Online Shopping has Saved Us During the Pandemic, but it is Destroying our Home

Claudio Schwarz/Unsplash
Claudio Schwarz/Unsplash

Five minutes before midnight on the 11 November, I have multiple windows open on both my laptop and phone for various shopping apps and websites. In the days leading up to it, myself (and I’m sure many others) have spent time poring over websites to find the best deals and redeem time-limited vouchers to get the best deals on this day. 

The floodgates opened at midnight on 11.11 as myself, and millions of other shoppers, hit ‘check out’ on their shopping cart. After depleting my bank account, I wait in anticipation over the next few weeks for my packages to arrive.

And arrive they do. It feels like Christmas has arrived early as package after package reaches my doorstep over a couple of weeks. They come wrapped in polymailers, bubble wrap, encased within cardboard boxes, sealed with tape — in any form of packaging you could think of. 

Therein lies the issue — the boom of the e-commerce sector is accompanied by a similar spike in packaging waste. Since Chinese company Alibaba first started holding 11.11 sales in 2009, sales revenue across e-commerce platforms have grown year-on-year. The Western equivalent — Black Friday — is set to see similar spikes in e-commerce sales, and will undoubtedly also come with an accumulation of plastic and packaging waste. 

Boom of the e-commerce industry

According to Today Online, in just 35 minutes, Lazada Singapore’s sales figures for this year surpassed numbers that had taken two hours to reach in the year prior. Within the first 11 minutes, the e-commerce giant had sold more than 180,000 items, equating to more than 16,000 items each minute. 

Similar results were replicated in Shopee, which also witnessed outstanding sales performance that surpassed 2019’s figures in a “record-breaking time” of under an hour. On the day of 11 November, Shopee recorded sales of 200 million items, a stark jump from the 70 million items sold in 2019. 

In pandemic times, it seems that everyone has taken to e-commerce for a bout of retail therapy.

As the piles of cash grow to record highs in this year’s 11.11 sales (despite most of the world being in a recession due to the COVID-19 pandemic), as do the mounts of plastic waste generated. In 2018, Alibaba recorded a staggering 1.3 billion delivery orders; each one of these orders will have to come in some form of packaging. This problem is only exacerbated by copycat events that have gained popularity in recent years: 9.9, 10.10, and 12.12 are all reasons for everyday consumers to buy more, and buy more often. 

A few days a year of mega sales already generates a copious amount of waste, but the e-commerce industry is a well-oiled machine that never stops running, and the amount of waste produced has been steadily increasing even as it continues to grow. 

In 2018, the volume of packaging material used by the e-commerce and express delivery sector hit 9.4 billion kilograms. By 2025, the number is set to quadruple. Worse still, less than 10% of packaging waste was reported to be recycled in China, the largest consumer market in the world. In Singapore, the figures are no better. While there isn’t a specific breakdown on how much packaging material is recycled here, the recycling rate for plastic is only 4% according to the National Environment Agency

There’s no question that the plastic crisis is real, but the e-commerce industry doesn’t have to be part of the problem. Instead, they are in a prime position to spearhead the solutions we need to tackle this crisis, and some organisations are already stepping up to do their part. 

Efforts of the e-commerce industry

As part of their sustainability efforts, Alibaba has set up 40,000 recycling stations for unwanted shipping boxes and bags across China, with their express-courier partners hosting another 35,000, helping to recycle an estimated 100 million boxes annually. The e-commerce giant has also established 20 November as “National Cardboard Recycling Day” in China, and will roll out flash recycling drives across 220 neighbourhoods in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou on that day. 

To complement this recycling initiative, Alibaba has created a program to incentivise recycling amongst their consumers. For every box recycled at these stations, consumers can collate “green energy” points on Alipay’s mini-program Ant Forest. These points can then be redeemed to plant real trees in China’s most arid areas. 

They will also be introducing new innovations in packaging and encouraging the adoption of clean delivery vehicles and the use of analytics to optimise resources. 

Another major Chinese online retailer, JD.com, has also announced that it will reduce the use of adhesive tape and paper used at its warehouses and adopt more recyclable materials.

In Singapore, however, it seems that e-commerce platforms have yet to hop aboard sustainability efforts. In fact, the author of this Channel News Asia article suggested that Singaporeans in particular seem to value items that are well-packaged, with many reviews complimenting sellers when an item was packaged well. Sellers have also taken to ensuring that items have securely packaged, often in bubble wrap or multiple layers, to ensure it does not get damaged during transportation. 

Forbes proposes that what e-commerce players are sorely lacking is a solution to “the first mile” (how products are returned or recycled after use). A solution to this will allow us to create a circular economy within the industry, where materials can be recycled or reused after being delivered. 

Food delivery services are already rolling out initiatives for first-mile solutions. Local company Foodpanda has teamed up with barePack to launch a packaging reuse program, where food will be delivered in reusable containers that consumers can then return to selected locations islandwide. 

As the touchpoint between consumers and brands, Forbes suggests that e-commerce players are in the prime position to spearhead sustainable initiatives that are currently absent in the conversation about circular economy and plastic pollution. The resources and solutions already exist. As part of efforts to curb plastic pollution, World Wildlife Fund Singapore (WWF) launched Plastic Action (PACT) to help businesses across all sectors to eliminate plastic packaging and create a circular economy for plastics. Perhaps it is time for e-commerce businesses to join the PACT to make a change. 

Doing our part

On a consumer level, we too have a responsibility to hold the industry accountable. Popular consumer opinion has already seen Fairprice extending their plastic bag charge, it can similarly push local e-commerce players into taking action if consumers call for it. Green groups in the Philippines have already been pushing for e-commerce players Lazada and Shopee to take responsibility for the packaging waste they are producing. 

When it comes to the plastic crisis, we all have shared responsibility. Even as we call on industry players to do their part, we too have to examine and reassess our own consumption habits and preferences.

Opt for less packaging, buy in bulk to reduce the carbon footprint that comes with multiple deliveries, learn how to recycle packaging materials properly, and reuse them whenever possible. The many small actions we take can culminate to create a large positive impact.

The allure of e-commerce is undeniable — unparalleled convenience, economical prices, and an unprecedented variety of options — right at our fingertips. 

However, this convenience comes at a cost, one that is quickly rising. The account I shared at the beginning of this article about awaiting my many parcels? That was me a couple of years back. 

These days, I find myself being content with less, knowing that there is value in holding back. There’s nothing wrong with shopping, and scoring great deals still excites me, but for the sake of our planet (and our wallets!), it is perhaps wise to be more conscious of what we purchase and how often we do so.

 

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