It’s not easy being green: the challenge of creating environmentally friendly packaging for ecommerce sites

Published 5 Min Read

This year Amazon signed a pledge to protect the environment ‘by embracing sustainable practices’. Then in August the company gained widespread criticism for introducing plastic Prime-branded envelopes. In the US they’ve already caused problems for recycling centres, piling up because people bring them, wrongly assuming that they can be recycled.

It’s no better here, the envelopes are ‘not widely recycled across the UK’, and though in theory they can be re-used, in these days of internet shopping we tend to receive many more parcels than we send, so the fact is that most are destined for the bin.

Amazon aside, most ecommerce businesses are making concerted efforts to create sustainable packaging and use less plastic. But for consumers, receiving anything other than an obviously recyclable cardboard box or envelope is still causing massive confusion. A piece of packaging may have a ‘recyclable’ logo or statement, but whether there’s anywhere in your neighbourhood that can deal with it is impossible to know unless you carefully check at the local authority’s website. Rather than there being one single set of standards for local authorities in the UK – or at least per country within it – there is huge variation, not to say out-and-out chaos, and what’s recyclable in one borough goes to landfill in another. This is not the way to create behaviour change amongst the general public.

Research by WRAP, found that only one in five councils provides a complete recycling service. Shockingly one in ten don’t recycle glass. Only 74 out of 345 local authorities recycle plastic tubs and waste food. And before us Londoners get too smug thinking that we must be ahead of the curve in recycling our household waste, Westminster has one of the worst rates in the country with less than 20%.

It’s particularly confusing with plastics because there are so many different types. This well-meant advice from ASOS, the UK’s third largest ecommerce site, outlines the problem.  “Even though our packaging is 100% recyclable (and made using 25% recycled content), we know that not all local recycling facilities accept every type of plastic packaging. So you're welcome to send any used packaging back to us when you next have stuff to return – and we'll sort out the rest. What's more, you'll be helping us close the loop, turning some of that used plastic back into fresh ASOS packaging. If your local authority will accept it, you can also just pop it in with your usual recycling.”

A quick straw poll in the office reveals that none of us knew we could send packaging back to ASOS, neither did any of us know whether the various local authorities we live in would accept this particular sort of plastic. This information is on the ASOS website, but you’d have to dig around in Customer Care to find it.  Their plastic mailers say they’re made with new and recycled material, and to ‘spread the love and recycle it’. But that depends on where you live of course.

The government has announced that local councils will be forced to recycle a consistent set of materials by 2023. Until that happens perhaps companies like ASOS can find other ways to help and educate confused consumers. Though it’s an extra piece of admin, if customers were asked to provide their local authority along with their address, ASOS could email or post personalised recycling information, letting a customer know whether they can stick their empty mailer in the recycling, or should hold onto it and send it back next time they return an item. They could even make it a fun interactive feature of creating an account. The message that packaging can be returned to ASOS could also be more widely publicised, perhaps written large on the packaging itself, so it’s clear to everyone. It should be said that ASOS are working on a pilot scheme to introduce reusable customer mailing bags, and do have a pleasingly detailed environmental policy – great news for a company that processed nearly 50 million orders in 2016.

ASOS customers also complain that multiple items mean multiple clear plastic bags within another larger mailer. A recent survey by parent company Whistl finds that 75% of adult UK shoppers want less packaging on their eCommerce deliveries, as well as to use more environmentally-friendly packing materials on the packaging they do use. It’s unrealistic to expect ASOS to keep large amounts of clothing and accessories within warehouses without them being protected in some way, but perhaps they could look for alternatives, for instance using biodegradable plastics derived from cellulose, rather than the kind that will still be around 500 years after you’ve stopped wearing that tie-dye t-shirt.

Clothing aside, what other kinds of sustainable packing solutions for ecommerce are around? Woolcool are an innovative company who have found an effective natural alternative to polystyrene and other plastics. Their thermal insulation for food and pharmaceuticals is made from 100% pure wool, keeping products from cheese, meat and fish to insulin within designated temperature ranges for delivery. Woolcool products can be reused a number of times and also can be recycled by customers as they see fit, with pet beds, flower basket liners, cushions and shed insulation being just a few of their final destinations. The company has won a multitude of awards and supplies companies including John Lewis, Fortnum & Mason, Unilever and Pharmarcy2U.

Further afield in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Paris, New Jersey company TerraCycle have launched a new system called Loop aimed at making food and toiletry packaging reusable. At the moment the system seems somewhat cumbersome: customers will buy a product online, pay a deposit for a reusable format, then send their empty goods back in the same tote bag they were shipped in once they’ve finished with them. Though at the moment it might sound like a solution that only a few eco-pioneers with deep pockets and time on their hands might use, the company have big plans. They persuaded Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Nestlé amongst others to redesign packaging and take part in their pilot scheme, and eventually they want customers to be able to drop their empty bottles and containers into stores for re-use by the next person. Founder Tom Szaky describes it as a new solution for people who understand the consequences of consumer waste – though to us it might not look dissimilar to the way that decades ago we used to leave out empty glass bottles for the milkman.

Whatever Amazon are doing – or not doing – it’s heartening to know that other businesses big and small are making big efforts to make packaging environmentally responsible and sustainable. But there’s always more that can be done to educate customers on how to reuse and recycle, and giving clear, upfront advice is crucial.

But it’s also essential that the UK government’s proposals to make the system simple and consistent come to fruition – and that they support already cash-strapped local authorities in making the necessary changes. Many people want to do more to reuse and recycle, but it’s got to be made simple to solve the ecommerce packaging problem and create real behaviour change.

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