The Amazon Effect: Cardboard Recycling

According to 2017 statistics, 40 percent of people with internet access shop online several times per month. Approximately 20 percent shop online every week. Embracing the convenience of modern technology seems like a smart idea until you realize that online shopping has a negative impact on the environment. It’s okay to get excited when that Amazon box lands on your front porch as long as you understand the importance of cardboard recycling.


The Life of a Cardboard Box

Imagine a cardboard box has just landed on your doorstep. You’re eager to rip it open and retrieve your daughter’s Christmas present or a new pair of jeans from your favorite designer, but let’s take a moment to think about the life of that cardboard box first.

Before online shopping was an everyday occurrence, goods were shipped to brick-and-mortar stores in cardboard boxes.

Retailers removed their goods, folded the boxes down and compacted them for bulk cardboard recycling. Most of the cardboard used to ship goods to stores was recycled in this process because stores had no use for the piles of cardboard boxes that would otherwise accumulate.

Today, large retailers like Amazon and Walmart are securing empty cardboard boxes to ship goods directly to the consumer. If you’ve ever received a large box with one small item rattling around inside, you know that packaging isn’t always efficient for online orders. Even more cardboard is used when items from one order are shipped individually because one item is on back order or all items are shipping from different warehouses.

Millions of people are shopping online, and each order could require the use of two or more cardboard boxes. This means that there are now more cardboard boxes in circulation, and they’re landing at residential addresses instead of brick-and-mortar stores. While businesses continue to recycle much of their cardboard packaging, consumers aren’t embracing cardboard recycling to the same degree.

Cardboard boxes once had never-ending lives. When they completed their journey to one store, they were recycled into new boxes and sent out on their next adventure. Today, cardboard boxes are more likely to end their lives in the landfill because some consumers don’t have access to cardboard recycling and others simply choose not to recycle.


The Rising Demand for Cardboard

Since cardboard boxes are one of the cheapest options for sending online orders directly to consumers, their frequency of use will naturally increase along with the popularity of online shopping. According to research completed by Smithers Pira, the use of packaging for online sales will increase by more than 14 percent by 2022. They also predict that e-commerce packaging will become a $55 billion-dollar industry by 2022.

The rising demand for cardboard will strain the logging industry as more trees are needed to produce those boxes. The creation of more boxes also means the use of more natural resources during the manufacturing process. Once the boxes reach their final destination, they’re more likely to end up in the landfill rather than the cardboard recycling bin. There are three reasons this is dangerous:

1As cardboard boxes accumulate in the landfill, there’s less room for other items that aren’t recyclable. Landfills will reach their maximum capacity faster, leading to the creation of even more landfills. 

2Cardboard boxes contain chemicals that can seep into the ground and contaminate the water supply over time. An increase in the number of boxes thrown into the landfill means water contamination is more likely to occur. 

3Cardboard releases methane gas as it breaks down. This gas is toxic to the environment and can contribute to the greenhouse effect that is believed to cause global warming or unnatural climate change.



Solving the Cardboard Problem

There’s no stopping the way modern consumers shop. E-commerce is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean that we have to accept the resulting damage to our environment. If manufacturers producing goods, online retailers and consumers work together, there are ways that we can stop cardboard boxes from becoming a destructive force.

1. Online retailers start using alternative forms of packaging.

The race is on to find eco-friendly packaging materials that are strong enough to carry heavy loads securely while remaining affordable. Some of the more innovative options that we may see in the future include packaging made from mushrooms, seaweed and cornstarch. Those options aren’t mass produced at this point and perhaps will never take over the e-commerce world, but it’s clear that new options are needed.

Eco-friendly plastic is the alternative that most businesses now consider, but it’s often more expensive than cardboard boxes. Plastic can also weigh more, which means higher shipping prices for businesses and consumers. It’s also true that some plastics are just as damaging to the environment as cardboard.

Many online retailers are at least ensuring that all of their cardboard boxes are made from recycled material. This can benefit the environment by reducing the demand for new boxes, but it doesn’t completely solve the problem.

2. Online retailers establish cardboard box buyback programs.

A buyback program allows consumers to return unwanted cardboard boxes to an online retailer in exchange for a small monetary reward. Perhaps they receive a discount on their next order or free shipping on the current order as long as the box is returned properly.

Buybacks benefit e-commerce businesses as well as consumers and the environment. Businesses won’t have to buy as many new boxes if they’re receiving recycled boxes from most of their customers. Fewer boxes will end up in the landfill, and online shoppers won’t have to make trips to the dump to get rid of unwanted boxes.

3. Online retailers use their packaging more sensibly.

E-commerce businesses should make a greater effort to combine purchased items into a single box and use the smallest box needed for each order. It makes no sense to use a large box to ship a book or another small item, but that happens regularly for a variety of reasons. The more e-commerce businesses understand the damaging impact of cardboard on our environment, the more incentive they will have to find better ways to conserve packaging.

4. Classify cardboard as industrial waste, even when it’s used by consumers.

This is a small change that could have a dramatic impact on the number of cardboard boxes thrown into the landfill. Instead of relying on consumers to sign up for and use standard recycling services, industrial waste services could pick up unwanted boxes at the curb. This provides a convenient service to consumers while ensuring that more cardboard is recycled than trashed.

While these solutions seem to place the weight of change solely on the shoulders of e-commerce businesses, nothing positive will happen without the active participation of consumers and manufacturers. Those creating cardboard boxes and other packaging materials should continue experimenting with new materials that could one day replace the cardboard box. Consumers could also benefit from heightened education so that they understand the importance of cardboard recycling.


Moving Forward

Change will occur when e-commerce businesses adopt a more responsible mindset when it comes to the use of cardboard. When they make cardboard recycling and conservation a priority, they will make a tremendous difference in the number of cardboard boxes thrown into the landfill each year. With the right buyback programs and responsible processes in the shipping department, e-commerce businesses can make a tremendous impact on the environment while serving their customers better.

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