Sunday, 21 April 2024

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Packaging Waste and Online Shopping

Have you ever thought about the amount of packing waste that you see on Christmas morning when all the gifts are unwrapped? What about the quantity of waste present after you order products online?

There are three types of packaging - primary, secondary, and tertiary – that are used to package products. When you go to the store and buy a pack of gum, your gum has several layers of packaging. The pieces of gum are individually wrapped in a piece of paper or aluminum foil, this is the primary packaging. The second layer of packaging would be the package that contains multiple pieces of gum, often referred to as a “pack of gum.” If you were to go to the store, you could buy the pack of gum and take it home with you. The gum is delivered to the store in a larger package that contains several packages of gum, this can fall under both secondary and tertiary packaging. These larger packages are often what you see on the store shelf when you pick up the package of gum. Below is an image from Springer Nature that shows the different layers of packaging from smaller to larger packaging.

During typical shipping, the store will receive the packages of gum in large orders. The packages will have a tertiary layer of packaging, which is a cardboard box filled with multiple secondary packaged boxes. Often, a store will receive a shipment on a pallet that has been shrink-wrapped with other large boxes of similar products. Pallets are an example of tertiary packaging. The packaging system, for transport packaging, would be the group of boxes shrink-wrapped together. For a pack of gum to arrive at a consumer’s home, it has undergone many layers of packaging.

A package of gum arrives at your house from an online retailer in a similar way. The same pack of gum that is on the shelf of the grocery store has been placed for delivery to a consumer’s home from Amazon, an online retailer that sells packages of gum. Amazon receives shipments from its retailers in the same method that grocery stores receive products. The gum will arrive in a package with similar products and be ready for distribution to the customers.

According to the Amazon website, packs of gum can be purchased in larger packages, therefore the primary packaging group for the consumer product would be the multiple package level. The consumer now has multiple packages of gum that are each wrapped individually. The consumer will also notice the multiple layers of packaging that have been added to the shipment of the gum. The package of gum will be placed inside a box for delivery to the address of the customer. At this point, multiple layers of packaging have been used for the box. With this comes packaging waste. The package of gum will arrive at the consumer’s home in a large box filled with the pack of gum and protective shipping material.

With the increase of online shopping, comes an increase in unnecessary packaging. The same package of gum that could be purchased at a local grocery store now must be shipped using additional packaging. Amazon and other online retailers often mail oversized boxes for small items, which are filled with package fillers such as bubble wrap or other filling materials. The consumer now has multiple layers of packaging products to dispose of. The more waste that is provided to a consumer, results in more waste that is landfilled.

Amazon currently has a program where they will pay for the shipping of donated items using unwanted shipping boxes. This seems like a notable environmentally conscious effort from the Amazon company, however, according to Statista, “the average American receives 21 packages annually.” Most people do not utilize the donation route 21 times per year. According to USA today, paper and cardboard recycling is decreasing as online shopping increases. This is because more and more waste is becoming the responsibility of consumers, which is resulting in more waste being put in the landfill.

The same package of gum that was originally required only to be shipped to the store now has several additional packaging phases to go through before it is received by the customer. Recycling on a large scale is more convenient than on an individual level. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published a chart detailing how packaging waste was handled from 1960 to 2018. Over the years, there has been a major increase in the quantity of packaging waste. The trend is largely due to the increase in packaging that is used per product, as well as the increase in packages being sent directly to the consumer. Shown below is a graph published by the EPA on packaging waste.

Many things could be done to decrease the amount of waste generated. If home deliveries continue to increase, using biodegradable material might be beneficial. For example, biodegradable packing peanuts could replace the use of packaging peanuts that do not break down. Additionally, a key way of eliminating packaging waste could be by shifting the responsibility to the consumer. If items such as packaging peanuts could be reused rather than recycled, it would majorly cut down on waste. This could be done if UPS, USPS, and FedEx offered options for purchasing used packaging materials from consumers. If consumers were able to sell materials for reuse, then consumers would be more likely to participate in the process. This could be done with multiple levels of packaging materials. Similar to Amazon allowing their used boxes to be reused, companies could accept undamaged boxes for reshipment of other products.

Consumer outlook is a huge part of packaging waste. If companies can help consumers see how much waste is associated with receiving a package at the house

rather than in a store, then consumers would be more likely to send these materials back to recycle or reuse.

Covid-19 led to a very large increase in online shopping. According to Digital Commerce 360, during 2020 online shopping increased by 32.4%. The pandemic showed a drastic increase in the already rapidly increasing mechanisms of e-commerce. As increases in e-commerce continue, the increase in packaging and packaging waste increases. Below is a figure from Techgistics showing the annual changes in e-commerce. This chart shows the upward trend of online shopping, which leads to an increase in packaging and packaging waste.

Figure 3: Ecommerce Trends by Techgisitcs

According to Forbes, “Online retail giant Amazon generated almost 500 million pounds of plastic packaging last year, more than 22 million pounds of which ended up in rivers and oceans…” This is an example of increases in packaging waste leading to environmental issues and concerns.

The United States needs to do a better job limiting the amount of packaging necessary for a product to enter a store or home. Limiting packaging would greatly reduce the amount of waste that is seen from packaging in the future. Changing packaging materials to more environmentally friendly products could allow for less waste generation. Providing sources for turning in used packaging material to be reused would drastically increase the amount of re-usable packaging products, which would drastically decrease the amount that becomes waste.


Chiu, Ming-Chuan. “Applying DFA and Goal Programming to Improve Economic

Efficiency, Material Handling Convenience, and Sustainability of a Product Packaging System - Research in Engineering Design.” Research in Engineering Design, 23

Jan. 2021,

“Containers and Packaging: Product-Specific Data | US EPA.” US EPA, 28 Jan. 2021,

“COVID’s Impact on Online Shopping.” Digital Commerce 360, 16 June 2021,

Mabe, John. “Covid-19 and the Rapid Acceleration of Online Commerce — Techgistics |

Technology | ECommerce | Logistics.” Techgistics | Technology | ECommerce | Logistics, 30 July 2020,

Vetter, David. “This Is How Much Plastic From Amazon Deliveries Ends Up In The Ocean.” Forbes, 17 Dec. 2020,

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