One-use packaging is ubiquitous, especially around the holidays. We know it has a big energy footprint. And a recent U.N. study found that if we don’t dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions, we could see severe food shortages, intense droughts, and more wildfires . So why isn’t this getting any better?
The Ecommerce Problem
"There may be smaller boxes now, but that doesn’t change the square footage of production," says Rachel Kenyon, vice president of the Fibre Box Association, which tracks the amount of corrugated cardboard produced and recycled in the US. "You need more square feet in a bigger box. So you’re no longer producing for a pallet, you’re producing for the individual parcel."
Even so, now that we know what trash does to the environment, why isn’t this number going down?
The Hugeness of Amazon
In September, Amazon launched an incentive program for vendors who sell certain products to redesign their packaging to meet its "Frustration-Free Packaging" standards, which have cut down considerably on the material used for certain Amazon packages over the past 11 years. As Brent Nelson, Senior Manager of Customer Packaging Experience, points out, packaging doesn't play the same role in ecommerce that it does in a traditional brick-and-mortar store—it doesn't have to catch the customer's eye, it just has to deliver the product unbroken, and, ideally, with limited waste to dispose of.
For any product whose packaging a vendor converts before August 1, 2019, Amazon will share in the cost of that change—and will award the vendor a $1 credit for every unit received to an Amazon fulfillment center. After August 1, the carrot switches to a stick, and vendors will receive a chargeback for each non-certified shipment.
"The idea is, if you get as close to form-fitting around the product, and minimize any movement inside, you’re going to see great performance," Nelson says. "Just right-sizing that package, that outer box, to the inner retail bag, we’ve seen a huge reduction in damage, both in our fulfillment centers and downstream with customers."
These two companies are working on packaging alternatives that use much less energy—one organic, one vinyl.
A BETTER KIND OF STYROFOAM
The mushroom-based packing material made by only requires 1/5 to 1/8 the energy used by a similar piece of plastic foam. Mycelium samples grow through and around agricultural waste like wood chips to form completely compostable padding—broken up and put into your backyard soil, Ecovative material will break down completely in 30-60 days, says co-founder Eben Bayer. That's the polar opposite of polystyrene, which scientists speculate can take more than a million years to biodegrade.
A MAILER YOU CAN REUSE FOR TEN YEARS
With ’s waterproof, reusable mailer—which is itself made from repurposed vinyl billboards—the customer can remove their purchase, fold up the mailer, and send it right back to the vendor on a prepaid label, ready for the next customer. That’s ten years of shipments with no new boxes. Right now, the mailer is best suited for soft goods like clothing and bags that don't need extra padding. According to co-founder Ashley Etling, the company is currently collaborating with sellers including Toad & Co., MAIKA, and Western Rise, with more to come.
A version of this story appeared in the Winter 2018-19 issue of Seniorhelpline.