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Online shopping has boomed in the pandemic. But what about all the packaging?

With the holiday return season upon us, e-commerce packaging is at an all-time high.

E-commerce boxes on a desk.
Everyone’s shopping online by necessity, but packaging waste hasn’t improved.
Getty Images

At a Cost Plus World Market in Oakland, California, masked shoppers are filing in with their holiday near-misses. They’re not just bringing back Ikat dinnerware and burlap wall art that didn’t quite hit the gifting mark, however. The Happy Returns “bar” within accepts unwanted items from digitally native brands like Eloquii, Everlane, and Rothy’s, which it refunds with a scan of a QR code.

Similar bars in malls, college campuses, and inside stores like World Market across the country are doing an equally brisk trade. Online return rates are three to four times higher than brick-and-mortar stores, David Sobie, the company’s co-founder and CEO, explains. And amid the pandemic, returns, like e-commerce, are surging like never before.

As packages flood into homes, however, so does the packaging that keeps their contents intact. It’s something that people like Ayeshah Abuelhiga, founder of the Mason Dixie Biscuit Co. in Baltimore, constantly worries about. Packaging waste is a big part of why, save for a brief foray into online shopping in 2019, Abuelhiga has mostly resisted selling her frozen biscuits, scones, and rolls online. Shipping her products requires insulated containers, packed with dry ice and swaddled with bubble wrap, that are designed to keep the products from spoiling before they’re ready to pop into the oven. Another reason is the tacked-on costs of all that stuff made little financial sense.

“It didn’t seem like a good value proposition,” she says. “Consumers were just paying for dry ice and packaging.” Then Covid-19 hit. Suddenly, Abuelhiga says, her customers were complaining that they were stuck at home or that the physical stores in their neighborhoods didn’t have the items in stock. So in July, the Mason Dixie Biscuit Co. threw the “shop online” button back up. In a matter of weeks, Abuelhiga was fielding thousands of orders. As the holidays crept up and people splurged on variety packs with names like “Treat Yo Self” and “Miss You a Waffle-Lot” as gifts or for self-care, sales skyrocketed to $200,000 per month. “We’re doing about 350 percent growth,” she says. To manage the deluge, the company has increased its staff by five times, with three dedicated to just packaging orders.

Abuelhiga tries to minimize the amount of unsustainable packaging she uses. She employs space-efficient “eco liners” made with recyclable materials and encourages bundling to avoid the kind of ridiculously excessive “packaging fails” that are frequently memed on social media. But she admits all that waste keeps her up at night. “I don’t know how it doesn’t,” she says.

Mason Dixie Biscuit Co. is far from the only company grappling with this problem. With millions of people turning to online shopping for everything from groceries to toilet paper to sweatsuits, the pandemic has fundamentally altered the way people shop. Digital sales ballooned 71 percent in the second quarter of 2020 and 55 percent in the third, according to Salesforce, creating a wave of packages — and packaging — that is ultimately destined for the landfill, incinerator, or the larger environment.

Environmentalists were already bracing themselves for the glut of padded mailers, corrugated fiberboard, shrink wrap, and bouncy air pillows the rise in online shopping promised to leave in its wake. The pandemic has only accelerated the timeline. Corrugated box shipments have climbed since March, when they jumped 9 percent year over year, according to the Fiber Box Association. Technavio, a market research firm, estimates that demand for filled-air products is poised to swell by $1.16 billion between 2020 and 2024 because of the spike in online sales.

While paper packaging isn’t entirely benign — some 3 billion trees are pulped every year to produce 241 million tons of shipping cartons, cardboard mailers, void-fill wrappers, and other paper-based packaging, according to forest conservation group Canopy — single-use plastics present the bigger concern for environmentalists because they can persist in the environment, sometimes for hundreds of years. And their recyclability is often oversold. Currently, less than 14 percent of the nearly 86 million tons of plastic packaging produced globally each year is recycled. The vast majority is landfilled, incinerated, or left to pollute waterways and poison wildlife.

“The film and wrap that goes into bubble mailers aren’t something that most curbside recycling programs accept,” says David Pinsky, senior plastics campaigner at Greenpeace. “There’s also the question of contamination. If one of those bubble mailers, say from Amazon, gets to a Material Recovery Facility, it’s going to disrupt the automated machines and take away valuable time and money that can be focused on plastics with viable markets.”

Greenpeace recently sued Walmart, in fact, for violating California consumer protection laws with “false and misleading” labels about the recyclability of the Big Box store’s disposable plastic products and packaging. Most consumers in California, it says, lack access to facilities that are capable of segregating these products from the general waste stream to be recycled. With the dearth of end markets for turning these plastics into new items — China struck a body blow to the industry when it severely curtailed imports of certain recyclables, including most plastics, in 2019 — such products are “destined to end up in landfills or the natural environment.”

That’s not to say packaging doesn’t serve a purpose. It’s there because it does a really good job at protecting things, says Adam Gendell, associate director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, whose members include companies like 3M, Dow, and Georgia-Pacific Packaging.

