Buying and selling online has never been easier and with eCommerce growing from strength to strength, Mark Harper of HSM investigates and questions the sustainability issues around use of packaging material in online selling.
We live in a world where we can purchase almost anything online. From large eCommerce platforms to independent eRetailers, the web has become a sea of virtual storefronts and as consumers, we’re happy to continue buying.
In 2018 alone, all UK eCommerce sales combined to a staggering total of £688.bn, cementing an economy that shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, reports show that the share of online retail sales in 2019 grew to 19%, with that number predicted to rise to 34.5% by 2023. Those numbers pose an endless amount of deliveries and a monumental amount of packaging material to go with them.
If anything, this year has accelerated that predicted growth. With the pandemic keeping people inside; online sales have surged. But with an increasing amount of orders landing on everyone’s doorstep, we need to take a step back and question the sustainability of the use of packaging within the eCommerce industry.
Keeping up with demand
The rapid growth in eCommerce means that online retailers are fulfilling a significant amount of orders, all using packing materials. With that in mind, predictions at the beginning of this year highlighted that eCommerce packaging was expected to grow over three times faster than the market average, and that was before the effects of a global lockdown.
With large quantities of packing material and quick delivery systems at their disposal, leading online retailers can mostly take this into their stride. However, this continued growth does pose additional issues for the small and independent eRetailers. With tighter budgets and smaller facilities (if any at all) every order counts and the need to reduce waste is key, both financially and environmentally.
Speaking in terms of the environment, more consumers are becoming increasingly eco-conscious which is now giving organisations a new set of demands to meet. Consumers are often dismayed by the sheer quantities of new paper-based and plastic packaging that’s used to fill eCommerce deliveries. Soft plastic packaging in particular, such as bubblewrap, is not only problematic to dispose of (as it cannot be placed in domestic recycling bins) but it is also difficult to reduce in volume meaning it takes up bin space. Because of this and other issues with plastic packaging, the fight against plastic has attracted a large number of advocates in the past few years, prompting real change in various sectors.
With this movement, packaging plants and their smaller counterparts have made a conscious effort to seek alternatives in the move away from plastic. Yet, this too poses potential sustainability issues. Now synonymous with our online deliveries, cardboard has become the go-to alternative to plastic packaging, so much so that 241 million tons of shipping boxes and other paper based packaging is produced yearly.
The increased volume of primary cardboard packaging also leads to an increase in waste. According to reports, between 15 and 40 percent of online purchases are returned which leaves online sellers with mountains of used cardboard. Not only can this put a financial strain on eRetailers, but it also puts a strain on the environment. Recognising this issue, we’re beginning to see supermarkets reduce the amount of cardboard they use in a bid to raise efficiency in their e-fulfillment operations. But how can smaller set ups follow in their footsteps?
Striving towards sustainability
Despite the ongoing sustainability pressures that eCommerce is facing around packaging, there are remedies readily available. From reducing the overall use of packaging material to converting to more sustainable materials, decision makers can actively change their impact on the environment, whilst positively affecting the financial and reputational aspects of their operation.
Many online sellers can benefit from what is cited as ‘closed loop recycling’. This process is described as the recycling of waste with the purpose of processing it into something new. By introducing a closed loop system, eCommerce organisations can recycle their used packing materials, saving money on what would otherwise be spent on additional new packaging.
Smart packaging solutions such as cardboard perforators are designed to turn waste into packaging material and are now more commonly available to online retailers. By perforating used cardboard offcuts and producing recycled packaging that is easily recycled itself, these machines are giving fulfillment teams the option to once again positively contribute to the protection of our environment.
As the eCommerce industry grows from strength to strength, the use of cardboard perforators could also act as a lifeline to thousands of smaller and independent sellers. With some online sellers expecting a flurry of returns after Covid-19 restrictions ease, these machines can deal with the excess of used cardboard. Furthermore, with peak periods piling additional pressure on some, perforated cardboard can become an effective, instant and more sustainable packaging alternative, removing the wait time and additional costs associated with purchased packing material, which is likely to rise in price as the industry booms.
Sustainable packaging is crucial to all modern supply chains, including those founded online. And as the world of eCommerce continues to evolve at a rapid pace, it’s now more important than ever for eRetailers to keep up with modern demands.
Put simply, sustainability isn’t a trend that’s going to disappear anytime soon. If anything, the views of our modern society is further igniting the flames of positive change. So, with smart packaging solutions offering a solution, is there any excuse not to use this time to adapt to a more sustainable future?