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Can the Chinese e-commerce sector solve its waste problem? 

By 2025, the country’s e-commerce sector is projected to generate 41.3 million tonnes of plastic waste, but efforts are being made.

Tiki is Vietnam's second largest e-commerce player, surpassing even Lazada in terms of monthly traffics. Photo provided by company.

When Ji Lin, a 27-year-old researcher at Peking University, received his order of two kilograms of lemons from a store on Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Taobao, he was shocked by the excessive use of packaging material for the delivery. Each lemon was separately wrapped in small plastic bags, then put in another plastic bag, which was placed in a foam box inside a cardboard package, he told KrASIA.

It is not a secret that China’s e-commerce sector is experiencing a continuous rise, but the sector has also caused severe environmental problems, as the amount of plastic waste from packaging has grown in tandem with the rising e-commerce demand.

Just a decade ago, only 1% of global e-commerce transactions derived from China, but today, the country is responsible for over 40% of the world’s e-commerce deals, according to the World Economic Forum. Chinese consumers spend almost 30 minutes a day on Alibaba’s Taobao, the country’s leading e-commerce marketplace, nearly three times longer than American consumers typically spend on Amazon, and after making an order, they could have their goods delivered as fast as within 15 minutes.

However, with growing demand, the Chinese e-commerce and express delivery sector is estimated to have used some 9.4 million tonnes of packaging materials in 2018 and is expected to reach 41.3 million tonnes by 2025, Greenpeace, and other related government bodies warned. What’s more, over 90% of plastic packaging waste created by the industry is not recycled, according to a report by 1421 Consulting Group Co.

Ji mentioned that retailers and express delivery companies tend to pack goods in unnecessarily large cartons or plastic bags to prevent them from damage, a practice that was firstly addressed by the Chinese government in 2012, with an amended version of the law on the Promotion of Clean Production, but that still persists today, despite the introduction of new measures and initiatives.

Efforts to curb the industry’s waste problem

Both the government and the private sector have launched programs to implement sustainable initiatives in the e-commerce and express delivery sector. China’s 2018 “E-commerce Law” created national standards on delivery packaging materials to reduce waste, promote reusable materials, and encourage green packaging.

Starting last year, express delivery companies in China are required to follow guidelines published by the State Post Bureau to reduce waste and improve recycling and green packaging. The bureau requires 70% of packaging materials used by express firms to be renewable by the end of 2020, an improvement from 44% in 2019. Moreover, under the guidelines, large bags used in parcel transportation should be reused at least 20 times, and green packaging materials should be given priority.

The Chinese government wants to increase awareness of waste management in society. Photo by Alfonso Navarro on Unsplash

This year, the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission also issued a new policy to ban the usage of plastic bags, which will be gradually implemented over the next five years. According to the plan, plastic bags will be banned across all cities and towns in 2022, though markets selling fresh produce will be exempted until 2025. The production and sale of plastic bags that are less than 0.025 mm thick will also be banned.

The government also took responsibility for increasing the awareness of waste management in society. It launched a new municipal solid waste classification strategy in 2017 with the aim of achieving an urban waste recycling rate of 35% by 2020.

E-commerce giants responded to these developments by stepping up efforts to green their operations. Currently, 96% of delivery services, including Suning, Alibaba, JD, have adopted digital waybills, and thinner packaging tape with a width of 45 mm, forgoing the less sustainable 60 mm that was widely used in the past, China Daily reported.

In 2017, JD.com launched its “Green Stream Initiative” platform, implementing a smart packaging recommendation system to reduce the overuse of packaging material. According to the firm, by using slimmer tape and lighter plastic bags, the company has prevented the generation of 50,000 tons of plastic waste. It has also reduced 1.3 million tons of paper waste by going paperless and using lighter and recycled boxes. 

“We are also trying to increase the social awareness on the issue and educate both merchants and buyers on our platform,” a JD.com’s spokesperson told KrASIA, adding that the company encourages customers to choose to use recycled boxes when ordering on JD.com. By doing so, customers can get JD points, which can be used as money on the platform.

JD.com launched a “green box.” The package can be used approximately ten times. Source: JD.com.

Last year, tech retailer Suning launched a program to use shared delivery boxes in 13 Chinese cities. These boxes don’t have logos on them, so logistics companies and retailers can reuse it. Retailers can place orders in one of Suning’s shared delivery boxes and then logistics companies can reuse the box again other orders. The cost of one shared delivery box is around RMB 25 (USD 3.60) and can be used up to 1,000 times, according to Suning.

Alibaba, meanwhile, started to implement its environmental conservation efforts in 2013, when its logistic arm, Cainiao, launched a green logistics initiative with 32 Chinese and international partners. The initiative focused on green solutions such as promoting the use of greener packaging and recycling, adopting electric delivery vehicles in nearly 20 cities, and applying big data to improve efficiency in logistics, according to Alibaba. The company reported that its efforts saved 1 billion packing boxes and delivered 0.5 million parcels packed in 100% biodegradable materials.

In 2016, Cainiao Network, Alibaba Foundation, China Environmental Protection Foundation, and six of the largest logistics companies in China established the Cainiao Green Alliance Foundation, pledging RMB 300 million to research the promotion of green logistics, consumption, and supply chain.

“During 2019’s 11.11, Alibaba’s shopping festival, Cainiao and its partners rolled out flash recycling stations across 31 provinces, and we estimate that hundreds of millions of parcel boxes can be recycled and reused each year, reducing carbon emissions equivalent to planting 740,000 trees,” Cainiao’s spokesperson, explained to KrASIA.

Moreover, Cainiao has also developed its own smart packaging algorithm, which assesses purchased items by category, volume, weight, and area, and then matches the goods to the most space-efficient form of packaging. Cainiao’s spokesperson further said this system helps improve packaging efficiency for about 530 million parcels each year and cuts the amount of wasted material due to overpacking by 15%.

Cainiao’s recycling station in a community center. Source: Cainiao.

Challenges ahead

Even if the industry and regulators have launched initiatives to better manage the current plastic waste and improve the recycling rate, a higher level of efficiency and strict implementation of measures by e-commerce players are required to deal with the growing volume of parcels.

To promote long-term sustainability in China’s e-commerce consumption era, it is crucial to create comprehensive recycling management systems across the value chain, with a strong collaboration between e-commerce players and express delivery giants, as recommended by 1421 Consulting Group.

When asked about possible cooperation programs, both Alibaba and JD.com’s spokespersons told KrASIA that they are open to establishing more solutions to green the industry and their environmental footprint.

Consumers also play their roles, as they have the power to influence businesses by demanding greener practices and supporting firms favoring sustainable alternatives to excessive plastic packages.