Internet & Tech


The downside to China’s e-commerce revolution: colossal packaging waste


There goes 20 million trees...

Thirteen minutes and nineteen seconds. That’s how long it took for the first parcel to reach its destination on Singles’ Day earlier this month.

According to the Nanfang Daily, a man from Foshan in Guangdong province ordered a juicer just as Alibaba’s online shopping bonanza kicked off at midnight. Within less than 15 minutes a delivery man was at his front door thrusting a cardboard box into his hands.

It was an incredible feat of logistics and a tangible reminder of how fast and convenient shopping online in China can be. More than a billion orders were generated during Singles’ Day on November 11 and online vendors are expected to dispatch up to 30 billion deliveries this year, as China continues to lead the world in online shopping.

The biggest drawback to this? The country is also drowning in the paper and packaging it produces.

“The final destination of most packaging materials is the garbage dump, as very little of it is reused or recycled. This enormous and sudden influx of products into the permanent waste stream has a profound effect on the environment and, by extension, on human health and safety,” a recent paper in the Journal of Environmental and Analytical Toxicology said.

Chinese delivery companies used 17 million kilometres of packaging tape, 9.9 billion cardboard boxes and 8.3 billion plastic pouches last year, according to State Post Bureau statistics. For perspective: 17 million kilometres of tape is enough to stretch around the earth 424 times, while it requires 20 million trees to make 10 billion boxes.

Academics estimate that roughly half of the cardboard used by China’s e-commerce sector gets recycled but that the plastic and styrofoam largely ends up in landfills.

“We should call on courier companies to start using environmentally-friendly packaging materials as soon as possible. Some of the material they use at the moment, like PVC tape, takes over 100 years to breakdown,” Xinmin Evening News quoted one expert as saying.

Part of the problem is that vendors are responsible for the goods until the buyer signs for them, encouraging them to overwrap to prevent breakages. Another issue is that there is no way for a customer to ask for less packaging on shopping sites like Taobao and Tmall. There is only a chance to request more and when customers receive their goods “well wrapped and nicely presented” is a category they can tick to evaluate the vendor’s service level.

Yet increasingly Chinese customers are getting fed up with the problem of over-packaging. Social media abounds with photos of tiny items sent in large boxes wrapped in swathes of bubble wrap and after this month’s Singles’ Day many people posted such images of empty boxes hashtagged “aftershock of 11.11”.

“Shopping online isn’t so convenient when you consider how much you have to carry out to the bin,” wrote one netizen on Sina Weibo. Another said she felt guilty looking at all the waste.

Greenpeace, which says Singles’ Day is a “disaster for the planet” wants Alibaba to do more to collect and recycle the boxes its vendors and in-house courier services use.

It notes that Alibaba’s boss Jack Ma has spoken about climate change and environmental protection in the past.

But even if Alibaba doesn’t do anything, new laws may force it to respond. This week Caixin Weekly reported that regulators have drafted a waste-sorting policy and that will be debated in the coming weeks.

The paper said the proposed law will introduce new standards for collecting, sorting and recycling rubbish. However, it added that a “major sticking point” is the plastic tape used to seal delivery boxes. The tape is hard to remove and jams up recycling machinery. It is also one of the main reasons for China’s low cardboard recycling rate.

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