Virtually all of us at one time or another have enjoyed the convenience and ease of online shopping to purchase everything from toothpaste to mattresses. With companies such as Amazon, Instacart, Blue Apron, in addition to the online options from traditional retailers, Americans spent over $500 billion in online purchases in 2018.
However, this convenience and ease comes with a hidden environmental cost that many of us fail to consider when adding items to our online carts. Amazon Prime alone shipped more than 5 billion items worldwide. All told, more than 165 billion packages are sent in the U.S. each year. These packages require more than 1 billion trees worth of cardboard in addition to the fuel and energy needed to transport these items.
However, ordering items online is only part of the problem. Due to the ease of returning items purchased online, Americans returned approximately 10% of their purchases in 2018. This peaks on January 2nd, a day UPS refers to as “National Returns Day”. This propensity for returning unwanted items has two significant environmental impacts. First, it requires additional energy and material to package and ship the items back to the retailer. And second, while some of the returned items are re-sold or donated to charity, it is estimated that over 5 billion pounds of returns simply end up in the landfill.
In addition, there are impacts at the local level as well. All of this packaging going directly to consumers is creating challenges for the Boulder County Recycling Center where Western Disposal takes all of the recyclables collected from our customers. The increase in cardboard in our residential collection routes comes at a time when the market for recyclables is still at its lowest point in years. In addition, many of the new packaging envelopes are not recyclable and are clogging up the machinery at the recycling center.
While companies are taking steps to reduce their impact through right sizing cardboard boxes and developing reusable delivery packaging, we need to be conscious of the environmental impact we have with our online ordering. Next time you are shopping online, take an extra minute to ensure you are purchasing the correct item to reduce or eliminate your need to return the item. Of course, you can also still visit an actual store to touch/feel the items to ensure you get the right product and support our local businesses.