A package deal

Delivery firms try to cut down on waste boxes from online sales


A lot of boxes, a lot of waste...

In July JD.com celebrated its birthday in the usual way: running a sales campaign on its website to rival Alibaba’s Singles’ Day. According to China Daily, it sold 700 million items during the sales spree. But as we reported in WiC347, a good deal for consumers can come at the expense of the environment, generating plastic and paper waste on a formidable scale.

To reduce the rubbish produced, JD.com teamed up with Chengdu-based recycling firm Green Earth. According to ICEO, a news portal, Green Earth gave its customers coupons to spend on JD.com if they recycled the cardboard boxes their goods were delivered in. During the sales period, the firm then sold over 600kg of recycled boxes back to JD.com at a price equivalent to about 40% of new packaging.

Alibaba is also taking measures to alleviate the environmental toll of its gargantuan business. Its logistics unit Cainiao already has goals to eliminate plastic wrapping and make 50% of packaging biodegradable by 2020. In the lead up to this year’s Singles’ Day sales, some of those efforts are being realised. In Xiamen the local government has partnered with Cainiao to produce 2 million biodegradable bags for deliveries, and the logistics firm is also promoting recycling activity on college campuses and in residential compounds.

In March the central government decreed that 46 cities (all the municipalities and each provincial capital) must implement waste sorting systems and “reach a recycling rate of 35% by 2020”. However, Mao Da, the founder of the non-profit Zero Waste Beijing, thinks the policy is toothless, telling Sixth Tone that there is little advice on how to reach the targets and that the government doesn’t even define what a ‘recycling rate’ is.

Inviting residents to recycle cardboard is clearly the first step, although there are plenty of problems implementing the change in behaviour. Most notably, not all cardboard boxes can be recycled, in part due to over-zealous packaging. The boss of one logistics company told Sixth Tone that in 2015 only 20% of boxes were actually reusable – too much adhesive tape rendered the rest impossible to recycle.

Electronics retailer Suning thinks it has a solution: “shared boxes”. These are collapsible plastic containers that Suning’s couriers load with goods and then return to the warehouse empty, for recirculation. The scheme seems to be limited in scope, however: Caixin Weekly reports that Suning will expand the project to five cities and distribute 200,000 of the “shared boxes” next year.

The relatively high cost of the containers is probably the main reason why the project has a limited launch. Each costs Rmb25 ($3.76), which, even though they can be reused 1,000 times, is still much higher than old-fashioned tape and cardboard.

Higher costs are another reason why more logistics firms aren’t using packaging that is more biodegradable. Tong Wenhong, then CEO of Cainiao, told a logistics conference last year that using biodegradables would add about Rmb0.5 to the cost of each package.

Can these costs be passed on to the consumer? The food delivery firms have similar problems with waste, generating 20 million pairs of chopsticks per day. The cost of these disposable utensils are generally covered by consumers, often through a Rmb1 surcharge. Feasibly, logistics firms could charge a similar rate for biodegradable packaging, perhaps through an industry-wide agreement.

Of course, striking such a deal might be more difficult among firms already competing aggressively for business. But logistics bosses would be wise to be more pro-active in policy terms. The government has already announced it will ban the import of 24 types of waste, including scrap paper, by the end of this year (see WiC383).

It seems likely to then turn its attention to the rubbish generated by the delivery sector too.

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