Does online shopping have a cardboard box problem?

Discussion
Jan 04, 2018
Tom Ryan

With all those cardboard boxes piling up on doorsteps, what’s the cost for retailers and society?

The most obvious is environmental. Cardboard is more biodegradable than plastic, but the problem is that consumers are poor recyclers.

The Fibre Box Association contends that while 90 percent of corrugated packaging gets recycled, the leftover 10 percent still adds up.

Part of the reason is the overall confusion over what is recyclable. Consumers also don’t effectively break down the corrugated cardboard boxes to optimally fit them onto trucks. Any shrink or bubble wrap has to be removed at the recycling facility and can clog machines.

Some new sources of packaging, such as ice packs that support meal kits, are challenging to recycle, according to reports.

Moreover, the industry is trending toward speedy delivery, making it less likely retailers will have extra days to include more items from an order in a single box rather than needing to send out multiple boxes.

In an interview last year with NBC News, Heidi Sanborn of the California Product Stewardship Council said that while corporations have a responsibility to reduce package waste, consumers need to “be thoughtful and to tell companies, ‘Hey, I don’t want all this waste. I want to buy products that are in reduced packaging, or reusable packaging.'”

A Wall Street Journal article last month noted that Amazon.com is working on reducing the use of multiple boxes in orders and shrinking the size of its boxes in part because of environment concerns, particularly among Millennials. Other reasons include reducing shipping costs and the “general nuisance” of cardboard overflowing in garages.

Steps Amazon is taking include adding bubble envelopes for smaller items and tweaking algorithms to ship more items together. Some manufacturers are coming up with smaller packages specifically for online orders.

In a 2016 New York Times article, Don Fullerton, a professor of finance and an expert in economics and the environment at the University of Illinois, said one solution would be to make retailers responsible for taking back the boxes to encourage them to come up with more efficient packaging.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How can retailers do more to reduce the amount of cardboard boxes and packaging that comes with online sales growth? Do you see the reduction of packaging waste as a business imperative?

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25 Comments on "Does online shopping have a cardboard box problem?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Smaller box sizes and more intelligent shipping to minimize multiple boxes/shipments would go a long way to reducing excess. Reducing the packaging waste is not only a business imperative since the excess impacts profitability, but it’s also an environmental issue that impacts all of society.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

I saw a very interesting thing the other day (apologies as I can’t find it now) that suggested Amazon’s oversized boxes were actually a function of making things fit optimally into its trucks when they were shipped. This reduces movement of packages and prevents breakages. I am skeptical as to how true this might be, but it did make me think!

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

There is some truth to that Neil. We filled big boxes with big packages full of air to protect little potato chips at Frito because consumers hate chip crumbs. Shippers pack orders similarly (box within a box packed with those obnoxious peanuts or bubble packs) because consumers don’t like for the original packaging to be damaged — much less the item. UPS and FedEx hate that because it takes up cube in the trucks, but they don’t like complaints either. So we keep getting lots of cardboard. One trend I have noticed is the smaller third-party sellers who ship their own orders using less packaging; probably because they care more about shipping costs they are forced to absorb. That may be the source of innovative solutions for this problem.

Charles Dimov
Guest

Part of the problem is the multiple boxes that often go to customers. Sometimes these are comical (seven pairs of socks delivered in three boxes over three days). Retailers need to think about consolidation functions in their order management systems. Today most retailers are trying to ship products from stores as much as possible. In this era, the OMS has to be intelligent enough to bring products together into one box from multiple retail locations, to consolidate the order and ship one box to customers. More and more customers are expecting this as a basic capability.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

The question is really one of environmental responsibility; both corporate and individual. Consumers have to want to recycle and be responsive to environmental issues and companies have to respond to consumers as well as lead responsibly by optimizing box size and consolidating items when possible. If there is a profit motive for the manufacturers and retailers, this drive to corporate environmental responsibility will happen faster. Bet on that!

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Last year I ordered some cosmetics … a few days later I received a shoebox-sized package containing crumpled paper and a single moisturizer sample. I don’t know how the industry will address this, but there’s a clear consumer perception of over-packaging.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Good question! For one thing, right-size the product with the box. I got a present from a retailer that was about two square inches in a box that was at least one square foot. Had that product been right sized, we all would’ve saved a bunch — Gaia too.

