Excess package

As online shopping takes off, so does the amount of packaging in the system.
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01 .Who is responsible?


The rise and rise of online shopping means the amount of packaging material in the postal system is also rising.

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. 

This article looks at:

  • Chain of custody How extra packaging is often added because manufacturers and transport companies can be held liable.
  • Boxes breakdown A commitment by governments and industry to reduce consumer packaging.
  • Diverging views What packaging industry groups have to say about the situation.
For more information on Shopping, see Shopping and legal.

Chain of custody

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.

Boxes breakdown

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.


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Stakeholders on either side of the excess packaging issue tend to take different views.

The Packaging Council of Australia, which represents packaging suppliers, brand owners and manufacturers, maintains product packaging hasn’t increased. It argues companies are using less packaging to cut costs and that used packaging for recycling has become an internationally traded commodity – greatly increasing the incentive to recycle. 

But those who have to deal with the packing materials see things quite differently. 

The Waste Management Association of Australia agrees the universal goal of reducing the weight and cost of packaging is encouraging innovation, but says the increased volume of packaged goods being sold will likely counter any reduction. 

This could mean added costs for consumers. The association believes that if waste volume increases so does the cost of dealing with it, and these costs will be passed on to customers. 

Going green overseas

An innovative scheme called Green Dot operates in Europe for the recycling of consumer packaging. 

The Green Dot symbol shows consumers that the manufacturer of the product has contributed to the cost of the collection, sorting and recycling of the packaging. Manufacturers pay a licence fee based on the type of material used in the packaging. The aim is to encourage them to cut down on packaging.

Sticky stats

  • Australian consumer packaging measured 4,424,134 tonnes in 2010, and overall 62.5% was recycled.
  • About 45 million international parcels arrived into Australia in the past financial year.
  • Australia Post reports that international parcels arriving into Australia grew by 56% in the 2010-11 financial year.
  • In Europe, 460 billion packaging items are labelled each year with the Green Dot recycling logo.

Your say

Lucinda Curran: I buy fragile goods for work and they come bubble-wrapped and sticky-taped, and the box is overflowing with smelly static-filled polystyrene. 

Craig Wilson: I bought a soft first-aid bag the other day. The bag was in a clear plastic bag in a padded envelope inside an Express Post bag. Too many bags! 

Karin Griffin: We in the West need to wake up to ourselves and stop wasting valuable resources. There is necessary packaging and then there is total indulgent waste. 

Peter Brown: We hate the ever-increasing layers of packaging that the simplest things come in, such as soap wrapped in greased paper, cardboard and plastic. 

Kylie-Dean Paget: Quite a few online shops don’t have enough packaging. When they just use heat/shrink wrap, the item always arrives damaged, and often if the item has clear plastic windows on it, the heat from the wrapping melts the plastic on the item and makes it useless to give as a gift.

Your say - Choice voice

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