As China’s e-commerce giants generate hundreds of billions of yuan in sales from Monday’s “Double 11” shopping extravaganza, environmental groups are reminding consumers that online shopping comes at a cost to the planet.
The country’s e-commerce and express delivery sectors used a whopping 9.4 million tons of packing materials last year, with the courier sector producing an estimated 13 million tons of carbon emissions, according to a report by three environmental NGOs whose release was timed to coincide with the world’s largest shopping fest. A business-as-usual scenario will see both sectors churn out an estimated 41.3 million tons of packaging annually by 2025, the report said.
Although some 80% of paper-based packaging waste gets recycled, plastic packaging is not recycled 95% of the time, the report found. In urban areas, most plastic mixes with other kinds of solid waste and ends up in either landfills or incinerators.
The report, co-published by Greenpeace East Asia, Break Free From Plastic China, and the All-China Environment Federation, also takes aim at the “limited” efforts made by e-commerce and delivery companies to address their mounting waste problems. “Superficially” green initiatives like narrowing the plastic tape used on parcels and rolling out digital ordering systems “obviously do not get to the core of the issue,” the study found.
The report makes a number of recommendations on how to reduce packaging waste. Lawmakers should speed up legislation demanding or incentivizing sustainable packaging practices like reusable containers, and the introduction of national standards could clamp down on wasteful behaviors like overpackaging and the use of harmful or single-use materials, researchers say.
In addition, they suggest that companies recognize they are responsible for the entire life cycles of the packaging materials they use, and that consumers actively seek information about the sustainability of the delivery services they use.
Tang Damin, a Beijing-based plastics campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia, urged Chinese tech companies to adopt more creative approaches to packaging waste. “I’m curious who will be the first to step forward with a bold idea,” he told Caixin. “Chinese people aren’t the consumerist stereotype that ‘Singles Day’ sells,” he said, using another name for Double 11. “They want something more.”
Tang also called on the government to adapt its direct approach to nudge the e-commerce sector toward greener packaging practices. “The state’s hands-on role will be a huge factor in industry response,” he said. “Currently, there’s no real requirement for e-commerce or delivery companies to address this waste problem.”
When asked about the environmental impact of its packaging waste, Cainiao, the Alibaba-controlled logistics affiliate that handles deliveries for the e-commerce giant’s shopping platforms, told Caixin that the company values sustainability and is working to make the sector more environmentally friendly.
Cainiao has already rolled out a number of successful initiatives to combat packaging waste, including its self-developed smart-packaging algorithm, e-shipping labels, and cooperative agreements with merchants to reduce plastic use, the company added.
JD.com, China’s second-largest e-commerce company, declined to comment directly on the study. But it referred Caixin to an October announcement that the company had joined the Science Based Targets Initiative, a global campaign designed to promote corporate action on climate change.
Contact reporter Matthew Walsh (firstname.lastname@example.org)