Looks like this is the place to online shop if you’ve got Planet Earth top of mind (plus how to do your part to recycle all that cardboard and packaging, no matter where you buy online).
If online shopping makes you feel guilty because each order seems to arrive with an excess of wasteful cardboard and packing materials, consider where you shop the most. Some major retailers are more committed than others to minimizing waste and propagating sustainability with their packaging methods and materials—and a new study reveals which one is the most environmentally friendly of all.
US Packaging & Wrapping LLC put three major online retailers—Amazon, Target, and Walmart—to the test to see which company is doing the best job cutting back on packaging materials. To compare each company, U.S. Packaging & Wrapping ordered the same five products from each retailer. After the arrival of each package, they weighed it, measured the “void gap” (the distance between the product and its postal packaging), and scrutinized the packaging materials used. So who tends to leave the smallest footprint, waste-wise? In the end, the study concluded,“[Of the three, Amazon has the lowest amount of packaging waste.”
It’s important to note, however, that the criteria for measuring this isn’t consistently black and white. For example, overall, Amazon packages yielded both the lowest net packaging material weight (39.4 ounces) and product void gap (24.75 inches)—however, the study doesn't shy away from mentioning some of Amazon's areas for improvement as well:
“Amazon’s envelopes, padded with bubble wrap, have been subject to a lot of scrutiny in the past. Although the packaging is recyclable, the two different material types need to be recycled separately and, if this doesn’t happen, it can lead to issues in recycling plants. On the other hand, the use of this kind of packaging is helpful in terms of deliveries: They take up less space in delivery trucks, resulting in a more efficient postal system and fewer greenhouse gases produced in the process of delivery.”
Something else to note is how consumers maybe shouldn’t be quite so quick to place irreversible blame on retailers, even those like Target and Walmart, which fell short in this study compared to Amazon.
“Any of those retailers are offering shipping for a mind-boggling array of items, most of which were designed to look snazzy on a shelf, not fit into a shipping box to be sent [across the country],” says Dylan de Thomas, vice president of industry collaboration for The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit dedicated to transforming recycling and reducing waste across the country. “Having seen a distribution center behind the scenes, it's easy to see how a tiny item can end up in a box that doesn't fit it. Workers at those companies do such a hard job of packing items as efficiently as possible, and if the right-sized packaging isn't at the ready, then they're grabbing that next size up.”
de Thomas also points out that reducing packaging waste is top of mind for pretty much every online retailer, for environmental reasons, yes, but also to reduce costs. “Waste on the packaging side means wasted money for the retailer, so they have a real motivation to shrink those gaps shown in this study,” he says. “We are happy to say all three [retailers] are supporters of The Recycling Partnership’s work to improve recycling across the US.”
So even the so-called winning and losing retailers (per this study) have their packaging pros and cons, and the environmental efficacy of shipping methods often rely on consumers to do their part to keep the process as green as possible. A few simple things you can do?
1. Always empty and break down cardboard boxes and bring them to your curbside recycling cart or bin
2. Recycle all applicable plastic mailers and plastic shipping pillows that come inside boxes at a grocery store with recycling bins for plastic bags and wrapping. (There are roughly 18,000 locations where they can be recycled,” de Thomas says. “Www.plasticfilmrecycling.org is a good place to find out where.”