Thinking out of the box with online waste
RECENTLY, I ordered a tube of eye cream online and it arrived a few days later - in a huge cardboard box.
The product, which was only the width of my thumb and the length of my palm, was nestled in a corner of a box almost 10 times its size. Honestly, it looked ridiculous.
A few days later, I stumbled across a viral post of a Twitter user whose father had bought a pen from online retail giant Amazon. It came in a big cardboard box with at least four air-filled plastic bags. I just had to laugh.
It begs the question - if an excessively packaged product is delivered to a small corner of Singapore, does it add to one's carbon footprint?
Annabelle Tan, chairman of non-governmental organisation (NGO) Packaging Council of Singapore, told My Paper that online shopping produces more packaging waste than regular shopping because of the shipping boxes, labels and protective wrapping used on top of the product's original wrapping.
Some argue that shopping online is green, as it reduces one's carbon footprint simply because customers need not travel to the physical store.
But Susan Chong, chief executive of environmental packaging company Greenpac, poses a good question: "What's wrong with saving your carbon footprint and reducing packaging material as well?"
THE PROBLEM OF GROWING E-WASTE
Currently, there are very few guidelines on delivery packaging and it is a free-for-all for online retailers. The same item can arrive in a single bag, double-layered plastic, a plastic-wrapped box with decorative paper, bubble wrap or foam beads, depending on where you buy it from.
Many online retailers here are small companies which typically can afford to buy only one size of packaging in bulk and have a one-size-fits-all mentality, says Ms Chong.
Unregulated and largely out of the spotlight, the issue looks set to grow.
A Singapore Post spokesman said its e-commerce-related revenue is now 29 per cent of group revenue, up from 26.9 per cent in its previous financial year.
Citing a Research and Markets report, she said that the relatively advanced online retail market in Singapore has an online shopper penetration of more than 50 per cent of Internet users, with the online share of total retail being the highest in its sub-region.
You can buy items online easier and faster now but the amount of waste created keeps pace with the volume of sales and there is no "manage waste" button to click.
In 2014, domestic waste formed 57 per cent of all waste disposed here. Of this, about a third was packaging waste, said Edwin Seah, executive director of NGO Singapore Environment Council, adding that the Pulau Semakau landfill is expected to run out of space in 2035.
LEARNING FROM OTHER COUNTRIES
To address this growing issue, Singapore can look outside of its shores, where suitable green practices have already been devised and adopted.
A Finnish start-up called RePack creates reusable packaging from recycled materials and reimburses online shoppers for returning it.
In New York, sustainable packaging company Ecovative takes agricultural wastes and makes customised compostable packaging.
Ms Tan suggested that companies and packaging manufacturers work together to set up collection centres, where shoppers who return packaging for reuse or recycling are reimbursed a "packaging deposit" added to the item's retail price.
Or, local online retailers could start small by providing discounts to customers who return packaging, said Ms Chong.
Regulation is an uphill task, due to the sheer volume of transactions and the many different types of packaging needs.
Another challenge, according to Mr Seah, is in monitoring, as many online retailers are based out of Singapore.
To add to the conundrum, reducing packaging waste does not rank high on retailers' to-do lists and many are not aware of its implications - two industry insiders said they did not find it an issue.
Awareness can be raised among retailers on how to provide better packaging and how to reduce material or use material from sustainable resources, said Ms Chong.
But the people it really takes to drive this change are the consumers. They can start the ball rolling by demanding sustainable packaging and recycling or reusing the material from their online purchases.
The changing of a culture requires a shift in individual mindsets and this takes time, effort and consciousness.
With a wealth of information at the online consumer's fingertips, here's hoping that #sustainableonlineshopping trends in the near future.