For this gift-giving season, get ready to look beyond foam peanuts and bubble wrap. Major players in e-commerce are looking to green their products’ packaging, from the box your gift comes in to the packing materials that keep it safe during shipping.
Giant merchants and shippers like Amazon.com, Walmart, FedEx, and UPS have placed increasing focus on greening the packaging of their products and shipping services. It’s a matter of going green as well as saving on cost by tossing out wasteful and outdated packaging materials and techniques, says Robert Vos, a professor at the University of Southern California and a sustainability expert.
“There’s a lot of important cost-saving [opportunities] in their supply chains,” Vos said on the motivations behind greener packaging. “Consumers are just demanding a greener package now.”
Walmart, which has significant muscle among its supply chain, has been a leader in greener packaging and could evoke industry-wide changes thanks to its buying power. A few years ago, it debuted a “packaging scorecard” system to its 60,000 global suppliers, offering preferred dealer status to suppliers who aimed to lower the amount of packaging they used by five percent — which Walmart said would save it $3.4 billion a year. Last year, the company also pledged to eliminate all waste at its stores by 2025 by reducing, reusing or recycling all materials.
Software and data crunching plays a big part in reducing waste and saving money on shipping, too. Quidsi, owner of Diapers.com and Soap.com, has developed software algorithms to save on shipping costs. The company has 23 different sizes of shipping boxes, and the software selects the smallest possible box for each order; human workers then figure out how best to arrange the ordered items inside the box. Amazon.com recently agreed to acquire Quidsi for $540 million, with the promise that it could apply Quidsi’s efficient techniques across its vast e-commerce empire.
Using less packaging is one green option, but trying new materials is a promising strategy, too. Dell has been trying out packaging materials made from bamboo, using the fast-growing grass in shipping one of its netbook models and one of its tablets. Bamboo is considered an environmentally friendly resource because it replenishes itself quickly. One company, Total Packaging Solutions, has also turned to bamboo to make packaging trays for meat and produce sold in supermarkets.
It’s a topic that’s garnering increasing attention from all fronts. There have been several consumer guides on packaging materials to avoid (obvious candidates like Styrofoam, plastic bottles and plastic bags). But the move to go green has also run into snafus and confusion, which has led the Federal Trade Commission to propose a set of guidelines that would tighten restrictions on what can be marketed as eco-friendly packaging.
Though consumers are increasingly demanding environmentally responsible packaging, the industry hit a snag earlier this year when Frito-Lay pulled most of its plant-based, compostable SunChips bags in the U.S. Customers complained that the bags were too noisy, earning mockery from the likes of Stephen Colbert. Frito-Lay had debuted the bag to some fanfare, running TV ads showing the bag fading into the earth, but consumer discontent about the bags’ noise grew into a tidal wave of Facebook groups and YouTube satires. The bags were disposed quickly, and that particular formulation doesn’t look likely to be recycled.
Still, companies are moving ahead with greener packaging, and a handful of startups are emerging to fill the gap. MBA Polymers, which recently closed $25 million in equity funding, squeezes reusable plastic out of thrown-away computers, cars and cell phones and sells that recycled plastic back to manufacturers that want to use greener raw materials. Cereplast takes on plastic directly by offering proprietary renewable and compostable plastics through a resin derived from starch. Big players like Archer Midland Daniels and Cargill’s Natureworks as also moving into bioplastics, which could eventually jump 30 percent in global volume. Besides the green factor, bioplastics also offer companies protection from the volatility of oil markets, since traditional plastic is petroleum-based.
In Amazon’s case, e-commerce has presented opportunities to rethink traditional packaging. Colorful display boxes were originally created to maximize the visual appeal of items sitting on a shelf, while clamshell packaging deterred shoplifters. But those issues are moot with online shopping. In that spirit, Amazon has begun offering “frustration-free packaging,” a program that aims to do away with difficult packaging and cut down on shipping waste by working directly with manufacturers to see products shipped in hassle-free boxes (pictured, right).
“Packaging that’s hard for consumers to open also tend to be very hard to recycle,” Vos said.”What Amazon’s able to do is say, ‘We’re going to offer a different type of package here because you’re not buying it off the shelf.”
Amazon says it has decreased the number of packages shipped in a wrong-sized box and in 2008 sent 35 percent of its larger-sized packages without additional packing. Container size is also a big issue alongside packing materials in companies’ efforts to go green. Like a blown-up game of Tetris, companies are asking that standard 24-foot by 30-foot containers be packed better with less wasted space.
Shipping companies have also jumped into cube utilization (similar to what Quidsi does for individual packages, but on a larger scale) and sustainable packaging materials. This year, UPS launched an eco-friendly shipping program that certifies suppliers that meet the criteria for environmentally responsible shipping techniques, which include using eco-friendly packing materials, boxes that are no larger than necessary and still ensuring that goods arrive undamaged (otherwise, they would go through the environmentally unfriendly process of being sent back).
FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service also offer shipping boxes made from recycled materials. FedEx engineer Yongquan Zhou recently developed a honeycomb-style packaging that worked as a greener and more effective packaging than a common Chinese packing material called expanded polystyrene foam.
Still, much of the drive for renewable materials is coming from the consumer goods and food and beverage industries. Odwalla and its parent company Coca-Cola recently transitioned over to plant-based bottles. Odwalla recently pledged it will transition all single-serve bottles to containers made from plant materials by March. Careful to avoid a SunChips-like snafu, an Odwalla spokeswoman said that the Odwalla plant-based bottles were designed to have “the same shelf life and other performance characteristics” as traditional petroleum-based high density polyethylene plastic bottles.
Assuming that the bottles don’t have an obnoxiously loud crunch and avoid going the way of the SunChips compostable bag, it looks like the wave of greener packaging is still on.
[Top image via Flickr/cuttlefish]