Is the time right to make your eCommerce packaging plastic free?

Is the time right to make your eCommerce packaging plastic free?


The problems that single-use plastics cause to the environment and wildlife, particularly in marine habitats, are well documented and have come to the forefront of public awareness in recent years. 

Shocking images of plastic waste clogging up rivers and seas and campaigning from the likes of Sir David Attenborough have demonstrated how destructive everyday items like a coffee cup or plastic bag that persists for centuries in the ecosystem can be.

Although there have been notable changes to consumer behaviour (more and more people carry a jute bag for groceries or have a reusable cup for their morning coffee on the go), the use of plastic materials is still widespread. And one offending sector, when it comes to single-use plastic, is eCommerce and all the packaging required for safe deliveries and returns.


Single-use plastic pervades eCommerce

Consider your own operations. Packing tape is almost inevitably plastic, the inside of your padded envelopes will likely be made of plastic too. See also packing peanuts, postage sacks, bubble wrap and like. Although biodegradable and compostable alternatives are available, and reuse and recycling often possible, packaging often includes plastic that won’t degrade for many hundreds of years.  

Industry observers are adamant that sustainable eCommerce packaging will see a substantial increase in volumes over the next 5 years. A 2019 Smithers Pira report shows that the total volume of sustainable packaging materials in eCommerce will grow from $32.9 billion in 2018 and almost double in five years to reach $63.3 billion in 2023. 80% of the sector, they predict, will be in corrugated cardboard that has been made with recycled material or can be recycled or reused.

With eCommerce, customer surveys suggest that the demand is growing for greener, more sustainable packing products. But retailers have not detected a corresponding willingness to pay extra for it. Anecdotal evidence we hear at ZigZag generally suggests consumers make noises about wanting to ‘go green’ but that isn’t matched with a corresponding willingness to dig deep. 

Some consumers, it seems, also prefer the utility and convenience of plastic products regardless of the environmental cost. Fast-food retailer McDonald’s experienced an online backlash in April 2019 when 35,000 diners signed a petition protesting about their change to paper straws rather than plastic because the new one dissolved in their drinks. To give a sense of the scale, the burger chain gives out over 12 million straws a week.



What is Amazon doing?

Amazon is always a useful first stop when considering an eCommerce issue because they approach everything in a strategic, data-driven manner and are not afraid to experiment and invent solutions. They have a scale that means that they can actually change the online retailing landscape, not just respond to it.

Most of packaging used by Amazon itself, rather than 3P merchants selling via the marketplace, is cardboard. The sleeves for media products, and the boxes for everything else, are recyclable or reusable for returns. They prefer brown paper from rolls as wadding inside parcels and don’t use plastic packing peanuts. Even the tape they use appears to be made from paper and strengthened with plastic mesh. 

Amazon says as a company that they “obsess’ about packaging and getting it right and when they “introduced Frustration-Free Packaging in 2008, an innovation designed to reduce waste and delight customers with easy-to-open, 100% recyclable packaging.”


Should you consider sustainable packaging for dispatches and returns?

Perhaps the most compelling argument to consider eliminating single-use plastic from your packaging is that regulation is almost certainly coming that will compel business to adopt more sustainable practices over time. 

Both the British government and the European Union are understood to be considering taxes and an outright ban. The 5p plastic bag fee levy in the UK has proven to be highly effective and in 2020 it will rise to 10p and encompass all retailers.

It is estimated that since it was introduced in 2015, for retailers with at least 250 employees, 15 billion bags nationally haven’t been used as people have learnt to take a reusable bag when they shop. 

Such a ‘nudge’ levy would be more difficult to implement with eCommerce packaging. What seems much more probable will be a tax on single-use plastics that will be paid directly by merchants with associated costs passed on indirectly to the end consumer.

One benefit of such a levy will be a clarification of terms that are currently hazy. Words to describe materials that are supposedly ‘eco-friendly’, ‘sustainable’ or most confusingly ‘green’ will require a much more stringent and clear labelling regime to help consumers make their choices. It will also help retailers who want to boast about their environmental credentials.

The EU published more ambitious plans in 2018 saying that all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030 and the consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced. Currently, the EU says that every year Europeans generate 25 million tonnes of plastic waste but less than 30% is collected for recycling.


Ongoing review of your packaging is good practice

As the adoption of plastic-free packaging increases and the technology and production processes improve, prices will fall. Any regulation, be it from the UK government or the EU (remember even after Brexit you may still be impacted by EU regulations if you send to the EU or hold stock there), will come with plenty of notice because governments work slowly in comparison to online retail.

But it is obvious and inevitable that legislation will come and it will pay to well-informed about the options available to your business and be ready to adjust when it does. But that’s good business practice in any case. A watching brief and a regular review of the cost and suitability of your dispatch and returns packaging make sense for any lean and effective eCommerce operation.