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How to reduce packaging waste in ecommerce

illustration of a cardboard shipping box with arrows surrounding it

[Updated post from March 21, 2021]

Ecommerce provides consumers with unparalleled choice and convenience. So, it’s hardly surprising that we’re flocking to online shopping sites more than ever before.

But there’s a dark side to this accessibility. The more packages that arrive on our doorsteps, the more packaging and plastic waste that ends up in landfills – and in the ocean. 

Excessive packaging, plastic packaging, non-recyclable packaging…we’ve all experienced these first-hand during our online shopping journeys. But as consumers grow more conscious about sustainability, the environmental impact of ecommerce packaging is becoming a bigger sticking point. 

In this post, we’re going to discuss why packaging waste is a growing problem in ecommerce – and what brands can do to avoid contributing to the problem.

Statistics about packaging waste

So, just how bad is the packaging waste epidemic? Let’s take a look:

Why packaging waste is on the rise in ecommerce

Ecommerce packaging is already filling up our recycling bins and trash – and it’s set to get worse due to several factors that are exacerbating the waste problem:

More online sales = more packaging waste

The ecommerce sector has been experiencing steady growth for several years. But the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an acceleration in online sales that nobody could have predicted. 

In 2020, global ecommerce sales jumped to $4.2 trillion from just $3.3 trillion in 2019, a clear sign of how the pandemic saw consumer shopping habits shift away from traditional retail and physical stores. This appears likely to stick, with ecommerce sales forecast to grow by 50% over the next four years, according to Statista.

In sum, extremely high order volumes are the ‘new normal’ for ecommerce – and more orders mean growing levels of packaging waste. 

Split shipments

A split shipment is when a multi-item order is split into separate packages for shipping to the end customer, rather than being sent altogether. This usually occurs when the requested items are not present in the same warehouse, or because the order is too large to fit onto any of the containers used for shipping. 

Thanks to DIM weight now being used to calculate shipping rates, it often works out as cheaper for brands to send out a couple of smaller parcels, instead of one large one that takes up more space. However, this doesn’t take into account the cost of fulfilling each order – and how much extra packaging is required.

Thanks to the rise of multi-node fulfillment strategies to help shorten delivery timeframes, split shipments have become more common, which isn’t good news for environmental impact.

If a customer receives their order in two or even three separate deliveries, this means double or triple the amount of packaging that would have been required for a consolidated order – and double or triple the amount of packaging waste. 

The rise of bracketing

No matter how many orders your business ships out, there’s always going to be a certain percentage that bounces back into the warehouse. Persistently high return rates are native to online retail, thanks to the difficulty of purchasing products that consumers have neither seen nor tried. 

There’s one trend in particular that’s contributing to rapidly increasing return rates; the practice of ‘bracketing’ online purchases.

Bracketing’, also known as ‘try before you buy’, is when a consumer purchases multiple versions of the same item to try or test out at home. This is particularly common in the fashion and apparel categories, where many product variants exist for size and color. 

Bracketing is entirely logical from a consumer standpoint. Nobody wants to accidentally buy the wrong product and then spend weeks trying a arrange a return and exchange for a different size. It’s far easier to buy several versions at once, and then simply return what you don’t need. 

However, bracketing creates difficulties for online sellers in more ways than one. As well as processing a higher rate of returns and difficulty forecasting demand, bracketing also requires more packaging materials to be used per order – creating more ecommerce packaging waste.

For example, if a customer buys a t-shirt, the merchant can ship this out in a single mailer bag. But if they choose to buy a couple of extra sizes or colors, this may require a box along with packing filler and corrugated cardboard inserts. This results in more packaging being used – and ultimately discarded – by the merchant or customer. 

Packaging isn’t designed with sustainability in mind

What do we do with packaging when an online order arrives on our doorstep? 

Answer: We throw it straight in the trash.

Here, we come to the heart of what is perpetuating ecommerce packaging waste; that most ecommerce packaging simply isn’t designed with sustainability in mind. 

In the typical online shopping journey, packaging has a single purpose – to get the order safely to the end customer. Once this purpose has been fulfilled, the packaging has no further use.

This is known as a ‘linear economy’, where items move through a one-way process of production, use, and disposal. Naturally, this is the very opposite of sustainability.

