As the holiday season approaches, more and more purchases are happening online. Online purchases are projected to grow 20.1% to hit $1.5tn this year, according to eMarketer. As a result, mail packing is a burgeoning sustainability concern.
Aside from the plastic and cardboard wrapping the products come in, there are the boxes, the labeling and the paper wrapping or foam packing meant to protect what is nestled inside. It’s not unusual to end up with far more packaging than stuff, and the sheer amount of waste that results is staggering.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (pdf), containers and packaging accounted for 30% – or 75.2m tons – of total solid waste generated in the US in 2012. To put that into perspective, we discard our own weight in packaging every 30-40 days, on average, according to Stanford University.
This figure will likely only increase as e-commerce does the same, and the magnitude in dollars reflects the demand: protective packaging represents a $22bn industry, with plastic foam alone – mostly expanded polystyrene, aka Styrofoam – valued at $6bn.
A growing number of companies and entrepreneurs are working on new ways to tackle this problem. And they are making progress: more than half of this packaging waste – 51.5% or 38.75m tons – was recovered for recycling or composting in 2012. That’s a higher percentage than the 34.5% of total municipal solid waste that ended up recycled or composted, which in itself represented a big increase from the 15.9% recovered in 1990 – and the 6.35% in 1960.
But that still leaves plenty of packaging waste – more than 36m tons – in landfills. One company working to reduce that amount is Waste Management, North America’s largest waste and recycling company, which specializes in sustainability services.
Show me the recycling
Waste Management began working with LBP Manufacturing, which supplies single-use food-service packaging, in 2011 to design a new product: a more sustainable single-serve coffee filter.
Single-cup coffee filters, such as Keurig’s K-cups, come with some tricky waste challenges: they are small, which makes them harder to recycle; they include coffee grounds, which aren’t recyclable; and they’re often made of multiple materials, such as plastic or cardboard combined with a foil lid that can be punctured by a coffee machine. Most customers are unlikely to separate each of the pods into their parts, recycling the plastic and foil separately and composting the coffee.
From its years of recycling experience, Waste Management certainly had ideas about what designs and materials tend to be more recyclable. But instead of basing its advice on which materials are theoretically recyclable, the company used its own recycling infrastructure to run real-life testing – from consumers to the recycling center – to find out which designs were most likely to end up in the right sortation pile at the end.
In some cases, that meant embedding an RFID tag in a product to see what happened to it and whether the materials ended up in the right place. If they did, Waste Management took the materials to potential buyers to get a more definitive sense of which materials they would buy, and which materials would retain enough value to be worth washing and using again and again.
“There are many things that are theoretically recyclable, but not practically recyclable in the existing infrastructure,” explained Tom Carpenter, Waste Management’s managing director. “We’d check with them: is this going to be a contaminant, if it has coffee grounds? Would doing this devalue the material? Or does it still have value – would you pay the same rate or a premium?”
None of this is a guarantee the products will get recycled, of course – that ultimately depends on the consumer. But all the testing was able to give Waste Management the confidence that if consumers do their part, the materials would end up being recovered.
The company ended up being surprised by some of its findings. In many cases, materials it didn’t expect would work did make it through the process. For example, part of the recycling process is a screen that shakes, effectively sifting small pieces from larger ones. The company thought some smaller designs would fall through the screen and end up as waste, but in testing, they mostly didn’t.
On the other hand, some shapes and sizes did turn out to make a big difference to recyclability. That means that testing one product doesn’t mean all similar products would yield the same result.
To go back to the example of single-serve coffee filters, for instance, they come in many different shapes and sizes – and some are made of foil, others are foil and plastic, some are all plastic and others have fiber components, Carpenter said.
“Each one is completely different,” he said. “It’s a good example of where innovation in the [packaging] industry makes it hard on the recycling industry.
Still, some packaging advice applies to everyone.
Mixed or hybrid products – those with two or more types of materials blended into one, such as metal interwoven with fiber – often cannot be recycled. Other materials, like plastic foam, have practically no value in the recycling stream and are designed only with single-use in mind.
For shipping, Carpenter recommends simple fiber-based containers free from “all the extra bells and whistles of labels and excess packaging”, and wrapping products in recycled paper or newspaper rather than polystyrene peanuts.
Spreading the knowledge
Perhaps the biggest surprise to come out of the project, though, is what it led to next.
After hearing about the testing Waste Management did for LBP Manufacturing,many other companies came calling. Waste Management has since worked with Walmart – and Cradle to Cradle co-author William McDonough – to design a new cereal box, and today has close to 20 active projects at various stages, some of which involve multiple products, Carpenter said.
“We thought it would be a small little niche thing we do here and there,” Carpenter said. “It’s surprising the response we’ve had and what we’ve learned.”
Companies’ interest is being driven by consumers, he said, who increasingly are trying to recycle everything. This has expanded the total amount of recycling, but also has brought an added challenge: more contamination of the recycling stream, which can result in more otherwise recyclable materials ending up as waste.
