With the whole world at our fingertips in online stores and available to be put in the cart, the world is facing a completely new situation: what happens to all the packaging material?
We order online faster than we can put shoes on to run to the store, and ordering online has become increasingly popular over the years . Recent years have only added to this, and in 2020, more than two billion people purchased goods or services online. Globalisation and most recently the Covid-19 pandemic have ensured that anything can and will be ordered online and shipped to one’s doorstep. While e-commerce solves many issues, we can’t escape the CO2 emissions resulting from ordering online and all the parcels that need to be recycled.
Before we play the blame game, brick and mortar shopping isn’t so innocent either. When the emissions of shipping to the shops, keeping shops warm and lit and the emissions of everyone going to them are combined, there is no clear winner on what’s more sustainable – visiting the shop or ordering online.
From a sustainability perspective, this begs at least two questions. Can the world handle the emissions created by online shopping? And what happens to all the packages used in shipping?
Is environmentally sustainable packaging in the era of e-commerce possible?
According to the World Economic Forum, the whole sphere of online ordering created 19 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2019. In 2030, this number is expected to grow to 25 million tonnes, which also creates pressure on what happens to all the packaging materials.
To keep the world afloat in terms of packaging material, recycling the existing material is vital. The rise of online shopping and increased amount of packaging beg for a greater focus on the afterlife of the packaging material. In the good old days of brick and mortar, shops would take care of the packaging materials and recycling the corrugated cardboard used in wholesale. This responsibility now falls on consumers and is leading to a pressing issue.
Not enough corrugated board is being recycled, because we consumers don’t recycle as effectively as the shops. Traditionally corrugated board has been the most recycled material in Europe. In 2020, almost 90% of cardboard was recycled in the US. But with an increasing number of boxes now going to the homes of consumers, how can they be better recycled and utilised?
Luckily, there are also solutions to encourage the recycling of corrugated cardboard boxes. Launched by Amazon, Give Back Box offers consumers an opportunity not only to recycle empty boxes, but to fill them with other donations too. Amazon then takes the box and recycles it and coordinates the contents with local charities like Goodwill.
Wanted: solutions to encourage recycling of packaging material
To summarise: we order online quite a bit, but don’t get around to recycling enough of the packaging material. However, the situation isn’t that bleak, and many solutions are already blossoming. Returning packages to use is one thing, but forward-thinking innovations are also taking place in how the items are packaged in the first place.
Amazon’s Frustration Free Packaging programme partnered with many companies to reduce packaging waste. Tide Eco-Box has switched to boxes and uses about 60% less plastic and 30% less water than the previous packaging. Through the same programme, Hasbro has reduced the amount of packaging material by 50% for products like Baby Alive, and the products are now shipped in their original packaging rather than additional shipping boxes.
Storopack has introduced a sustainable and easily recycled alternative to traditional air bubble wrap, which is especially suitable for shipping sensitive and small products. Meanwhile, Thimm has created a new locking system made from sustainable corrugated board. This ecological alternative protects shipping packaging from unauthorised opening and can also be used for the secondary packaging to give extra protection.
Samsung is repurposing their packaging, and when purchasing a TV, you can decide to repurpose the corrugated box into a bookshelf, magazine rack or cat house, for example. Bubeck Petfood have partnered with DS Smith for delivery, and the bottom part of the shipping packaging can be converted into a dog basket – made completely of corrugated cardboard!
Sounds pretty cool, right? On top of this, many companies are developing different reusable containers and packaging options that can keep on circulating and create minimal waste, such as Loop and RePack. Other companies like Amazon and DS Smith are focusing on minimising the void space in transporting packages and thus saving on packaging materials.
There’s plenty of development going on in packaging sustainability in e-commerce, but we consumers also need to play our part!
Here are three handy tips for what we consumers can do:
- When you’ve received your packages, remember to recycle them properly according to your local guidelines. The packages are valuable raw material that can be reused.
- When ordering something online, pay attention to what the store says about their packaging and shipping options. In an increasing number of places, you can choose a reusable packaging option. If you come across over packaging or a package that is impossible to recycle, speak up!
- If you don’t feel like recycling them just yet, use them for a fun craft project around the house with the kids or as an obstacle course for your pet! But remember to recycle the packages properly once the crafts or games are over.
Simulation offers new ways to test packaging solutions with virtual prototyping
What is Dassault Systemés? How are your simulations used?
Dassault Systemés is a 40-year-old scientific technology company that started as a spin-off from the Dassault Aviation industry. We started from 3D design and moved to digital mock up then the entire product lifecycle management. In 2012 we launched 3DEXPERIENCE Platform enabling our clients from ideation, modelling, simulation through to manufacturing. Our technology solutions help our clients and partners to create new products and services using virtual experiences.
How can the knowledge of simulations be brought to the packaging industry? What new insight or ways of working could be implemented?
In the past the packaging industry has required a physical prototype of each new box designed. Covid has made this challenging over the past years, but being able to create a prototype virtually, and enabling industries to create virtual prototyping centers offers very great benefits and new opportunities for the packaging industry.
Different ways of applying simulation technology & process expertise for example in domains such as thermal & weight stress analysis, and for instance simulating different drop tests of new packaging can provide valuable insight. When this is taken into consideration in design choices as early as possible, it saves both time and money, and makes it possible for the products to enter the market faster.
In which ways could packages be made more sustainable and better fitting to the needs of e-commerce, using Dassault’s 3D simulation?
Compared to a few years ago, recyclability and decarbonisation are big topics in the packaging industry. The amount of plastic is concerning, and many brands are taking action to find alternatives. 3D simulation can be a great way for instance to find the optimal material science and formulation for a new packaging solution.
When you think about yourself as a consumer what is a sustainable packaging in your opinion, especially when thinking about e-commerce?
I look for the ability to recycle the packaging. Especially at supermarkets I look at the way food is packaged and sold and look for brands that are limiting their packaging to a sensible level.
As consumers, have you seen a brand taking on the challenge of improving packages in an inspiring and proactive way?
Both as a consumer and as an industry professional Metsä Board has really impressed me with the changes they have made to their processes and truly creating a Virtual Twin for their packaging product lifecycle. The level of change so quickly has been really inspiring to watch and the benefits are clear to see in terms of way faster designing better products, improving quality, creating new efficiencies and productivity, improving business resilience and ultimately creating new business models. Metsä and Dassault Systemes are truly aligned in terms of their joint leadership from a business sustainability perspective.