Another option is to ship all apparel or any soft goods in re-recyclable plastic bags. Rapha does that and it totally works. In any case, it’s a great challenge. Our neighborhood looks like kids built 1,000 cardboard forts out front on collection day — not good.

Al McClain
Staff

Lee, our neighborhood looks much the same. I am very skeptical of the claim that 90% of corrugated packaging gets recycled. I see a lot of it in regular trash, and even see Waste Management toss it all in the same garbage truck even when it is intended for recycling. We need some system of incentives for consumers to think more about the environmental consequences of not recycling, and better incentives for business, too. I don’t see retailers taking back packaging for recycling/reuse, but perhaps some innovative ones can create an environmentally-friendly niche for themselves if they do.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

I received several sponsored posts by yet another meal delivery company. The 300+ comments raved about how wasteful their program was with all the boxes and how others would never try because of that. That said, aside from delivering human to human in an hour or two, I don’t see the ability to change this. And for that reason, I don’t think meal kits are sustainable.

Art Suriano
BrainTrust
I look forward to the day that we have reusable boxes for everything. The customer gets the package, folds the shipping package easily and has X days to drop it off at a box return center or it gets picked up. There is so much waste with cardboard boxes, and as the article points out, many people are not the best when it comes to recycling. The truth is depending on where you live, recycling requires a commitment because it can be very inconvenient. We’re all guilty of sneaking the smaller box in the trash because it’s easier than recycling it or the plastic bottle we hope the trash man doesn’t find. Most of us are usually in a hurry when it comes to getting rid of trash. So hopefully someday, the package will arrive in an attractive carton, possibly made up of something other than cardboard. Then it is easily folded once the item is taken out and dropped off or picked up the next day. That would be a great convenience for all… Read more »
Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

I think you are on to something, Art! I love the idea of reusable boxes! I also like the ideas of incentives to reuse. Does anyone remember the app that used to track a box from shipment to shipment to tell the travel story of that box? I can’t remember the name of the app, but gamification and storytelling also seem to have potential appeal to me.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

How I hate cardboard! It is the bane of my life! I try to recycle as much as I can, but deconstructing boxes is annoying and time-consuming. There is scope for smaller non-card packages to be used for some items delivered to homes. There is probably also scope to cut out boxes entirely for many products delivered to stores for collection by consumers – though this may necessitate changes in the supply chain.

Phil Chang
BrainTrust
Phil Chang
Retail Influencer, Speaker and Consultant
2 years 14 days ago

As with all things retail, hopefully we can re-do packaging in general and how we view products. As we ship more things straight to the consumer, we can probably do away with retail packaging as you see it on the shelf and maybe cut away some of the more marketing parts of packaging. This in turn might help with cutting down sizes for boxes and maybe create some newer more innovative ways of packaging.

Anne Howe
Guest

Certainly the problem exists, but my view puts part of the solution in the hands of the shoppers. To just say that consumers are lazy about recycling is letting us all off the hook.. Shoppers have to understand the price that they pay for the convenience of online shopping is to be vigilant about breaking down those boxes and using them for good.

Gardeners can put box panels into their beds to prevent weeds, use them as starters in fire pits or cut them into strips and compost them.

Or how about making a commitment in 2018 to get out of the house more and go to the physical store?

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

First, those among us who order online must be the ones that take charge of this. It cannot be the responsibility of the shipper only, as we, our children and their children will pay the consequences if we do not. We as consumers must be better at separating and breaking down boxes. People that do not are just being plain lazy. It takes seconds to do this.

Last time I went to Costco, the bottle return machines were being fed non-stop by those that collect and return bottles. Perhaps they need to be the ones that are subsidized by the online industry to take this on as well.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I am quite confident that all this extra packaging (especially for Amazon) is a result of studies on the supply chain. It includes picking, mixing, labor, limits number of box inventory items. As one of our colleagues noted, to better fit in the truck.

I am not an expert on supply chain, but I am very sure that if Amazon in particular could save money by cutting back on the cardboard, they would.

