Sustainable packaging for e-commerce

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Published 26 August 2021 - Eco-friendly packaging - Plastic replacement
Over the years we have seen online retail grow and the pandemic has only accelerated that growth. Globally, e-commerce has actually grown between two to five times faster than before the pandemic. As e-commerce grows, so does the importance of efficient and effective packaging.

Every delivery has its own CO2 footprint and we need to make sure we are smart with our clicks. I believe that fibre-based packaging can help make the whole value chain of e-commerce more sustainable. In Stora Enso we call it the eco-evolution.

If we want packaging to not only protect the things we buy but also help making online buying more sustainable, we need to look at how it’s designed, what it’s made of, and the logistics behind the process.

Designing outside the box

Reducing the environmental impact of packaging depends on two things:

  • the efficiency of the package
  • the effectiveness of the material.

With efficiency, we mean for instance the amount of air in the shipment and with effectiveness, we relate to how much packaging material is needed to protect the product.

To start with, we want to reduce the amount of air that’s packaged.

Packages usually consist of protective wrapping inside of a cardboard box (which normally is too big for the items), more protective wrapping, sometimes even another cardboard box and finally your product. The consensus is that in around 60% of e-commerce deliveries, at least a quarter of the volume is bubble wrap, other plastic wrap or simply air.

This is really bad since it is a waste of carton board. Plus it wastes space in the truck, which is the worst part, as that means we need more trucks and more fuel, leading to higher emissions.

Then let’s look at the efficiency of the material. One development need is to increase strength of the material overall. Increased strength gives the same protection job done but with less material since the walls of the box can be thinner. Another important development is strength retention when getting wet. Especially in countries with high humidity, boxes start to lose their strength and squash together when stacked up. This might damage the content and requires more material to be used.

At Stora Enso, our goal is to support consumers to meet growing demands for eco-friendly and circular solutions and we work on creating more sustainable designs every day.

Recyclability is important. But it’s not enough.

Today, more and more plastic films and filling materials are being replaced by fibre-based options. But while much of the packaging material used can be recycled, excessive packaging still puts stress on the recycling infrastructure.

In the past, when we made most purchases in the stores, the stores themselves took care of recycling transport packaging. This led to high recycling rates and that the industry was provided with recycled fibres to be circulated back into new paperboard materials.

The rise in e-commerce means that it’s now up to consumers to properly recycle transport and other packaging. Here too, fibre-based material is the best choice since in addition to being renewable, paper and cardboard are also the most recycled packaging materials in Europe, with 83% ending up being recycled. For plastic, that number is much lower – around 40%. There’s also already a solid collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure in place for fiber-based materials, which makes them easier to recycle at greater scale.

Packaging solutions – a hero product

The entire e-commerce process needs solutions that require:

  • less energy consumption during production,
  • fewer trucks for transport,
  • better performing fiber materials,
  • and more recyclability at end of life.

Here, as in many cases, packaging has the potential to become a hero product when it comes to innovative sustainable design.

Author

Philip Hanefeldt

Phillip Hanefeld

Phillip is SVP, Head of Innovation and R&D in Packaging Materials at Stora Enso. He joined the company in November 2020 and has a broad international experience in R&D, Innovation, New Business Development, Business Management, M&A and Strategy roles. Phillip has a PhD in polymer chemistry, an executive MBA degree and he is an entrepreneurial, customer focused R&D leader with a track record of launching innovations globally.
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