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This old-fashioned business practice might be the answer to online shopping packaging waste problem

Israelbelle Ferolino


This old-fashioned business practice might be the answer to online shopping packaging waste problem

A team of professors and engineers from China and Australia suggests that this age-old business practice is the key to combating our packaging waste problem from online shopping.

Boom of online shopping in the Philippines 

It’s cheap. It’s fast. It’s convenient. Nowadays, Filipinos prefer shopping online for these reasons. Every month, Filipinos take advantage of the cashback, promotions, and vouchers in the monthly sale of giant e-commerce platforms such as Shopee and Lazada. 

Statista Research Department estimates that as of 2022, Shopee has over 76 million visits per month. Meanwhile, Lazada has over 39 million visitors. A report from ABS-CBN last year indicate that during one of their mega sales, these giant e-commerce platforms are capable of selling millions of items in under five minutes alone.

While this is good news for retailers, it’s not so good for the environment. Single-use packaging materials, like plastic bags, bubble wrap, and corrugated boxes, have been the common type of packaging for almost all products purchased online. Retailers tend to overuse these packaging materials for the safety of their products. 

A huge portion of these plastic packaging materials ends up in the ocean every year, seriously affecting the marine environment. Meanwhile, International Symposium on Sustainable Systems and Technology posits that the mass production of cardboard packaging contributes 22% of the carbon impact of electronic purchases.

Several companies have already introduced measures to curb the phenomenal amount of waste produced by digital shopping. For example,  EcoNest Philippines offers cassava biobags while Econtainer Philippines produces boxes from sugar cane. While recyclability and compostability are indeed important in solving this waste problem, waste prevention and product reuse should be prioritized before recycling or disposal. That’s why a team of engineers and professors from Australia and China suggests that to solve our packaging waste crisis, it is vital to focus on the deployment of this circular economy process: reverse logistics.

Alternative Approach 

Together with his team,  Nai Yeen Gavin Lai, Assistant Professor in Manufacturing Engineering at the University of Nottingham, explains that reverse logistics is like returning the product and its packaging to the retailer but with added benefits

“Reverse logistics is a strategic tool that can meet customers’ demands while simultaneously conferring economic benefits and improving the corporate social image.  It has evolved over the years from solely being a reverse flow of goods into multiple duties or objective systems embracing environmental, economic, and social aspects,” the team says in their thesis entitled Toward sustainable express deliveries for online shopping: Reusing packaging materials through reverse logistics.

Reverse logistics has two main goals: first, to be a value-added process for meeting customers’ demands, whether for product returns or through recycling; more importantly, it aims to minimize wasted resources through reuse and recycling.

Reverse logistics is an old concept. In the 1950s when home milk delivery from local dairies was still a mainstay, you get to return the bottle in exchange for your deposit. But the distribution system utilized by online shopping is more complicated than buying milk, so the question is how exactly can we apply reverse logistics to e-commerce?

Nai Yeen Gavin Lai’s team proposed a reuse framework based on a reverse logistics system that caters to the complexity of online shopping.

In their model, when the customer receives the packaged product at their home they can return the used packaging material. Packaging materials can be returned immediately or on a different day. Return efforts could be rewarded through the form of cash incentives, discounts for future purchases, or other forms of motivation to encourage participation in the return process.

They recommended that for more efficient transportation, courier companies should implement mixed delivery and pick-up strategy. This is due to the modest weight of the used packaging materials, which makes it simple to rearrange them with the linehaul loads on the vehicle. Additionally, some materials can be folded or compressed and take up little space in storage.

Due to the possibility that each item may have been stored or handled differently, it is significant to notice that the quality of the utilized packaging materials differs. Reuse also accelerates the aging and material degradation of the package with each additional cycle. As a result, the quality attributes of the gathered used packaging materials have a big impact on how well the suggested reuse framework works. Therefore, before reusing packaging materials, a thorough set of quality criteria that takes into account the needs of all stakeholders must be devised. Other flaws, such as cosmetic scarring, smudges, and markings, should also be taken into account in addition to visible structural or functional faults of the packing material. 

Nai Yeen Gavin Lai’s team proposed that several inspection points must be built into the framework after the rejection criteria have been created. Before being circulated for reuse on the following delivery, the packaging materials should be inspected for damage, cleaned, and disinfected.

The design and specs of the existing conventional packing materials may not be the best for this function, even though they can be reused in several delivery cycles. Thus, more effort is required to optimize the design. This would increase industry productivity and aid in lowering the waste generated by the accumulation of used packaging materials.

Limitations of the reverse logistics approach 

The suggested framework will save waste and advance the idea behind the quick delivery of online shopping products in a circular economy. The main advantage of the suggested framework is the use of the current delivery system with the least amount of additional expense and labor required for packaging material recovery. By gathering packaging materials for reuse in subsequent deliveries, express delivery service companies could profit from return trips after deliveries. However, the team admitted that there are several requirements and obstacles before implementing the framework.

The first step for express delivery companies is to build the infrastructure needed for the cleaning, sorting, and quality control of recycled packaging materials. This may involve thinking about how to use existing and new resources as efficiently as possible to facilitate the gathering and distribution of materials. 

Additionally, reverse logistics needs effective communication and the participation of all stakeholders. The involvement of the consumer is essential to its success but this is not a problem since surveys done by Kantar World Panel in 2021 reveal that 75% of Filipinos actively look for companies that offer strategies to lessen their environmental impacts. 

Furthermore, to institutionalize reverse logistics practice through cooperation, stakeholders from manufacturing, logistics businesses, research institutions, and academia should create a joint consultative committee with the area government.

Finally, it is important to remember that support provided by the government, such as subsidies and tax breaks for participants, could increase the private sector’s voluntary engagement.

Nai Yeen Gavin Lai and his team believe in the power of reverse logistics. They are certain that sustainable materials, operations management, and the circular economy is the way to go in solving our online shopping packaging waste problem.

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