Online shopping makes life easier for consumers, but what happens to all the extra delivery boxes, wrapping and padding that goes with it?

  • In 2012, almost 1.6 million tonnes of consumer packaging went to landfill.
  • Packaging is one of the main culprits of litter.
  • The overall recycling rate for consumer packaging was 63.8% in 2012.

The volume of packaging material in the postal system has grown with the increasing popularity of online shopping. A few clicks and a new pair of shoes, iPad or camera is on its way – but, so too is all the plastic, foam, paper and cardboard that it's packed in.

Retailers and transit companies don't want to take responsibility for damaged products so the easy answer is to bulk up the buffer of packaging.

The cost to the environment and to you

All this extra material is costing money and creating a new problem: how to re-use and recycle it once it's been discarded. 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.

Environmental organisations like Planet Ark have lots of information on recycling if you want to understand the size of the problem.

The packaging custody battle

A pair of rubber thongs ordered online may be double-cushioned with bubble wrap and come in a larger-than-necessary box because the shipper is taking no chances. Consumers will rightly complain if their new purchase is damaged when it's delivered – and no one wants to be held responsible. Excess packaging is a way to limit any damage to goods in the chain of custody as your new item travels from the warehouse or retailer to you.

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. Consumers will usually turn to the retailer for a replacement, but the retailer will want to shift the responsibility to the transit company.

Transport packaging can be added at different points – directly from a warehouse or retailer, or during shipping – which further encourages the use of bigger boxes and more bubble wrap because no one wants to be liable for damaged goods.

The Australian Retailers Association (ARA) encourages retailers to review their use of packaging and plastic bags, and to use 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.

Packaging control by covenant

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 covenant 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 the covenant, administering and overseeing the sustainable packaging goals.

The latest version of the covenant, which came into effect in July 2010, asks industry and government to commit to reducing consumer packaging through lifecycle management.

Is over-packaging getting worse?

Not everyone agrees that packaging is on the rise. The APC secretariat questions whether packaging for online orders is any greater than for retail purchases. In its view, online or in-store purchases simply require different combinations of packaging materials.

"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."

The 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 organisation also says there is evidence that retailers are putting sustainability initiatives in place.

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

However, those who have to deal with the packing materials see things quite differently. The Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA) 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.

The result of this is the added cost for consumers and the environmental impact of these materials being produced and eventually going back to landfill. The WMAA believes that if waste volume increases, so does the cost of dealing with it, and these costs will be passed on to customers. Councils dealing with kerbside recycling and rubbish disposal feed the costs back to households by way of higher rates.

Going green overseas

In Europe, an innovative scheme called Green Dot recovers 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.

CHOICE readers share their packaging gripes

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."