the San Francisco Recycling Center. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

THE PACKAGES TRICKLE in all afternoon, piling up on porches across America. Big brown trucks jockey for curb space with the postal service, while gig economy drivers unload towers of boxes from generic Econoline vans. Padded envelopes might have books in them, or batteries, or USB cables. Colorful plastic pouches conceal sweaters, T-shirts, or underwear. Cardboard cartons may hold toys, electronics, or all the ingredients for tonight’s dinner.

In 2018, online shopping, which now accounts for more than 14 percent of goods purchased, grew more than three times faster than US retail as a whole, according to US Department of Commerce statistics. That translates to more mail: Between 2008 and 2016, the number of packages sent by the US Postal Service alone shot up 58 percent. Each may mean one less trip to a physical store — time savings that can make an enormous difference in a busy modern life.

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But on garbage day, the darker side of this convenience is clear. Recycling carts overflow with cardboard — more, lately, than the market for recyclables can bear. Meanwhile, plastic bags, Styrofoam and rolls of deflated air packets (often recyclable in theory, but rarely at curbside) are buried in trash bins. “There are a lot of waste problems,” says Eric Orts, a professor of business ethics and director of the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “But I think packaging waste is a pretty huge one.”

As big and small companies begin to consider the real-world impact of our cyber economy’s waste problem (or, at the very least, the impact on their public image), a handful of start-ups and environmental advocates are attempting to steer us toward materials that are not just recyclable, but reusable. Meanwhile, consumers will also need to reckon with how we balance the quick and easy fulfillment of our needs and desires against what’s good for the planet.

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IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO talk about e-commerce without talking about Amazon, which, with more than $233 billion in sales in the US alone last year, now accounts for nearly half of all goods sold online. The corporate heavyweight apparently feels little pressure to make executives available for interviews (the Globe’s attempts to secure one were in vain), but Amazon is clearly aware that sustainability matters to many of its customers. While customers may still complain about receiving one small object in a large box padded with a dozen bags of air, Amazon says it is using artificial intelligence to optimize package sizes for density. Over the past decade, the company claims, it has “eliminated more than 244,000 tons of packaging materials, avoiding 500 million shipping boxes.”

The crux of the company’s sustainability efforts remains recycling — the cardboard boxes the company uses, as well as its padded pouches, are in theory 100 percent recyclable. But recycling is no panacea. Plastic mailers and airbags must be taken to a grocery store that offers plastic bag recycling, an extra step that consumers may be unwilling to take, especially if they’re ordering things online to avoid a shopping trip. And while 90 percent of corrugated cardboard — a material that actually comes through the recycling process better than most — may be recovered, it doesn’t necessarily become new boxes.

The cardboard boxes Amazon uses, as well as its padded pouches, are in theory 100 percent recyclable. But recycling is no panacea.
The cardboard boxes Amazon uses, as well as its padded pouches, are in theory 100 percent recyclable. But recycling is no panacea.(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Last year, China tightened its cleanliness requirements and stopped importing most American recyclables for processing, leaving waste processors and municipal recycling facilities struggling to find buyers.

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“I always recycle my cardboard, like most people do, but there’s a huge amount of transaction cost and waste that goes into that process,” Orts says. “The cardboard has to be made, it’s then shipped once, it’s put in a basket, taken by somebody to be recycled — or not! Lots of it will still go into a landfill, for no really good reason. If you look at something like the distribution system of Amazon, it doesn’t seem that hard to shift this.”

Orts, like many advocates for a so-called “circular economy,” feels that the answer to our waste problem may lie with packaging that is actually reusable in its current form. Finnish start-up RePack, for example, provides 50 web stores around Europe with reusable bags that customers can return to the company via letter mail, often with store credit offered as a reward. California-based LimeLoop offers a similar service, using “upcycled” billboard vinyl in its zippered pouches, which it says can be used at least 250 times over at least 10 years, and are also returnable via USPS.

The idea of reusable packaging isn’t new. The concept echoes both the room-sized steel containers used on ships and the inter-office manila envelopes that carried memos in the pre-email era. But cardboard and disposable plastic remain cheap and easy, and consumers and businesses may resist anything that means more work or higher costs.

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“Different people have tried this — it’s not that new of an idea — but it hasn’t worked too well in the past,” says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Providing something and calling it reusable doesn’t necessarily mean that it is useful . . . If you’re asking people to bundle everything up and go to the post office, you’re asking for an extra step that people aren’t going to take the time to do.”

The startups counter that consumers are trainable — just look at how readily we adapted to recycling cardboard. According to the Corrugated Packaging Alliance (which hopes we’ll stick with them for years to come), the recovery rate climbed more than 40 percentage points since 1993. Although RePack packaging often involves a small upcharge for customers, co-founder and CEO Jonne Hellgren says most of the company’s partners are seeing plenty of interest in the offering. (The return rate, however, is only about 75 percent, since some customers decide to reuse the RePack sacks for their own purposes.)

“There is a growing desire to reduce rubbish,” Hellgren says from Helsinki. “Consumers are getting so much cardboard at their houses that guilt is piling up.”

Ashley Etling, LimeLoop’s co-founder and CEO, agrees that consumer demand is key if reusable packaging is to take hold. “We’re seeing great data that customers are trainable. After all, the mailbox is closer than the recycling bin,” she says. “Any brand who is smart right now is looking at this.” (Etling adds that LimeLoop would be happy to hook up with Amazon.)

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IN A GREENER future, reusable mailers might be delivered to us by solar powered electric vehicles, assuaging a good portion of guilt over our collective addiction to Amazon Prime or Blue Apron. Until then, what is a consumer to do? Hoover argues for taking small, sensible steps, like selecting shipping options that allow items to be combined in one box, rather than arriving as soon as possible. There’s still that box to dispose of, but, depending on a host of variables, smart online shopping might turn out to be more sustainable than driving to the mall. (On the other hand, if the item is available at the corner drug store, taking a short walk is obviously the greener option.)

“Look for ways to minimize packaging and then to maximize the environmental attributes of the packaging you do use,” Hoover of the NRDC urges. “And let companies know if the packaging that you’re seeing is not working for you, if it’s not recyclable in your community, or there are too many components.”

And while she demurs at the suggestion that perhaps we simply need to stop shopping, a brief pause to think twice before we hit the “buy” button might actually wind up make life a little easier, come garbage day.


Amy Crawford is a writer living in Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @amymcrawf.