By moving towards a circular packaging economy, where resources are continually repurposed or renewed to provide ongoing value, merchants can reduce packaging waste and create a much greener ecommerce sector.

So, what does a circular economy for ecommerce packaging look like?

Why ecommerce brands should reduce packaging waste

As the face of your brand, packaging design is a key area of focus for consumers who are trying to assess how eco-friendly you are. 

According to the Global Sustainability Study 2021, 85% of respondents globally have adjusted their purchasing habits to become more sustainable in the past five years. Moreover, 60% of consumers also say that sustainability is a key factor in choosing products and brands.

Wasteful packaging, to put it simply, is now bad for business. If your brand wants to be on the pulse of what consumers are looking for, then a sustainable packaging design that reduces packaging waste is essential.

4 strategies to reduce packaging waste in ecommerce

1. Stop over-packaging

At some point, we’ve all been on receiving end of an excessively-packaged online purchase. This is the moment when you find a huge box sitting on your doorstep – only to find upon opening it that the item inside could have fitted into a container many times smaller. 

Excessive packaging is one of consumers’ biggest pet peeves about online shopping, with almost a fifth of customers saying that it negatively impacts the brand experience. So common is this situation that over-packaging has become something of an online phenomenon, with Reddit threads like ‘Egregious Packaging’ creating a space for consumers to share their biggest ‘packaging fails’:

two pictures showing the large shipping box used one small product
A ‘packaging fail’ featured on Reddit.

It’s not hard to see why consumers find over-packaging frustrating. The more packaging that your business uses to fulfill online orders, the more packaging waste your customers will have to dispose of upon delivery. 

When consumers are taking steps to be more sustainable, experiences like this can feel like direct sabotage. In the age of social media, this isn’t good for your brand’s reputation.

So, why does over-packaging happen? Usually, it’s because of a mismatch between a merchant’s product catalog and the packaging materials available at their warehouse or 3PL. If new packaging blueprints aren’t made as SKUs come in, staff are left trying to pack small items into too-large containers – and wasting huge volumes of air pillows, polystyrene, and paper to cushion items from damage.

Over-packaging can be prevented by making sure that you have a variety of container sizes at your disposal, including mailer bags for small items that aren’t appropriate to send in boxes. This reduces the amount of packing filler you need to use. 

Amazon is particularly notorious for over-packaging, but has made moves to improve in this area. In 2008, they launched their ‘frustration-free packaging’ initiative to reduce packaging waste. Since 2015, Amazon reduced the weight of outbound packaging by over 36% and eliminated more than 1 million tons of packaging material – the equivalent of 2 billion shipping boxes.

2. Minimize plastics use

You’re probably not surprised to see this one pop up. Plastic continues to be one of the biggest contributors of packaging waste, with enough plastic packaging thrown away every year to circle the globe four times over. 

Your average ecommerce package isn’t just a cardboard box, but a smorgasbord of bubble wrap, air pillows, and corrugated fiberboard. This has to be disposed of somehow, and consumers are not left with many options aside from general waste.

The impact of these single-use plastics is not exactly a secret in 2022, but what about ‘recyclable’ plastic packaging? 

The quotemarks are in place for a reason; while recyclable packaging does exist, there remains a serious lack of transparency over the process.

As scrutiny over plastic packaging waste increases, grocery store chains and big-box retailers including Walmart have begun implementing recyclable soft plastics into their supply chains. However, this is not as benign as it may seem.

For example, many counties and states with the United States don’t allow for the curbside recycling of soft plastics because it requires specialist systems to sort. This means most soft plastics go straight into the landfill – a major blow for conscious consumers trying to do the right thing.

In fact, Greenpeace filed a lawsuit against Walmart in 2020, alleging that the recycling labels on its packaging were deceptive because customers were unable to access suitable recycling facilities.

For retailers and merchants, this brings up the question of responsibility; is it fair to make your choice of packaging your customer’s problem? Placing the onus on the consumer to deal with waste management is a long-running strategy by major corporate brands, but this is starting to wear thin (if the Walker’s Crisps controversy in the UK is anything to go by).

So, what can you do to reduce your reliance on plastic packaging?

Paper-based packaging is a great replacement for plastic when it becomes to wrapping or cushioning objects. Paper is a recyclable material, easy to source, and relatively cost-effective. It also gives product packaging a much more high-end appearance, which is great for enhancing the customer experience. 