There’s even a sustainability angle — sort of: The “embodied environmental investment” of a product, Gendell says, is usually several times greater than that of the package that surrounds it. In other words, replacing an Instant Pot because it arrives damaged is more expensive, environmentally speaking, than any attendant styrofoam or bubble wrap. For all its ills, plastic packaging is extremely lightweight, which cuts fuel consumption from transportation and ultimately reduces greenhouse-gas emissions, he says. It’s also ridiculously cheap. While sustainable packaging alternatives made from mushroom roots or cornstarch are well and good, they’re up against some steep competition without government intervention or significant buy-ins from boldface names.

Speaking of which, Amazon is a name that comes up frequently in the packaging discourse, and for good reason. It holds the largest share of US retail online sales at nearly 39 percent, according to eMarketer, with Walmart trailing at a distant No. 2 with 5.3 percent.

A recent study by Oceana found that Amazon generated 465 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2019. The number of air pillows alone, it said, could circle the globe 500 times. The environmental group further estimated that up to 22.44 million pounds of Amazon’s plastic packaging ended up in the world’s freshwater and marine ecosystems as pollution in the same year, or “roughly equivalent to a delivery van’s worth of plastic being dumped into major rivers, lakes, and the oceans every 70 minutes.”

“The amount of plastic waste generated by the company is staggering and growing at a frightening rate,” Matt Littlejohn, senior vice president at Oceana, says in a statement. “Our study found that the plastic packaging and waste generated by Amazon’s packages is mostly destined, not for recycling, but for the landfill, the incinerator, or the environment including, unfortunately, our waterways and sea, where plastic can harm marine life. It’s time for Amazon to listen to its customers, who, according to recent surveys want plastic-free alternatives, and make real commitments to reduce its plastic footprint.”

An Amazon spokesperson tells Vox, however, that Oceana has “dramatically miscalculated” its use of plastic and “exaggerated” it by over 350 percent. “We use about a quarter of the plastic packaging estimated by Oceana’s report,” the spokesperson says, noting that the company has reduced the weight of its outbound packaging by more than a third since 2015 and has eliminated nearly 1 million tons of packaging material.

Whatever Amazon’s plastic footprint in 2019, however, it was likely higher in 2020. The pandemic created boom times for the company, which reported net sales of $96.2 billion in the third quarter of 2020, a 37 percent increase from 2019. During the holiday season, the online giant delivered 1.5 billion toys, home products, beauty and personal care products, and electronics worldwide for what it called a “record-breaking” season.

Online shopping’s upward trajectory isn’t likely to reverse course any time soon. Experts predict this behavior will remain sticky even after the pandemic is contained. A survey of 2,000 American adults conducted by McKinsey & Company in November, for example, found a 40 percent net increase in intent among respondents to spend online post-Covid-19.

Plus, the stream of packages doesn’t go one way. Even before Christmas, retailers were bracing themselves for twice as many returns as they fielded last year, and not always in their original packaging, which could mean even more plastic and paper. Return rates are higher for online shopping, Happy Returns’ Sobie says, because of a practice called “bracketing” where customers essentially buy to try. Because people who buy clothes or shoes online aren’t able to try them on, they might buy multiple sizes and then return the ones that don’t fit. They might buy multiple versions of the same piece of clothing if they’re iffy about which color looks best based on a picture on a phone, then return the ones that look least attractive in natural light. “A lot of e-commerce purchases end up having returns kind of built into them, just based on the way people shop,” he says.

Rethinking the definition of packaging might be a way out of this morass, but current efforts remain niche and limited in their uptake. To reduce single-use materials, Happy Returns employs reusable containers to consolidate and bulk-ship box-free returns at its “return hubs” in California and Pennsylvania for sorting, processing, and routing to their final destinations. Startups like RePack and LimeLoop offer reusable shipping pouches for delivering online apparel orders. Asos, one of 400 businesses and governments that have pledged to reduce plastic waste as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy Global Commitment, will be trialing reusable mailing bags at the start of the year.

Central pickup locations, such as Amazon lockers, could help curtail packaging waste, with the added advantage of reducing excess traffic on streets and double parking by trucks in residential areas, says Sarah M. Kaufman, associate director of the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation. Trucks tend to have visibility issues that make them less safe to operate in pedestrian-heavy environments, she says, noting the spiraling number of truck-related fatalities. “Because of Amazon, we’ve all expected shipping to be free everywhere we shop, but in fact the costs of shipping are quite high on a societal level,” Kaufman says.

She says, however, that the guilt of online shipping shouldn’t be yoked on the shoulders of consumers, particularly since staying home and limiting contact with other people is the best way of limiting spread of the virus. “Yes, we need to make a lot of changes to our consumerism, but we also have to have empathy for who is shopping online and why,” Kaufman says.

Indeed, with the proper investments and will to act, corporations can figure this out.

Following India’s announcement that it would be phasing out single-use plastics, Amazon India managed to eliminate nonrecyclable plastic packaging from fulfillment centers in the country. In June, the company announced it had achieved a “100 percent successful transition” away from single-use plastics. Roughly 40 percent of Amazon’s orders in India, in fact, are shipped in their original boxes without an outer box or other packaging.

Amazon’s packaging and materials lab has also developed a lightweight paper mailer that could significantly reduce the company’s plastic footprint if used in place of plastic mailers, Oceana’s report noted.

The myth that plastic can be recycled or even effectively managed is just that — a myth, says Greenpeace’s Pinsky. “And of course we know that that’s not the case,” he says. “It’s intrinsically linked to the climate crisis. So we need to look for other options.”