Out of the box – How can China solve its e-commerce garbage problem?

China’s express delivery industry generates 9 million tons of paper waste each year. If unchecked, this mountain of trash is set to produce around 60 million tons of CO2 a year by 2025.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By staff reporters


Fifteen years ago, when e-commerce was nothing but a sparkle in Alibaba’s eye, three million parcels were being delivered in China every day. The number today is over 300 million. 

Throwaway culture

WANG Fan received a parcel – a rice cooker, 50 percent off - just 12 hours after placing the order on Tmall. She also received a bunch of other random items, bought without knowing or caring whether she needed them or not: unrepeatable bargains of a lifetime on “sale” during the Singles Day shopping spree.

Within minutes of the boxes being opened, all the packaging was in the “recycling” bin downstairs, waiting for scavengers, both official and unofficial, to take it away. But to take them where? And why? Wang does not have a clue.

In her compound in downtown Shanghai, most of these boxes are collected by the property management company. They sell them for about 1 yuan (US$0.16) per kilogram to waste collectors, who take the boxes to local waste recycling stations for a slightly better deal. 

There seems to be some kind of major shopping event in China almost every other week now. Having exhausted every variety of “lovers” day, the big event is now “singles” day. Until ten years ago, Singles Day, basically unknown outside university campuses, was never capitalized and was just a bit of cheap, harmless fun. This year, 570 million parcels were sent on their way on November 1 alone. That’s one parcel for every person in North America - Canada, the USA, and Mexico combined - plus a large swathe of Central America, 11 days before the proper festival had even begun.

The express delivery industry generates a conservative 9 million tons of paper waste and 2 million tons of plastic waste a year. Less than 20 percent of this trash is recycled. Open data suggested that parcel boxes generated 610,000 tons of CO2 in 2010, a number which had jumped to 13 million tons by 2018. If China does not take action, these boxes will emit around 60 million tons of CO2 by 2025, that’s more than the total emissions of countries like Portugal and Singapore.

Garbage in, garbage out

Paper, cartons, and adhesive tape are the major source of waste. PVC takes centuries to break down in landfills. Parcels delivered to drop-off stations are often unwrapped straight away, and the packaging is immediately discarded.

The boxes and other garbage that accumulates around the station are generally collected by retirees on bicycles, scavengers wandering around complexes, and the cleaners hired by property management, though there is a lot of competition and very little profit involved. Scavengers need to appropriate around half a ton of garbage a day to make a couple of hundred yuan. While the elderly and impoverished scrap for these scraps, most of the people who actually pay to have this garbage delivered – “consumers” - simply throw it away without a second thought.

At a drop-off station on the campus of Shanghai University, 3,000 parcels arrive each day, about ten percent of these packages will be reused. Most students just simply tear the parcels apart and chuck the trash toward the nearest receptacle.

XUE Jinghua of the China Environmental Center believes China needs a reverse logistics chain from customers back to businesses. People who buy things online have little interest in reusing packages.

The delivery companies are trying various novelties to make a change. Packages can be swapped for eggs at Alibaba’s Cainiao drop-off stations. ZTO and STO Express also have a few tokenistic collection points.

Incalculable costs

Data shows that the cost of dealing with parcel waste will be 4 billion yuan by 2025. Just finding a plot to bury waste will be next to impossible and the associated costs in terms of pollution, beyond calculation. The postal service has “ordered” delivery companies to wrap parcels with as little plastic as possible.

A guideline jointly issued by eight ministries last year suggested that 10 million packages should be reused every year by 2025. This is not even a drop in a bucket, let alone the ocean, with as many as half a billion packages zooming around the country each day.

“If you take a look at the 2030 carbon peak plan,” said Xue, “you’ll see a green logistics industry with EVs for deliveries,  but reusing packaging barely gets a mention.