A study by the Paper and Packaging Board found that 71% of consumers were more likely to buy brands that package their products in paper or cardboard, while 63% said that paper and cardboard packaging makes a product seem premium or high quality. 

Of course, paper packaging alone isn’t a complete solution. Although renewable, some 3 billion trees are harvested every year to meet our packaging needs – a rate that makes its sustainability questionable. That’s why it’s important to look for FSC-certified packaging products that ensure sustainable practices surrounding harvesting, labor, and emissions.

cardboard mailers used to send orders for cherish studio co.

Cherish Studio co. uses 100% recyclable craft mailers to send online orders to customers. It’s sturdy enough to protect orders in transit, while also making it easy for customers to dispose of responsibly. 

3. Research biodegradable packaging alternatives

Biodegradable packaging options were once a rarity in the marketplace, as well as being extremely costly. But this sector has grown substantially, with innovations in manufacturing making it much cheaper to produce.

If you’re wanting to invest in sustainable packaging, there are a growing number of alternatives on the market that put zero waste at the heart of their design. 

While recyclable packaging is a good option, packaging materials can only be regenerated so many times before they’re no longer useable. This is why biodegradable designs are gaining traction as a long-term solution to ecommerce packaging waste and single-use items such as mailer envelopes.

So long as they’re disposed of correctly, these materials don’t leave behind any harmful residues as the packaging breaks down. Because this process takes weeks or months (as opposed to hundreds of years) consumers can feel confident that their purchasing decisions are contributing to a healthier planet.

So, what biodegradable packaging options are available to businesses?

Compostable mailer bags

Biodegradable materials such as corn starch and sugarcane are becoming increasingly popular for single-use packaging items, such as mailer bags and shrink wrap. Sendle produces 100% compostable satchels that break down within 90 days on a home or community compost pile.

a compostable mailer bag from sendle

Mushroom inserts

Packaging made out of mushroom fibers is a recent innovation that presents a compostable alternative to styrofoam for packaging inserts. The necessary shape is quite literally grown around a biodegradable mold and requires no light or water, making it minimally resource-intensive to create. Evocative Design is currently licensing its technology to interested parties in an effort to increase supply on the market.

a mushroom insert from seed formed to surround the products

As R&D for sustainable packaging continues to accelerate, we can expect to see even more innovative solutions coming into the marketplace. So, watch this space!

4. Consider reusable packaging designs

When packages are sent out to customers, it’s important that brands are thinking about the quality of the post-purchase experience – and this also includes the possibility of returns.

Return rates in ecommerce are at an all-time high, with consumers returning some 16.6% of the total merchandise sold in 2021, up 10.6% from 2020. This means that seamless returns processing has never been more critical. 

Single-use packaging designs take the ‘easy’ out of ‘easy returns’ by forcing customers to source their own packaging to sent items back to the warehouse. With this in mind, it’s not hard to see why some 62% of consumers are frustrated by having to pay for return packaging.

Not only does single-use packaging add friction to the customer experience; it also increases the likelihood of items being damaged in transit if they aren’t packaged securely enough by customers. If this results in higher DIM weight on the return journey, your business could also end up shouldering higher return shipping costs that erode your profit margins.

A reusable ecommerce packaging solution offers your business the double advantage of lower packaging waste and simpler returns management. 

Choosing ‘return ready’ packaging designs like double-sealed mailers or zip-locked garment bags saves both you and your customer a lot of money and hassle. If you integrate this returned packaging into future orders, this circular economy approach lowers your packaging and shipping costs even further!

For customers who don’t need to return items, reusable packaging designs can also offer an extra level of value through being repurposed for other uses. Byron Bay Bath Bombs uses 100% recyclable cardboard cylinders to package its bath bombs. Their Instagram offers a variety of reuse suggestions, including plant pots, stationery holders, and dry goods containers:

an instagram post from byron bay bath bombs showing their packaging being used as a planter

The verdict is clear. No online shopper wants to see packaging waste piling up on their living room floor. As an ecommerce merchant, you’re the one who’s in a position to change this. As the demand for ecommerce grows, all online sellers have a responsibility to lessen their environmental impact. By following the recommendations above, your business can become more eco-friendly, save money, and make customers happy. So, why not get started?

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