Waste in Retail Packaging: A Brief Primer

Full disclosure: This article was particularly tough to write. Sure, the subject itself, waste in packaging, can be both depressing and difficult to describe. But on a more personal level, I had to come face-to-face with an inconvenient truth.

I was a major contributor to the waste problem. 

You see, I had converted to mostly online shopping following the birth of my first child.

Oof. As I did my research and typed my thoughts for this article, I could practically feel the hypocrisy coursing through my veins. But please, have a little mercy on me.

In the early days of motherhood, I succumbed to the sweet, sweet relief of knowing that clicking a single button would free me from the special hell of bringing an infant on an emergency wipes/food/gadget run.

I couldn’t help myself. I was tired, often at wit’s end. And that single click was oh-so-easy and irresistible. 

But with all those online purchases came waste—tons of it. I mean, we’re talking embarrassing amounts of cardboard boxes, plastic inserts, envelopes, and wrapping of all kinds. 

Over time, I’ve tried to reform my ways. I’ve consolidated my online purchases. I do returns, whenever possible, in the store itself. And, of course, I’m buying less stuff in general.

But then the pandemic, along with its massive “Work from Home” experiment, pushed my online shopping upward once again. In fact, it pushed OUR online shopping to its highest levels ever. Last month alone, online sales grew 76%, and with states and cities revisiting safety protocols, assume that number will continue to fluctuate through the balance of the year. 

In my household—and yours—we simply can’t escape this fact: The waste from retail packaging is both staggering and pervasive.  

Some Sobering Statistics

recent article from Fast Company cited that Amazon alone has shipped 5 billion items to its Prime members across the globe. In addition, USPS, FedEx, and UPS ship 165 billion packages annually, using a billion trees worth of cardboard. And a sorely depressing statistic from an Ellen MacArthur study states that by 2050, there could be more tons of plastic in the ocean than fish.

Clearly, packaging is one titanic problem. But how do we address it? Earlier this year, McKinsey released a report aptly titled “The Drive Toward Sustainability in Packaging—Beyond the Quick Wins.” This report identified the three primary approaches companies are using to reduce packaging waste: 

  1. Emphasizing full recyclability and a significantly higher degree of recycled content (60 percent of companies committed to sustainability practices)
  2. Reducing total plastics usage (26 percent) 
  3. Innovating and promoting change in the use of packaging (14 percent).

These approaches vary in both actual impacts, as well as scalability. Each of them also faces significant hurdles to overcome in terms of infrastructure and mindset. I’ll break down these concepts further in future articles, but for now, let’s end this post with a favorable trend: innovation in reusable packaging.

The Future of Reusable Packaging

For the most part, retailers have resisted the idea of reusable packaging, because it would mean changing their fulfillment infrastructure and processes. 

But this stubborn tide may slowly be turning. The market for reusable packaging is indeed growing. In 2019, Market Insight advised that the current market for reusable packaging is $225 billion and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.7% through 2024.

That $225 billion market is made up of companies such as LimeLoop, an innovative startup, which uses old billboards to create packaging that can be used over 200 times. 

And yet another reusable packaging supplier, RePack, was recently profiled in Fast Company. Currently, RePack has around 40 customers and says that demand has increased over the last year. “[The] circular economy as a concept made a breakthrough, followed by mass media picking up packaging waste,” says Jonne Hellgren, the company’s CEO. “Many e-commerce companies see that packaging waste is impacting customer behavior now and especially in the future. Packaging has become a strategic question, and companies are searching for solutions as they are looking to future-proof their businesses.”

So . . . perhaps we have reason for optimism. 

Next Up

We’ll take a closer look at how retailers, especially those who sell fashion, can reduce waste thorough product design, as well as the resale and sharing economies.