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Can I recycle styrofoam? And other online shoppers’ packaging questions

Maybe you’ve had this experience: A gigantic box arrives on your porch. For a second, you think it’s a gift. But there inside, beneath all of the packing paper and bubble wrap is a disappointingly small item you’d ordered online.

We all see what seems like an ocean of wasted packaging in consumer goods.

So the Chicago Sun-Times and the ABC7 I-Team decided to look at whether our love for online shopping is harming the environment and found a mixed bag.

Yes, consumers are getting more boxes. And delivery drivers are making more trips to our homes.

But the flip side of the equation is that fewer shoppers are driving to stores. And much of the packaging that consumers receive is engineered to be recycled. And faced with environmental concerns, some major consumer goods companies like Amazon are taking steps to help minimize our carbon and cardboard footprint.

To look at how bad overpacking can get, ABC7’s Jason Knowles kept track over the past several months of online orders he made that came packed horribly wrong. (Watch the ABC7 report at 10 p.m. Thursday.) With one of these, a small pack of batteries was swimming in a big box filled mostly with inflated plastic pillows. For another, a pair of plastic sunglasses, wrapped in a filmy sleeve, was cushioned with foam and placed inside one box that was then put into a second, larger box that was then stuffed with packing paper.

“The goods we’d usually go to a store to buy, maybe bring home in a paper or plastic or reusable bag, are now coming with a lot extra material in the form of cardboard boxes or plastic peanuts or inflatable plastic pouches,” Masanet says. “We’re getting a lot of this extra material that we didn’t have to deal with before.”

E-commerce hit $513.6 billion in sales nationwide last year, up 14.2 percent from 2017. Online ordering now accounts for nearly 10 percent of all retail sales, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

As e-shopping has taken hold, the corrugated-box industry has seen its own boom, with nearly 170 million tons of corrugated boxes worth $112 billion sold globally last year — and that’s predicted to grow 3.9 percent this year, according to a study by Future Market Insights.

The result of all of this shopping and shipping can be seen in the piles of corrugated cardboard left in Chicago’s blue carts and suburban recycling bins.

Samantha Doerfler, a North Sider who lives in North Center and is the mother of 11- and 7-year-old boys, shops online for kids clothes and shoes, cleaning supplies and hobby items — even prescription medicine for the family dog.

“We try and be very environmentally responsible,” says Doerfler, 40, who works as a substitute teacher. “We’d have to drive pretty far to a pet store that has it, so we’ve kind of weighed the benefits of is it better to just order it online and have it delivered, or drive all over and try and find which store has it at the time and which store can fill the prescription.

“When I get such a big box, I think to myself, ‘What could I have ordered that could be in this big of a box?’ And I open it, and it’s not a big item. It’s a small item with a ton of wrapping.”

Some online retailers have tried to right-size their boxes. Other big players in e-commerce have made changes in response to consumer complaints about over-packaging.

Amazon began responding to “wrap rage” — consumers’ annoyance with difficult-to-open plastic packaging — a decade ago with what it calls “frustration-free packaging.” Last year, it broadened that initiative, trying to help its vendors optimize packaging so items can be shipped in just their original box.

The e-commerce giant has promoted the use of 100 percent recyclable packaging and last year launched a fully recyclable, paper-based mailer it says is in use in unspecified U.S. markets. Also, in February, it announced a service for Amazon Prime members that lets shoppers get all of their packages on one day of the week, with shipments combined, if possible.

Similarly, about three years ago, Walmart increased its array of shipping boxes from 12 sizes to 27 to cut down on packaging waste.

Rachel Kenyon, vice president of the Fibre Box Association, a corrugated-cardboard industry group based in Itasca, says the packaging industry is sensitive to concerns about waste. The corrugated boxes most items are shipped in are made, on average, from 49 percent recycled content, according to her group.

If consumers keep the packaging clean and recycle it, Kenyon says, “You’re giving that box back to our industry, and then we’re able to make it into another box.”

What about the use of huge boxes to ship little products? Kenyon says engineers at the association’s member companies are working on that. With the quick rise of e-commerce, companies “have had to use what is available to them, and now, after a couple years, they’re thinking through how to right-size the package — how do I make the right size package to fit the product I’m trying to transport?”

Getting packaging right is, of course, just one piece of a bigger picture in terms of waste and damaging the environment. U.S. consumers create a much bigger carbon footprint with their choices in transportation and home energy than they do by getting boxes delivered, according to Masanet.

“If I’m really concerned about my carbon footprint with this extra packaging, I could simply decide to walk or ride my bike or take public transportation to work and … pretty quickly offset the additional carbon that came with the packaging,” the Northwestern professor says.

He says that, with deliveries, shippers typically optimize their routes a lot better than consumers do when they run errands and that many delivery companies are also using hybrid-electric vehicles that reduce emissions.

Just how much of the packaging that we all get ends up being recycled depends on where you live and increasingly on global markets. U.S. recyclers have been scrambling to find new markets for the paper, plastic and other items that China recently announced it no longer will accept. China, the target of increased Trump administration-imposed tariffs, had been taking in as much as 45 percent of the world’s recyclables but announced it was fed up with getting trash-contaminated loads of recyclable materials — what Chinese officials called “foreign trash.”

And just getting people and businesses in Chicago to recycle has been tricky, the Better Government Association has reported, documenting poor rates of participation.

No matter the questions about where your recyclables end up and how much money waste-haulers can get for them, it makes sense for consumers to keep recycling their packaging waste, says Jennifer Dunn, director of research for the Northwestern-Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering. Consumers can also make lifestyle changes, Dunn says, like choosing fuel-efficient vehicles and eating less meat, the production of which creates a huge carbon footprint.

“There are some really big-picture things we can do that we know will improve things,” Dunn says.

What you can and can’t recycle

Here’s what can and cannot be recycled in Chicago’s blue cart program:

Do Recycle

  • Aluminum cans (pop, beer, etc.)
  • Steel cans (vegetables, beans, sauces, etc.)
  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Junk mail (including envelopes with film windows)
  • Corrugated cardboard boxes (flatten them first)
  • Cardboard boxes (cereal, other products)
  • Paper shopping bags
  • Paper towel or toilet paper cardboard tubes
  • Paperback books
  • Telephone books
  • Paper documents
  • Gift wrapping paper
  • Paper packing material
  • Glass jars
  • Wine bottles
  • Glass pop or beer bottles
  • Empty plastic water bottles
  • Plastic #1
  • Plastic #2
  • Plastic #3
  • Plastic #4
  • Plastic #5
  • Plastic #7

Don’t recycle

  • Plastic shopping bags
  • Plastic food wrap
  • Plastic cutlery and straws
  • Dry-cleaning bags
  • Plastic newspaper sleeves
  • Plastic gift cards and hotel keys
  • Old household glassware
  • Greasy pizza boxes or other soiled cardboard
  • Hard-cover books
  • Razors
  • Styrofoam (including packing peanuts)
  • Zippered plastic bags
  • Photographs
  • Gift bows
  • Metal or plastic hangers
  • Plastic #6
  • Mystery plastic (with no labeled recycling number)
  • Reusable water bottles (metal or plastic, unless numbered)
  • Paint cans
  • Containers for toxic substances
  • Prescription pill containers
  • Cellphones (go to EARTH911.com for cellphone recyclers)
  • Batteries
  • Lightbulbs
  • Old clothing
  • Carpeting
  • Bubble wrap

Contributing: Jason Knowles, Ann Pistone, ABC7.

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