Where were cable ties in Walmart

Recycling and reusable - concepts for sustainable packaging

The growth in online retail is leading to more and more orders and parcels: the Federal Network Agency estimates a total of around 3.6 billion shipments were transported in 2020 - 17 percent more than in 2019. Of course, the e-commerce industry experienced the Corona lockdowns have seen a significant upward momentum, but they have been growing for years.

In line with the order quantity, the packaging consumption and thus the packaging waste are also increasing - this has long since reached record levels. For this reason, environmentally friendly, sustainable concepts for packaging are becoming increasingly important. We give an overview of the different approaches, challenges and possibilities of more environmentally friendly packaging.

How additional packaging waste is created in online retail in the first place

As a rule, online retailing does not work without packaging. After all, retailers have to ensure that their products reach the customer in one piece, clean or hygienic and safe. "Nothing would be less sustainable than a damaged item, so all goods are given protective packaging for shipping," Zalando sums it up. In addition, packaged goods can be transported with significantly less time, space and thus costs. That is why the requirements for perfect packaging are high.

However, the mere fact that the goods have to be packaged for distance selling also favors the use of more materials than absolutely necessary. Shipping packaging is usually used in addition to the primary packaging, so products are double-packed. Many manufacturers are now designing the primary packaging of their entire range to be even more robust, for example to meet the requirements for compression protection when shipping online. With regard to the use of materials, however, they do not differentiate whether the products actually end up in the distance or retail trade, explains the Federal Environment Agency in a study from 2019. This is particularly the case with electrical appliances, for example.

Some online retailers also use standard size boxes for shipping. Such standard cardboard boxes can, however, also be greatly oversized, which often results in additional waste. Other materials are used to protect the product: air cushions and bubble wrap made of plastic, cushioning materials and wraps made of wrapping paper, tissue paper, etc., molded parts, stiffeners made of polyethylene, foams, corrugated cardboard and the like. The cardboard boxes and packaging materials are mostly single-use materials that are disposed of after a single use.

Calls for sustainability in online retail are growing louder

So it is not surprising that more and more environmentally friendly alternatives are expected and demanded. A good three quarters of German consumers want products from manufacturers that produce as little packaging waste as possible, according to an Ipsos study from 2019.

The issue is also moving more politically into focus, which is also increasing public pressure on online retailers: For example, when Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) recently presented a new draft law that made reusable containers mandatory for the sale of drinks and food outside the home from January 2023 makes, called Greenpeace to extend this to e-commerce: “Instead of only curbing the floods of plastic from fast food restaurants and bakery chains,” reusable must be made standard throughout Germany and online retailing must be made reusable - a “paradigm shift “Is necessary to cope with the flood of plastic, according to the environmental organization. Environmental associations such as Deutsche Umwelthilfe and the party Die Grünen are also increasingly calling for reusable solutions to be used in online retail.

This is what reusable packaging can do

According to the Federal Environment Agency, reusable packaging could save between 180,000 and 370,000 tons of packaging waste per year - that would be 45 percent less waste. Zalando, Otto and Tchibo as well as Avocadostore have tried this variant and used the mailing bags from the Finnish startup RePack. These are made of durable and recycled plastic and can be used at least 20 times. This could potentially reduce CO2 emissions from shipping and returns by up to 80 percent, as well as noticeably reducing packaging waste in general.

In the two-week pilot test, Otto used almost 5,000 such returnable mailing bags. Who received the bag was decided at random. The test went “better than expected!”, As the retail group told us when we asked. “We asked all customers who received a reusable mailer during our test run to take part in a voluntary (non-representative) survey. The majority found the reusable mailing bag positively - the large majority also liked the fact that we are at least testing an alternative to classic one-way packaging. "

Zalando started a pilot test with RePack in 2019 and continued it in September 2020. No one could give us specific figures or results, but one could "gain important insights into feasibility and customer acceptance". Reusable shipping packaging is very interesting for Zalando and the company is constantly working on it.

Reusable packaging in practice

In practice, however, there are still various hurdles for large-scale use - because if the bags are returned anyway, many customers could use this option for returns. That would really not be in the interests of the retailers and anything but sustainable. At Otto, a total of 75 percent of the RePack bags sent in the test were returned - “including, of course, a significant proportion with items to be returned, but also empty bags with no content,” explained a company spokesman. However, the high quota should definitely be emphasized, since no deposit or other special fees were charged and thus “purely appealed to goodwill”. "We had expected a lower return rate," said Otto.

It would be possible to establish a deposit system - according to the Otto survey after the test, the majority are even willing to do so. In order for it to work, the group advocates an individual, voluntary option for / against reusable packaging in the checkout process, e.g. B. with advantages for customers who opt for the reusable variant. Otto also considers the introduction on a smaller scale to be possible. “Before a nationwide or even industry-wide introduction, however, it is particularly important to think through the considerable additional costs in logistics. The effort involved in returning, cleaning, reprocessing and disinfecting should not be underestimated, especially since the need for personnel in logistics is already considerable today and can sometimes only be met with difficulty. The additional space required in the vehicles is also significant with tens or even hundreds of thousands of reusable mailing bags to be transported per day, ”the company points out.

Recycled and Recyclable Materials

To ensure that there is less waste at all, there are three ecological principles: "Reduce, Recycle, Reuse" - reduce, recycle, reuse. The last criterion alludes to reusable packaging - but this is not always an option. In this case, more products that are created in the recycling process (so-called recyclates) could be used for packaging production, demands Dirk Messner from the Federal Environment Agency. Recyclates from the waste that ends up in the yellow bin could be used more - so far, they have only been used in packaging for cleaning agents and paints.

