Recycling is improving and there is a trend towards lighter more compact packaging, but put simply there is just more stuff being shipped. In the long run, consumers will pay for the greater volume of packaging through higher product prices and increased fees for recycling.
Consumers concerned with excess packaging should urge retailers and e-commerce companies to minimise packaging and lobby local councils and state governments to apply pressure as well.
A pair of rubber thongs ordered online may be double-cushioned with bubble wrap and come in a box for a large toaster because the shipper is taking no chances. Under Australian law, an item damaged prior to transport is the responsibility of the manufacturer or retailer. If an item is damaged in transit, the transport company will likely have to pay.
Transport packaging can be added at different points – directly from a warehouse or retailer, or during shipping – further encouraging the use of bigger boxes and more bubble wrap because no one wants to be liable for damaged goods.
The Australian Retailers Association (ARA) says it doesn’t have any numbers to show that extra packaging is used for online purchases, but notes additional packaging is required to ensure goods are delivered intact. The ARA also says there is evidence that retailers are putting sustainability initiatives in place.
The ARA encourages retailers to find ways of using renewable products, including reviewing their use of packaging and plastic bags and using recyclable materials. It believes packaging becomes a problem when it can’t be recycled, and says major retailers and suppliers are collaborating to cut their use of packaging.
The federal government took action on packaging as far back as 1999, when the Australian Packaging Covenant (APC) was launched. Its aim was to reduce environmental impact through the recycling of packaging, as well as to come up with better packaging designs and thereby cut down on the resources needed to produce them.
The latest version of the covenant, which came into effect in July last year, asks industry and government to commit to reducing consumer packaging through lifecycle management. In effect, it requires signatories, including brand owners, retailers and re-processors, to take an environmentally conscious approach to how packaging is created, used and disposed of.
The APC secretariat looks after this, administering and overseeing the sustainable packaging goals. It questions whether packaging for online orders is any greater than for retail purchases since packaging is needed to transport products whether from a warehouse to stores or individuals. In its view, online or in-store purchases simply involve different combinations of packaging materials.
The chain of events is similar for both, the secretariat says. “Each sale involves primary packaging of the product, secondary (outer packaging, often a box) and tertiary packaging (transport packaging to and from the distribution centre or store), as well as a bag to get the product home. When an item is bought online, most of these needs still apply.”
CHOICE will look to the APC to include transport packaging requirements for retailers and shippers to work together to reduce the excess.