China has the most advanced e-commerce and logistics network in the world. Speedy shipping covers nearly the entire country, making online shopping a reasonable option no matter where you are.
In 2020, online retail sales of physical goods hit USD 1.507 trillion in China, accounting for 24.9% of all of the country’s retail consumer good transactions. That’s a lot of packages.
Last year, couriers handled 83 billion parcels in China, according to data compiled by the State Post Bureau. The average parcel volume per person has leaped from 0.01 in 2000 to higher than 50 in 2020.
The convenience of an order arriving at your doorstep at breakneck speeds comes with heavy environmental cost. Before logistic companies, e-commerce operators, and the government can build an efficient recycling network, China has to deal with around 10 million tons of packaging waste every year, around 23% of which will end up being burned or buried in landfills as they can’t be recycled or reused. Among this bulk, non-biodegradable ones will stay in the environment forever.
Trash that’s hard to handle
Whether in residential communities, campuses, or business districts, the main force of recycling in China is an amalgamation of senior citizens, sanitation workers, and scavengers, according to a research report on parcel packaging waste in China published by global movement Break Free from Plastic China and NGO Greenpeace in 2019.
“I usually refuse to recycle if there is too much tape or too many shipping labels on the packaging,” a Beijing recycling station manager told China Youth Daily in a 2016 interview. “If there’s too much tape, it takes too much time to clean up, and it’s not cost-effective.”
Plastic foam boxes, woven bags, and paper packaging like cardboard cartons and envelopes are most likely to be recycled and sold for reprocessing and re-use, according to the 2019 research report, while 99% of other plastic materials, like filler and films, is treated like household waste and abandoned. Their resale value is too low, and it takes too much effort to clean them to justify the labor.
If no effective measures are taken, there will be 6 million tons of parcel packaging in China’s landfills by 2025, and the expected processing cost to remedy this situation will hit USD 660 million.
In 2018, although waste incineration brought in USD 22.6 million in economic benefits by generating electricity, the cost also increased to USD 41.6 million.
Use less packaging, be greener and smarter
To tackle the serious matter of saving the environment, a new plastic ban will be implemented this year, banning the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags, adhesive tape, and disposable woven plastic bags at all postal and express outlets by 2025.
Cainiao, the logistics network co-founded by e-commerce giant Alibaba and a group of couriers, said the shift is manageable. “Although the operating costs will definitely rise in the early stage, when this becomes a trend of the whole industry or even the whole country, relevant industrial chains will be born and relevant technologies will develop, and the costs will only fall rather than increase in the future,” Wang Haosu, director of Cainiao’s green initiatives, told KrASIA.
Other e-commerce and delivery enterprises like JD.com, Suning.com, and SF Express have all been exploring plastic reduction since 2017.
A key step in the cycle is to reduce excessive packaging to begin with.
Both Cainiao and JD Logistics have encouraged their e-commerce partners to use their own packaging when sending out parcels, with couriers forgoing additional layers of packaging and filler. Logistics companies have also implemented strict standards for using tape.
Furthermore, companies may soon be using greener packaging materials.
“We invented the digital shipping label in 2014, which has saved 430 billion sheets of paper in six years,” said Wang. The new label digitalizes parts of the shipping information and conveys them as codes to take up just half the surface area compared to old labels.
In 2020, Cainiao conducted trials in three major cities in China, offering partially degradable bags as an option when customers wanted to send out parcels. “The pilot is planned for 20 to 30 more new cities in 2021,” said Wang. The greener option would come with a few cents more in price after Cainiao’s subsidy.
“Fully degradable plastic bags are now a problem of cost, and are also a technical problem, the logistics industry has high requirements for the physical attributes of the bags, and a lot of the fully degradable bags available now cannot meet our standard and volume demand,” said Wang.
JD Logistic, on the other hand, now uses degradable plastic tape and recyclable boxes that can be used more than 20 times, according to the company’s website.
Previously, local news outlet Shanghai Observer reported that some consumers were still receiving plastic foam boxes after selecting the option of using environmentally friendly, recyclable boxes.
Cainiao has installed more than 80,000 recycling bins in its stations around the country.
“We encourage all users to unpack their parcels at the station and then voluntarily drop the empty boxes into our recycle bin,” Wang said. “Station managers will do some cleaning and remove the tape to make sure it will not impact the next consumer.”