How online shopping creates mountains of waste


We all love online shopping. Canadians increasingly buy goods online, with an estimated 22.5 million of us doing so in 2018, and smart businesses are upping their online offerings accordingly.

But who hasn’t been a bit astounded -- or suffered a bout of what’s known as wrap rage -- to receive a package and find it encased in several unnecessary layers of plastic and a disturbingly oversized box. Not to mention walking down the street on garbage day and seeing mountains of Amazon and Walmart boxes awaiting disposal.

Online retail, in fact, has a big environmental cost, particularly when it comes to packaging. With Earth Day approaching, here’s a brief look at the scope of the problem:

In the United States, about 165 billion packages are shipped each year, and the cardboard used has been estimated to equate to about a billion trees. Meal kits are increasingly popular, in both the U.S. and Canada, and they come with ice packs. Freezer pack waste in the U.S. is about 192,000 tons a year -- the weight of almost 100,000 cars.

Singles’ Day -- China’s version of Black Friday -- is thought to have created more than 300,000 tons of waste packaging last November, leading Greenpeace to describe the day as “an ecological disaster for the planet.” Amazon Prime Days are also generally viewed as big waste culprits.

You can’t entirely blame retailers. They want their goods to get to customers unscathed, after all. A study in the U.S. found that the average package is dropped 17 times, which explains why we often receive goods swaddled in a thick blanket of bubble wrap. But that means retailers are literally “shipping air” -- and creating a big carbon footprint as they do so.

Amazon says it’s beginning to take action.

Starting on Aug. 1, Amazon is asking its thousands of vendors to adopt new packaging standards under the company’s so-called Frustration-Free Packaging Program. The packaging is recyclable and parcels will arrive without excess packing materials.

The retail giant is also aiming to reduce its carbon footprint by giving customers some control over when they receive their packages. Recently, it launched its Amazon Day service in the U.S. that allows Prime members to choose a particular day to receive a week’s worth of deliveries. By 2030, Amazon wants half its shipments to be carbon-neutral, and says Amazon Day will help it get there.

It’s a curious offering, though -- don’t most people wait until they have several items in their cart before hitting “buy” and arranging delivery? Apparently not -- Amazon Day is aimed at the consumer who orders multiple items a week and wants them delivered immediately.

Which illuminates an uncomfortable truth -- it’s not just businesses that need to do better when it comes to reducing packaging waste. So do increasingly impatient consumers, who seemingly want what they want when they want it with little regard for the health of the planet.

And so with Earth Day soon upon us, it’s time for all of us -- avid online shoppers and businesses alike -- to grapple with the problems of excessive packaging. Businesses shipping goods can and should be demanding recyclable packaging from their suppliers, and working with them on ways to use fewer packing materials. Consumers, meantime, need to truly reassess their instant gratification shopping habits.