The issue isn’t cardboard and packaging, the issue is the most cost-effective supply chain. And while pieces may seem inefficient, the entire chain is the real measure.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

Until we who expect the world to bow the knee and meet our every whim feel a unquenchable urgency about our environment — never mind the economics of it all — nothing will change.

As a very minor player with a consumer product where packaging is the most expensive component, I would LOVE to see a brilliant “no-package” technology emerge! Edible gelatin-based bubble-wrap perhaps? How about boarding made from tomato peelings vegetable inks so impoverished people could turn the packaging into soup?

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust
Nikki Baird
VP of Retail Innovation, Aptos
2 years 14 days ago
This is a three-sided problem, and I don’t think it will change until that recognition exists. Consumers have a stake, retailers have a stake and shipping companies too — and they all represent conflicting forces. As a consumer, I don’t want all those boxes and it seems ridiculous to get, for example, a $1 protractor all alone in a shoebox-sized box full of air. But I don’t really control that and, honestly, while I would love for Amazon to be more responsible, I’m not going to stop buying from them because of it. If they want to take the loss on irresponsible shipping and packaging, that’s on them. Retailers have to balance the costs of the boxes vs. the costs of damage vs. shipping costs. I’m sure Amazon doesn’t want to send me a box with just a protractor in it, but they’ve made the strategic decision that it’s worth it in order to keep me happy. Shippers, though, they don’t have to bear the cost of packaging. So they don’t have a lot of… Read more »
Cristian Grossmann
Guest

A while back I used Amazon Fresh for the convenience, but after seeing how much packaging there was, I canceled the service. Many items were in individual plastic bags and there was even styrofoam lining the bags. (I think they’ve improved since then.)

Retailers can do their part by being mindful of their carbon footprint and consumers can do their part by refusing to use services with unsustainable packaging. Boxes should be sized according to the product size. And perhaps give the option to the customer. For example, Amazon gives you credit if you use slower shipping. A similar offer could be provided if they are willing to wait longer so their products could be consolidated in one package.

Cate Trotter
BrainTrust

It’s certainly a challenge and one that is likely to grow as more and more shop online. There’s certainly a requirement for shoppers to take some responsibility and to recycle as much packaging as possible (which goes hand-in-hand with the need for home recycling provisions to be as available and easy to understand as possible). Retailers need to play their part as well, whether it’s consolidating orders into fewer packages, using smaller boxes or choosing more environmentally friendly packaging — for example Lush uses a material called eco-flow (which is starch based) rather than polystyrene in its packaging, as it’s 100% biodegradable. I wonder whether there’s an opportunity to offer incentives to customers who wait to have an order sent out in one delivery — maybe their shipping is free or they get a discount off their next order. It might encourage people who don’t need items immediately would be happy to wait given a good option.

Peter Luff
BrainTrust

Perhaps with some joined up thinking with another subject we talked of recently, which was autonomous robots. All shipments to a zip code area are bundled in one large, perhaps reusable box from the hub to a zip code distribution point. Then this is broken up and shipped in only the manufactures packaging the last mile.

Yes, it’s going to become an imperative. Already we have the influence of China putting up its green fence around plastics. So all the extra packaging that gets included is going to become a liability for someone, which could well be the retailer.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

The retailer/CPG first-mover on this topic will get a ton of goodwill value from consumers. Imagine the promo: “Send your box back and get free shipping on your next order!”… or something similar. Let alone the opportunity for local recycling organizations. This could actually be big.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

90% recycle seems excellent … to me at least. I don’t really see a “solution” for this other than to state “taking back the boxes” seems like the kind of well-intentioned but thoroughly counter-productive idea some legislature would propose. But then I’m not really sure how much of a problem it is either. Every method of transaction has both costs and benefits, and it seems foolish to look at either one in complete isolation.

James Nichols
Guest

Ultimately consumers and mounting postage costs will address this issue and improve the recycling situation. I’ve often wondered why companies don’t print recycling tips on box bottoms to help consumers make better choices.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

The author is not very aware of the shipping revolution being led by Amazon, and this article demonstrates this. Amazon is pushing its consumers to take extended shipping dates so it can integrate, consolidate and conserve resources, including corrugate. Consumers who choose a longer ship time are rewarded, while those that demand faster response times are charged more.

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