Black Friday Sustainability: Three ways to help e-commerce go green

The US shopping phenomenon is now part of the British retail calendar with millions of packages delivered over the promotional period. So how can we make sure our recycling systems don’t suffer this Black Friday?

Since 2010, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, have led to a sharp spike in purchases made both online and instore over the last weekend in November, with this year’s event taking place on Friday 29 November.

194 million visits were made to UK retail websites on Black Friday 20181 and according to Amazon, last year’s Cyber Monday saw record-breaking sales, with online traffic for Black Friday soaring 46% year on year2.

The rise of e-commerce shopping, and the appeal of sale-price products during the holiday shopping weekend see a lot of products being shipped from stores to buyers’ homes. This, in turn, leads to large quantities of packaging that need to be recovered from domestic recycling collections in a way that allows said packaging to become high-quality material for recycling.

At DS Smith, we believe in approaching society’s challenges with a big-picture perspective, not just tackling individual parts. So how can packaging design and production, e-commerce, and recycling come together to make Black Friday greener?

  1. How can companies reduce their Black Friday packaging?
    According to a recent report by DS Smith3, 60% of e-commerce deliveries contain packaging that is either one-quarter air or uses polystyrene and plastic fillers to fill up space. This not only means that consumers need to dispose of more than just cardboard packaging, but it also impacts delivery vehicles: larger boxes take up more space, which leads to more trips and more delivery vehicles on the road.

Companies can solve this by re-evaluating the packaging they use to transport their products. Reducing the amount of packaging and using recyclable alternatives will remove the need for single-use, hard-to-recycle materials such as plastic air bags, while ensuring that the product is protected in transit.

What’s more, when offered a choice between two packaging options for the same quality of product, we recently reported six in ten Europeans are willing to pay more for reduced plastic packaging, with 60% of UK consumers saying they were ready to pay more for packaging.

With consumers now bearing the responsibility of recycling the packaging that protects their Black Friday goods, businesses should use packaging materials that are easily recyclable through household recycling collections. This means avoiding, where possible, difficult-to-recycle materials such as polystyrene.

  1. How can Black Friday deliveries help recycling?
    High volume purchasing might spike during the shopping weekend, but annual volumes of regular e-commerce purchases are also on the rise. Reworking our national recycling infrastructure, such as to allow delivery logistics to return used packaging once it’s been delivered to the consumer’s door, could help to capture more material for recycling.

This would be particularly beneficial to consumers at times like Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and December’s Christmas shopping rush, when packaging reaching the home temporarily increases.

The UK’s recycling infrastructure was designed in a pre-e-commerce era and figures from our Tipping Point report expose a creaking recycling infrastructure that is nearing overload.

Many consumers rely on kerbside collections to take away their recycling and the build up of packaging in homes is really challenging their capacity to recycle. Altering delivery logistics to take away used cardboard could alleviate this pressure.

  1. How to save electronics from landfill this Black Friday
    High-value electronics are a key draw for consumers, and e-waste is the world’s fastest-growing waste stream, but many of the items being replaced by those bought in Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals are still usable.

90% of electronics sold off the shelves are brand new4, but at least half of all UK households own at least one unused product. Services like eBay and Shpock could, therefore, take advantage of Black Friday and Cyber Monday by highlighting their platforms as an easy and convenient way for consumers to sell on any old, unwanted items, allowing the products to be re-used.

To reduce the overall impact of online purchases, businesses can offset their impact by encouraging trade-ins of old items, such as electronics or toys, to receive further discounts.

Similarly, local authorities could advertise any household waste recycling centres that accept e-waste, to encourage householders to divert their electronics from being landfilled.

While some brands have decided to buck the trend and shut their websites down5 for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, both events are here to stay.

The change that online shopping has brought to consumer habits will continue to have an impact on household recycling requirements. We recently reported that the UK is now the third largest B2C e-commerce market in the world, with around 18% of all retail sales in the UK now made online.

To help consumers recycle, consistent nationwide systems to collect and transport materials separately will increase the quality of material collected, which in turn will help to ensure that materials collected for recycling are actually recycled.

It is only by examining society’s challenges in the whole that we can find ways to ensure that consumers’ desire for a good deal can have less of an impact on the environment. E-commerce brings new challenges in terms of the movement of products and packaging out of the retail supply cycle into residential recycling collections, but by ensuring that products and packaging are designed to be reusable or recyclable, we can take another step toward a resource-efficient consumer society.

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