Zalando already has this topic on its radar: According to its own information, more than 96 percent of the packaging material now consists of recycled or renewable substances. In total, Zalando consumed more than 44,000 tons of packaging material in 2019 - 91 percent of that came from renewable sources. Your own cardboard boxes are already made of 100 percent recycled cardboard and held together with an adhesive made from vegetable starch. Since adhesive edges are integrated, 60 percent of the boxes get by without additional adhesive tape. And the typical white outer layer of the cardboard boxes is not printed in white, but is made of recycled paper, and water-based ink is used for the branding. The company was looking for solutions for fragile products, such as those from the cosmetics sector - they used to be packed in bubble wrap and then in a cardboard box. The “Beauty Bags” now consist of 100 percent recycled paper and other more sustainable materials.

But not only the large, but also smaller retailers are committed to the use of environmentally friendly packaging: For example, the underwear brand erlich-Textil uses cardboard boxes with the RESY seal, which guarantees the recyclability of the materials used in accordance with the packaging ordinance. The cardboard boxes do not require any additives or composite materials (such as coatings, adhesives, etc.), which makes it easier to return them to the cycle.

Wildplastic - packaging made from old plastic

In addition to cardboard packaging, the resulting plastic waste is a serious environmental problem: every minute, a truckload of plastic ends up in the oceans, explains the Oceana website. Every year, 4.8 to 12.7 million tons are added, according to the WWF. Online trading, including Amazon is said to be significantly involved in this pollution.

You can't do without the material entirely, because some goods can be better packaged in plastic than in paper, because the material is more robust. However: "If you know how much plastic is dumped into the environment, the question arises: Why not make new recyclable products from the existing materials and thus avoid the production of new plastic?" Asks the Hamburg start-up Wildplastic. Their mission: “Recycle instead of using more and more resources. Make products that will clean up the planet. This is what we stand for. That is why the Wildbag is made of wild plastic and is completely recyclable ”.

Otto is also making use of this idea and in mid-2020 started a test run with mailing bags that the young company made from recycled plastic that had previously been collected in the wild by collectives and initiatives. Work with the StartUp will continue in the future, said Karla Jabben from the Group's sustainability team in the Otto podcast at the end of 2020.

For example, at the beginning of 2020 Otto also started a pilot test with polybags - the thin plastic sleeves that protect textiles during shipping - made from recycled plastic. The use of bags made of recycled material is already a little more advanced at the fashion retailer Zalando: According to the company, the proportion of recycled materials in these cases has now been increased from 64 to 90 percent, so that fresh plastic has to be used less and less. In order to completely replace plastic mailers, Zalando is currently testing alternatives made from recycled paper in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark, as well as in one of the German logistics centers.

With the aforementioned erlich-Textil brand, plastic sleeves are made from 100 percent recycled LDPE. The abbreviation stands for "low density polyethylene" and means that the bags are made from old plastic bottles, soap dispensers, tubes, buckets or foils.

Appropriate design through close exchange between manufacturer and dealer

The topic of packaging is also important to the online giant Amazon. Since 2008, initiatives under the motto “frustration-free packaging” have been supported, the company informs on its blog. Among other things, Amazon works closely with the manufacturers to find the optimal packaging. The frustration-free packaging comes without superfluous components such as plastic clamshells or cable ties, should be 100 percent recyclable - and easy to open. An example of the close development of sustainable packaging is the collaboration with Henkel for the beauty brand N.A.E, for which such a solution was created. In addition to the materials, a material-saving design was created that protects the goods, but at the same time is presented in an appealing way.

Use sustainable and optimized packaging materials

There are also other ways of improving the use of the packaging material. For example, the company Enviro has committed itself to packaging optimization and developed a special stretch film, the composition of which reduces the use of materials by up to 50 percent. Packaging tape and filling material developed by the company also follow these principles.

In addition, there are already numerous providers who sell sustainable packaging materials to companies online - these include, for example, providers such as Papacks or Packhelp. According to Manuel Leibrock, CMO and Head of Sales at Papacks Sales GmbH, the biggest challenge when using sustainable packaging is whether it works for the product. For food or pharmaceutical products in particular, solutions usually have to be checked or adapted individually and together with the customer. On the other hand: "A changeover is not a problem for technical products." Papacks offers packaging that is made entirely from renewable raw materials and can be disposed of in waste paper or in the organic waste bin, for example. According to Leibrock, it is important for sustainable packaging that the recycling or cycle process really exists and is understandable. In his opinion, greenwashing is a no-go, i.e. when the packaging looks sustainable on the outside, but plastic or aluminum is used on the inside.

Ambitious goals, high potential and a lot of pressure

Large retailers and platforms such as Otto, Amazon or Zalando already have packaging optimization on their radar. For example, by 2023, Zalando wants to have designed all packaging used in such a way that waste is minimized and materials can be reused - they want to completely do without single-use plastic. Many smaller brands that also offer a sustainable or environmentally conscious range often rely on appropriate packaging materials right from the start, thereby underlining their overall credibility.

And that has consequences: According to observations by Papacks CMO Leibrock, there has been a noticeable increase in interest in sustainable variants since last year - in particular due to political work, plastic bans and increased packaging taxes for plastic. But the pressure from customers is also increasing, which is triggered not least by the pioneers in the industry and forcing the laggards to act. Those who want to continue to score points with their customers in the future or who do not want to lose them to providers of sustainable alternatives will have to deal more intensively with their packaging concept in the short or long term.