E-shopping addiction lays waste to green packaging drive in China

Workers sorting packages for delivery at a warehouse in Hengyang in Hunan province on Nov 12, a day after the annual Singles' Day shopping event. Greenpeace estimates that Singles' Day generated 52,400 tonnes of carbon dioxide from manufacturing, pac
Workers sorting packages for delivery at a warehouse in Hengyang in Hunan province on Nov 12, a day after the annual Singles' Day shopping event. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SHANGHAI • If you worry about all the waste generated by the annual rush of holiday shopping and gift giving, it is nothing compared with the mountains of discarded packaging that comes from a single event in China.

On Nov 11 each year, the world's biggest consumer market goes into overdrive as e-commerce giants like Alibaba Group Holding and JD.com lure shoppers with huge bargains during the Singles' Day sale.

Alibaba reported almost 500 billion yuan (S$102 billion) in sales this year, nearly four times the United States' Black Friday and Cyber Monday spending combined.

On its Tmall platform, transactions reached a peak when 583,000 orders were made in a single second.

All those purchases meant 675 million packages had to be delivered, a 26 per cent increase from last year.

Online shopping in China generated 9.4 million tonnes of packaging in 2018, according to Greenpeace, which projects that the amount could rise to 41 million tonnes by 2025, about the same as all the waste produced by Japan in a year.

Greenpeace estimates that Singles' Day generated 52,400 tonnes of carbon dioxide from manufacturing, packaging and shipping in 2017.

The national railway has to employ hundreds of high-speed trains to help with deliveries every year.

As President Xi Jinping pushes for stronger environmental protection and consumers grow more eco-conscious, China's e-commerce giants are under pressure to find greener ways to handle the annual event, starting with plastic.

The country's soaring use of the material has become one of the world's most pressing environmental issues, but switching to other materials is costly for smaller businesses and the government has struggled to implement a plan to phase out single-use plastics.

E-commerce companies are trying to stem the tide.

For Singles' Day this year, Alibaba's logistics arm Cainiao designed recyclable corrugated cardboard boxes that do not have to be sealed with plastic tape.

The company offered the packaging to more than 500 sellers on Tmall, including brands like Nestle and Procter & Gamble.

The so-called zipper boxes cost twice as much as their usual packaging, but sellers that opt to use them get extra promotion on the website.

Cainiao says it used 190,000 plastic-free boxes and three million biodegradable bags to package Singles' Day orders this year.

While that is a step forward, it is just a fraction of the total increase in packaging this year.

At one of Cainiao's warehouses in Langfang city, south-east of Beijing, the zipper boxes appeared frequently on the assembly line as employees worked in shifts around the clock to meet demand during the busiest week last month.

Cainiao emblazons the boxes with dolphin images to "raise awareness of how plastic pollutes the oceans", said Mr Tang Linrong, a member of the company's packaging solutions team.

He said his team plans to promote the zipper boxes at other shopping events throughout the year.

The nation is making other efforts to cut shipping waste.

China's State Post Bureau says 96 per cent of the country's delivery services have adopted digital waybills and switched to thinner packaging tape to reduce plastic use.

Suning.com, an appliance seller, last year launched shared delivery box programmes in 13 cities.

But it is the millions of smaller retailers, the backbone of China's consumer goods industry, that are the sticking point.

Unlike Tmall, which mostly caters to established brands and international companies, Alibaba's Taobao platform allows these vendors to sell directly to customers.

Prices are so competitive that reducing packaging and shipping costs are crucial for sellers to make a profit.

Cainiao's head of international communications Angela Cai said Taobao will give retailers that join its green initiatives special perks to help them attract customers.

Still, without government regulation, companies are left to decide if they want to use more sustainable packaging.

Online shopping has become such a key driver of China's domestic economy, especially during the pandemic, that the authorities have been reluctant to institute rules that could hurt the industry.

The environment ministry, which drives climate policies, does not have the power to mandate greener packaging.

"There is a mismatch between which department has the power to manage, what can they manage and what needs to be managed," said Greenpeace East Asia plastics campaigner Tang Damin.

"The regulator in charge of packaging in the delivery sector can do nothing more than give suggestions to the e-commerce business."

China officially banned free plastic bags at markets in 2008 and has said that non-degradable plastic straws should be eliminated by this year, but those declarations have largely been ignored by the public.

An ambitious mandatory recycling pilot programme that was rolled out in cities - including Shanghai and Beijing - has struggled to take off.

"The government put out slogans on garbage sorting everywhere, but I see more and more unsorted trash," said a worker surnamed Zhao.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2020, with the headline 'E-shopping addiction lays waste to green packaging drive in China'. Subscribe