Reusable is the new recycling for eCommerce packaging
In February 2020 the richest person in the world, Jeff Bezos, pledged $10 billion of his Amazon fortune to fighting the climate emergency with the foundation of his Bezos Earth Fund initiative.
This enormous donation didn’t attract universal praise. In fact, critics on social media said the billionaire should start closer to home and commit to using less packaging on all the many millions of Amazon parcels that the marketplace and retailer sends out every day.
One tweet responding to the announcement wrote: “If #Bezos wants to do something for the world, he can start with his excessive packaging. Amazon shipping is the most wasteful of any retailer out there. Is junking up the world with plastics part of #BezosEarthFund?”.
Amazon is already committed to using recyclable and recycled packaging but that doesn’t seem to matter to the critics. Amazon came under fire and that signals the change that has occurred in recent years regarding climate change and the environmental damage caused by single use plastic.
Reuseable vs recyclable
There are various carbon conscious and lower waste mantras that involve “Rs”. The best known is “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.” Others include different and additional Rs. Such as Refuse, as in declining to accept some packaging options at all. Others are: Renovate Repair and Rot.
Increasingly, recycling is seen as the least attractive waste management strategy. Campaigners point out that recycling is flawed because it comes at a carbon cost. Recycling does little to reduce initial demand and then the mechanics of the recycling (transportation, cleaning and transformation into a new product or material) are carbon intensive.
Recycling might mean that waste doesn’t enter the ecosystem (as highlighted by David Attenborough in his Blue Planet series) and also doesn’t need to go to landfill. But the process of taking your old jam jar or beer can and making either into something else produces more CO2 than simply reusing an item in its original form.
Here comes the Circular Economy
Dame Ellen Macarthur is best known for her record-breaking exploits sailing yachts. She made the yachting history books by becoming the fastest solo sailor to circumnavigate the globe in 2005 and she is still the UK’s most successful offshore racer. And that seafaring experience in the planet’s polluted oceans has led Dame Ellen to promote more sustainable ways of living and making best use of planet Earth’s finite resources through her foundation.
It promotes the notion of a circular economy which is explained on her website like this: “A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.”
The concept of a circular economy is at odds with the retail and commercial model we understand and utilise daily. If you consider your eCommerce business in general terms, you take goods or make goods, market and sell them and then dispatch them to the buyer. And once you have a happy customer, your work is done.
A circular economy philosophy means that the retailer or producer doesn’t bow out at the moment a product is received, used or consumed by the end recipient. Responsibility remains with the producer and retailer to deal with any resulting waste, pollution, recycling or disposal of the product down the line. And that includes the delivery packaging as well as the product itself.
ZigZag’s returns management solution enables both retailers and consumers to play a role in supporting the circular economy. Not only does the platform get goods back on the shelves quickly by selling on in local markets, which is crucial for fast fashion items, it also has Take Back functionality. Retailers can allow environmentally conscious consumers to donate their clothes to charities or recycling schemes.
Reusable packaging in action
There are numerous examples of reusable packaging (think of deposits on fizzy drinks bottles or leaving your milk bottles on the doorstep: it’s not a new idea) and Repack offers reusable packaging for eCommerce companies and is already in use by retailers, such as Zalando.
Products are sent out in durable and reusable packages that can be used dozens of times. When the shopper gets the parcels, they just need to drop the used packaging back into the post and it goes back to Repack for reuse. The packaging is designed to be easily and compactly folded up for return carriage. And, obviously, if a shopper wants to make a return they can use the delivery package for that too.
More and more companies are using companies like Repack as they take steps towards becoming more environmentally friendly. Priory Direct and Britdon are two more innovative and sustainable packaging companies becoming increasingly popular with eCommerce retailers. Priory Direct’s catalogue boasts thousands of eco-friendly mailing options used by some of retail’s biggest brands whilst Britdon are continually adding products to their “Extremely Green” range of 100% plastic free, recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable envelopes.
Prepare now, regulation will intensify
At the moment, most moves away from single-use plastics by business are voluntary and driven by brand concerns or consumer pressure. But it seems likely that adoption will increase in the years to come due to regulatory pressures.
Obviously, nationally enforced charges for supermarket plastic bags are already commonplace in Europe and have been hugely successful in reducing the number of bags used. But it seems likely that other charges and possible taxes could be introduced for single use plastic items.
The Europe Union is already discussing a tax on single use plastic or even a complete ban. In the March 2020 Budget proposed by the UK government, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak unveiled new tax penalties on plastics. From 2022, manufacturers and importers will be charged £200 per tonne in tax on packaging made of less than 30% recycled plastic as an incentive to recycle more and discourage plastic use generally.
Survey after survey says that people are willing to pay more for more planet conscious practices, packaging but experience doesn’t necessarily suggest that to be the case. It may well take government nudges to bring about significant changes in behaviour.