“Many people try to do the right thing,” he said. “But there’s big confusion.”
What are some of the weirdest things he’s seen in the bins? Bowling balls, he says, and big plastic cars kids can ride in – complete with metal parts, batteries and electronics.
Meanwhile, some companies that have also made false assumptions – such as that any recyclable material could be recycled, even if it’s attached to other materials – in the past have been called out on it, leading others to see the risk of improper labeling, Carpenter said: “The brands that are making those products and packages want to have some sort of assurance that if they’re labeling it as recyclable, it’s actually going to be recycled.”
Listening to social media
Take Dell, which decided to reduce wasteful packaging after hearing complaints from customers about excessive and non-recyclable shipping boxes and packaging materials back in 2008.
“We got feedback about our packaging on social media – which tends to be quite direct in its opinion – that was actually kind of an epiphany for us,” said Oliver Campbell, the global packaging innovation lead at Dell. “People wanted us to care about these issues as much as they did.”
Additionally, around two-thirds of Dell’s large corporate accounts have sustainability requirements. “So there’s good business reasons for doing this,” Campbell added.
Working with Waste Management, the company reduced its box sizes by about 10%, developed bamboo cushioning – a fast-growing material that can be composted or recycled as paper – to replace foam, and also began making packaging with wheat straw, which is produced from agricultural waste and mushrooms, in collaboration with Ecovative, a New York-based company aiming to replace plastic foam with materials made from mycelium, or mushroom roots.
The bamboo and wheat straw materials eliminated 20m pounds of packaging and saved around $18m in reduced energy, water, transportation and production costs. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions fell by an estimated 8%.
By 2020, Dell plans to scale these efforts up to 100% sustainable packaging compared to about 60% today, Campbell said.
Startups are also coming up with new packaging innovations.
The aforementioned Ecovative, founded in 2007, uses agricultural waste to grow packaging in different shapes. It’s fully compostable, meaning that it “behaves like a nutrient instead of a pollutant”, but only breaks down in wet environments with microbes, said Eben Bayer, Ecovative’s CEO and co-founder.
Manufacturing it requires one-fifth to one-eighth the amount of energy used to make the equivalent unit volume of foam plastic, and it’s also “extremely price competitive” with middle volume fabricated polyethylene foams, Bayer claims.
But you can’t just buy mycelium foam at Home Depot, and growing a new market – and scaling up production to match – doesn’t happen overnight. “It takes time to build new supply chains,” Bayer said, adding that global plastic supply chains have taken 80 years to build.
In addition, packaging still isn’t a top priority for most companies, and many aren’t set up to look into new packaging products, so some potential customers might not make the switch even if the Ecovative packaging is the same price, he said.
Meanwhile, RePack, a Finland-based startup launched in 2011, creates reusable packaging options out of recycled materials. Online shoppers pay a small deposit for the RePack shipping option, and get reimbursed after the bag or box finds its way back to the company via any post office in Europe.
So far, the scheme seems to be working, with up to a 95% return rate. A few Finnish clothing companies are using the bags, and talks are underway with companies in Germany.
“We’re in traditional startup mode: we’ve found that this is working and that people like it, so we’re now looking to scale it and make it available all over,” said Jonne Hellgren, the company’s managing director. “That will hopefully soon include all of the EU and the UK.”
But it remains to be seen whether the model could work on a large scale for most products – and whether the environmental benefits of recycling, composting or reusing would outweigh the impacts from shipping used products back to manufacturers.
As online shopping grows, it’s clear more change – and innovation – is coming.
“There’s a big push around what an online package needs to look like,” Carpenter said. After all, much of today’s packaging is designed around shelf appeal, or the ability to compete visually with similar products.
“Does it need to look as glamorous when it comes to your home instead of being sold in a store?” Carpenter asked. “It needs to protect the product, but does it need to be as fancy?”
For the time being, North America and Western Europe remain the only regions in the world where the majority of residents make online purchases. But much of the growth in e-commerce comes from new users based in emerging markets, with Asia-Pacific accounting for nearly half of the online buyers this year.
Therefore, the most effective sustainable packaging solutions would be those with a global scope. Ecovative is in initial discussions about setting up partnerships in Japan, South Korea and China, the latter of which is projected to overtake the US in spending by 2016.
“We see scale as a key requirement to drive impact, both environmentally and for our business,” Bayer said.
China, additionally, has reasons to be interested in sustainable shipping options, Cambell added. The burning of farm waste significantly contributes to air pollution in the country. Wheat straw packaging, however, offers an emissions-reducing and profit-increasing alternative.
While consumers on the receiving end of those packages ultimately determine whether boxes and padding wind up in the recycling stream or compost heap rather than the landfill, Campbell said, more and more companies are working to give them the opportunity to make that responsible choice.
Rachel Nuwer is a freelance science journalist who contributes to outlets such as The New York Times, BBC Future and Smithsonian.
Jennifer Kho is the US editor for Guardian Sustainable Business.