E-COMMERCE in China is an undoubted success story. Millions of small vendors – often in underdeveloped rural areas have benefitted, not to mention consumers, plus millions of people who work in affiliated sectors, such as express delivery services. China’s State Post Bureau stated that some 1.3 billion parcels and packages would be delivered because of the shopping festival, as reported by China Central Television.
Now just imagine how much stuff that is. Over one billion packages, large and small, speeding their way across China and beyond – with media reports even stating several planes were especially chartered just to deliver them. Now imagine how much parcel packaging waste will be generated: cardboard boxes, plastic wrapping, bubble wrap and polystyrene packaging material. Greenpeace China estimated that this year’s event would cause 160,000 tons of packaging waste, up from 130,000 tons the year before.
Over-packaging is a key issue, and it’s not just those in China in the e-commerce industry that are the culprits. Just this week, British media reported that a man ordered a roll of bubble wrap ordered from Amazon UK, found it was packed in a box and surrounded by meters of packing paper. Another woman in the UK ordered a calendar that came wrapped in 13 meters of packaging. The Internet is full of e-commerce packaging fails – a tiny box put inside another massive box, then stuffed with other packaging. Social media sites such as Instagram and YouTube are full of example pictures and videos of excessive amounts of parcel packaging.
For its part, Amazon says it is trying to cut down on excessive packaging and is developing more sustainable practices to eliminate waste. Other online retailers claim they are following suit.
But when there is such a high volume of intense sales, such as we see in China on November 11, and importantly, from a multitude of vendors – the biggest multinational retailers, down to people operating a small online store in a rural Chinese village, what can be done? On November 17, after the shopping festival, 10 Chinese government departments, including the Post Bureau, the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Science and Technology issued joint guidance on the need to develop green packaging standards in the e-commerce industry, yicai.com reported. The guidance stated that by 2020, 50 percent of packaging must be biodegradable. Furthermore, there will be pilot projects in 32 cities to trial green logistics methods.
According to Chinese environmentalists this can’t come a moment too soon, who accuse Alibaba and other online retailers of degrading the environment. Single’s Day is an “environmental disaster,” says Greenpeace China, with other news reports saying China is now recovering from a singles day “waste hangover.” Nevertheless, companies like Alibaba are moving towards eco-friendly packaging, including tape-free boxes and biodegradable packaging, and Cainiao, Alibaba’s logistics arm, plans to use 50 percent biodegradable plastic by 2020. But, online news site Sixth Tone reports that these efforts may be in vain as China’s waste collecting and recycling infrastructure so far is not set up to deal with these new materials, which need specific temperatures in order to biodegrade. Despite their good intentions, these new “green” materials may simply end up sitting in landfill. There also needs to be efforts made on the part of urban authorities to ensure that when consumers throw away the packaging, it is discarded and dealt with appropriately.
The societal cost of cleaning up after such a big spending event is bound to enormous, and it is only fair to suggest that big firms pay into a green fund to help clean up after themselves, such as a small “waste fee” levied on online buyers. Consumers should also be given clear information about the environmental cost of ordering goods according to the distance the package must travel.
But online services can still be green – twice this year I sent a broken pair of glasses to be repaired through an online shop on Taobao. Not only did it save me buying new glasses, but they came back in packaging that had been repurposed from a pizza box, giving new meaning to the phrase “waste not, want not.”
[The author is a Beijing-based freelance writer who is doing postgraduate studies in sustainability at SOAS, University of London. firstname.lastname@example.org]