If you don’t have room in your blue bin, you are not alone. The growing popularity of online purchases is resulting in more corrugated at curbside, and in some cases, higher trash bills. Online sales increased almost 25% last year, resulting in more, smaller corrugated boxes ending up in the municipal waste stream.
NBC News recently visited Recology’s "Recycle Central" plant on San Francisco’s Pier 96. Each day, San Francisco’s waste hauler processes 625 tons of recyclables, including greater than 100 tons of cardboard at the location. Robert Reed, a spokesperson for Recology, told NBC that collected material "used to be grayish, like the color of newspapers and magazines. And now it’s more brown or cardboard in color, from all these boxes." Some people in the recycling industry refer to it as the "Amazon Effect."
To adjust to the sea of brown, Recology modified its plant year, including the installation of new machinery to help it more efficiently separate cardboard from other material. That $11.6 million facility upgrade was one of the factors behind Recology’s recent request for a collection rate hike of around 14%. Another challenge for the company is in reconfiguring its fleet to adjust to the changing material mix.
Recology currently operates single-chamber trucks for compost, as well as split-chamber vehicles for trash and recycling. A proposed redeployment would see Recology use the single-chamber models for recycling to accommodate increased volume and the split chamber trucks for the garbage and organics. It is also looking to create 23 new routes to service new San Francisco businesses and apartment buildings.
The swell of corrugated is being experienced in other parts of the country as well, as local material recovery facilities struggle to adjust to changes in the waste stream. Austin, Texas has experienced a 30% jump in corrugated volume over the last year. And in Minnesota and western Wisconsin alone, the United States Postal Service alone delivered 83 million packages to residences last year. Across the country, USPS package deliveries are up 65 percent since 2009.
The challenge expands beyond corrugated, however, as brands incorporate a variety of packaging materials, including specialty wraps, designed to differentiate their products and delight customers, and which are quickly relegated to the waste stream.
"The whole thing (the unboxing experience) lasts a maximum of 2-3 minutes," Brendon Babenzien of Noah, a fashion company, wrote recently in a blog post. "That’s a lot of waste for what is essentially a mini dose of drugs, a transient feeling that what we just bought, or the company we bought it from, is somehow superior." Consumers can struggle to know whether such materials are recyclable.
In San Francisco, Recology is asking householders to help by making sure they accurately separate recyclable materials from trash. It is also asking people to flatten their boxes so that more of them fit in the bin as well as on the truck. Some experts are advising online shoppers make their voices heard by telling suppliers to eliminate unnecessary packaging.
One solution that just might make sense for reducing the trash generation associated with online purchases is through using reusable packaging. In Finland, a company called RePack has established a reusable packaging system for home deliveries. When products are removed, the customer drops the empty packaging into the closest mailbox, from which it is returned to RePack by the postal service. A recent post from RePack says that the carbon footprint of a RePack shipment is up to 80% lower than for disposable e-commerce envelopes or boxes.
Amazon itself has acknowledged "The Amazon Effect" and is working to be a part of the solution along with other major retailers like Overstock.com. The Give Back Box program encourages online shoppers to use their old shipping boxes to pack items they’d like to send for donation to local charities in need. Shoppers can visit landing pages for their chosen online retailers, like Amazon, to request free shipping labels to donate using their Amazon boxes.
Reusable packaging systems can be an excellent way to eliminate solid waste generation and reduce carbon footprint when an effective reverse logistics system has been established. Online retailers need to look no further than the example of IFCO RPCs in the fresh produce supply chain. They have been proven to deliver an 85 to 86% reduction in solid waste versus single-use corrugated containers, as well as a 29 to 31% reduction in CO2 and global warming potential.
While the future of reusable packaging for online purchases remains to be seen as cities struggle with the Amazon Effect, RPCs for the perishable supply chain have already proven to be a valuable tool for reducing solid waste and supporting corporate sustainability initiatives.