More than one way to re­cy­cle pack­ag­ing

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Q: How do en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists feel about the amount of pack­ag­ing waste con­sumers have to deal with now that so much shop­ping has switched over from re­tail shops to on­line stores? — JES­SICA B., RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA

A: This past hol­i­day sea­son marked the first year that hol­i­day shoppers spent more of their gift bud­gets on­line than in stores, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by the con­sult­ing firm Deloitte.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists are in­deed con­cerned that this trend doesn’t au­gur well for the en­vi­ron­ment, given the ex­tra pack­ag­ing waste and en­ergy costs that ac­com­pany get­ting mer­chan­dise to cus­tomers. Go­ing to the store or mall to do our shop­ping burns fos­sil fu­els, for sure, but at least the items we pur­chase don’t then have to be re-swad­dled in ex­tra filler and cardboard and shipped to us on a plane, truck, train or ship.

For its part, Ama­zon — the com­pany many blame for ush­er­ing in the tran­si­tion to e-com­merce in the first place and which to­day dom­i­nates on­line re­tail — used some 6,000 trucks and 32 planes to get some 5 bil­lion items to its Prime mem­bers in 2017. Dur­ing that process, un­told hun­dreds of mil­lions of cardboard boxes were used to get cus­tomers’ choices to their doorsteps. Those boxes are in turn typ­i­cally re­cy­cled by the re­cip­i­ents, and col­lected by mu­nic­i­pal curb­side pickup ser­vice.

But that’s not the end of the story: Next, this on­ceused cardboard is typ­i­cally shipped to China, where it is soaked in wa­ter, stripped of sta­ples and re­born as new cardboard. In many cases the box you re­cy­cle has made a 12,000-mile, fos­sil-fuel-spew­ing loop at sea in its jour­ney of re­birth. So, while re­cy­cling is a great thing, it may not be worth it if we fac­tor in the fos­sil fu­els emit­ted in the process. We’d be bet­ter off avoid­ing the ex­tra layer of pack­ag­ing al­to­gether. Maybe that trip to the mall isn’t such a bad idea af­ter all.

That said, Ama­zon re­cently boasted of tran­si­tion­ing to more sus­tain­able pack­ag­ing dur­ing the 2017 hol­i­day sea­son, switch­ing 100 mil­lion ship­ments from cardboard boxes to less re­source-in­ten­sive padded mail­ers, re­port­edly elim­i­nat­ing 181,000 tons of waste. So that’s some­thing, but Ama­zon and other on­line re­tail­ers have a long way to go in re­duc­ing not only the amount of pack­ag­ing but per­haps even the pack­ag­ing al­to­gether when pos­si­ble.

This is not to say you should feel bad about re­cy­cling your boxes in the wake of the hol­i­days, as it’s a per­fectly de­cent en­vi­ron­men­tal thing to do. But if you want to go the ex­tra mile, maybe think of some way to re­use them at least one more time be­fore the next re­cip­i­ent ships it off for re­cy­cling — or reuses it as well. Also, don’t for­get that most gift wrap — as long as it doesn’t have foil or glit­ter or a plas­ti­ciz­ing non­rip coat­ing — as well as hol­i­day cards, can be re­cy­cled too.

And yet another op­tion for re­spon­si­bly dis­card­ing that cardboard, wrap­ping pa­per and hol­i­day cards is in your yard waste or com­post bin, in which case it will live another day not as a cardboard box but in­stead as part of your next batch of mulch.

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